NBA Playoffs 2012: 5 Things to Watch for in the Spurs-Thunder Series
The two best teams in the West made the conference finals. Now, it's time to see who is the better team.
Both San Antonio and Oklahoma City cruised through the playoffs, combining for a record of 16-1 in the playoffs. The Spurs and Thunder both feature stars and both have gifted benches.
To keep it short, both teams are talented.
There will be some great individual matchups, some great shooting battles, and some great late-game battles. So don't blink now, or you'll miss the action.
Here are five things to watch for in the Western Conference Finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have come up big late in games, and against the Spurs, their play down the stretch will be crucial.
Both teams have proven they know how to finish off tight games, and no one knows better how to hit the big shot than Kevin Durant. Durant has hit three game-winners in the playoffs, and his late-game play has given Oklahoma City a few big wins.
San Antonio hasn't had as many tight games, but they were able to beat the Clippers by 3 on the road in Game 4. The Spurs rallied in the fourth quarter to build a small lead in the final minute, and although they couldn't ice the game with free throws, they snuck away with a win.
Guys like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green can hit big shots for the Spurs, and the same goes for Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Derek Fisher on the Thunder. The big question is who will hit the big shots.
So far, the Thunder have proven better in this situation. Even on the road someone has stepped up and rallied Oklahoma City (Westbrook or Harden), and someone has always sealed the deal with a huge shot or two (Durant).
That's why I'd rather be Oklahoma City in a tight game, home or road. However, don't be surprised if the Spurs win a tight one, because they have the best record in the West.
When I say hustle, I'm asking this question; who will want the series more? When I say preparation, I'm asking this question; who will be better prepared to win the series?
So far, it looks pretty even. Oklahoma City has shown fantastic hustle in the first two series', especially with the home crowd on their side. In Game 5 of the Thunder-Lakers series, the Thunder hustled way more, and they came out on top by 16.
With the crowd on their side, the Thunder can be unstoppable. Whenever a Thunder player makes a great play, the crowd erupts into thunderous cheers. At home, the Thunder are encouraged to play even harder, fight for every rebound and loose ball and give all they have to try to win the game.
However, even though the Spurs have a great crowd and team, I don't see them getting that kind of fan support, and I definitely think the Thunder can steal a game in San Antonio. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Spurs will definitely be prepared well to win the series.
The Thunder have a young coach, while the Spurs are coached by a proven veteran who will watch hours of game footage to give his Spurs the best chance at victory. Although it's possible the Spurs will come out rusty in Game 1 or 2 (because they haven't faced much playoff competition), they will be prepared very well.
Expect the Thunder to be prepared to win, but not as much as the Spurs. However, with a younger team, even Gregg Popovich's 10-player rotation (to keep players fresh) won't be enough to give the Spurs the hustle edge.
Both teams have played solid defense and both teams have rebounded pretty well in the playoffs (although the Thunder have had some struggles).
However, both teams will have to prepare for great offenses and a high-scoring, hard-nosed series.
Oklahoma City dominated the glass in Game 5 against the Lakers, because the Thunder gave it all they had to avoid a Game 6. However, they struggled in the other eight games, as the rebound totals were close for the most part.
The Thunder have done a pretty good job on defense, contesting shots and not allowing easy layups. When they're hustling (like in Game 5), the Thunder get a lot of fastbreak opportunities and they go on big runs.
A veteran Spurs team will look to prevent that with a great system, chock full of passing and penetration, backdoor cuts, and the ability to control the tempo. San Antonio has many capable players, and when one player is tired, another player comes in and the Spurs have no problem.
If Westbrook can effectively penetrate, the Spurs will have some trouble and will be forced to use a lot of players. However, if the Thunder settle for jumpers, (which they happen to be quite good at making) San Antonio will be able to use up their energy on running their offensive system effectively.
I think the Spurs will have a slight rebounding edge, and I think even the Thunder's outstanding hustle won't be enough to completely stop San Antonio's offensive system. The Thunder could give San Antonio defensive fits at home, but I'd give the slight edge to the Spurs.
Russell Westbrook vs Tony Parker
This matchup could easily decide the winner of the West.
Russell Westbrook's spectacular scoring ability and defense has kept the Thunder near the top of the West throughout the season. When he's really fired up, he can stay with a player and hold them scoreless for an entire quarter.
Just ask Jason Terry.
In Game 1 of the OKC-Dallas series, Jason Terry had 20 points and was the reason Dallas was beating Oklahoma City. However, Westbrook was assigned to guard him and follow him wherever he went (except the bench), and the Thunder ended up winning because Terry didn't score.
Against Tony Parker, that'll be tougher, but if Westbrook can deflect passes, block the middle, and disrupt San Antonio's system, the Spurs will be in trouble.
However, that task is much easier said than done. Parker was an MVP candidate and has had a marvelous year, anchoring the West's top-seeded team. He's run San Antonio's system very well throughout the season, and because of that, his numbers have shot upward.
On the defensive side of the ball, Parker will have to stop Westbrook, but he is capable. If Westbrook is struggling, Durant or Harden will take over, so the Spurs will have lots of trouble slowing all three down. But by stopping Westbrook, Parker would unlock a door full of opportunities for the Spurs.
Both players will have to work very hard to slow down the other, and both will have lots of trouble on both sides of the ball. Both players are very, very talented, and the point guard battle will come down to who will play harder to stop the other.
Because hustle will determine this battle, I really can't pick a side.
This series obviously wouldn't be complete without the final result.
Both teams seem too good to lose the series. Oklahoma City has lots of young players overflowing with talent, while the Spurs have veterans who run a system very effectively. It's very hard to pick a winner for this series.
Even though Popovich will have the Spurs prepared very well, I wouldn't be surprised if a little rust shows early in Game 1 or 2, like it has against the Jazz and Clippers. Both teams kept the games close for most of the first half, but the Spurs exploded in the second half.
Against the Thunder, Popovich will try his best to prevent this, but I see the Spurs starting off a little rusty and falling behind early. Even though the Thunder have relinquished some leads, I think the combination of Westbrook, Durant, and Harden will be just enough for the Thunder to eke out a close win.
At home, the Thunder will be extremely tough to beat. With the crowd going ballistic, expect Durant and Westbrook to be penetrating and showing their tough side. Like I said, Popovich will have the Spurs prepared very well, but I don't think the Spurs will win a game at Chesapeake Arena.
Expect a great series that will keep you glued to the television with lots of action. The two best teams in the West are going at it, so what else would you expect?
What I'm expecting is a Thunder victory.
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