San Antonio Spurs vs. OKC Thunder: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
For the Spurs, this game is about redemption, as they had a 2-0 series lead against OKC before losing the next four, killing the opportunity for the core group of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to win a fourth ring together.
However, the real drama behind this game is that it will be the Thunder's first without James Harden on the roster.
Last weekend, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year was traded to the Houston Rockets for guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb. Seeing as how Harden shot 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from downtown last season, it's going to be interesting to see how coach Scott Brooks and his players fare without him.
It's bound to be a great game as the elder statesmen of the Western Conference look to expose the Harden-less Thunder.
Time: Thursday, November 1, 9:30 p.m., EDT
Records: Oklahoma City (0-0) vs. San Antonio (1-0)
Betting Line: Oklahoma City (+2) vs. San Antonio (-2) as of Thursday, November 1 at 10:51 a.m.
Injuries: Manu Ginobili (back)
Key Storyline: San Antonio Looks to Avenge Western Conference Finals Loss
It's no secret that the Spurs and the Thunder are the two of the best teams in the Western Conference.
San Antonio has won three titles since 2003 and finished atop the conference the past two years, and the Thunder have done nothing but improve as a group since Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as head coach.
When these two teams met in last year's conference finals and the Spurs took a quick 2-0 series lead, it looked as though experience would win out over youth. After all, the Spurs were undefeated in the playoffs up to that point, and stopping them appeared to be as difficult and trying as climbing Mount Everest.
Once the series shifted to Oklahoma City, however, the Thunder showed just why they were the team to beat with a 20-point victory in Game 3, handing the Spurs their first playoff loss. They went on to win the next three games as well and advance to the NBA Finals, leaving San Antonio on the outside looking in once again.
Given how all the members of San Antonio's core group have come back this year, look for them to put in a big effort with a loud and raucous arena of fans on their back.
Key Matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker
Parker and Westbrook are both scoring point guards and among the top 10 at their position. In the blink of an eye, either man can take control of the offense and just light up the scoreboard. However, there is an interesting contrast to be noted between the two.
Though primarily a scoring point man, Parker actually opted to pass more last season and set a new career high with 7.7 assists per game. In contrast, Westbrook's assist total dropped from 8.2 per game to 5.5, and he averaged a career-high 23.6 points, clearly establishing himself as the best scoring option beside teammate and defending scoring champion Kevin Durant.
San Antonio may be without Manu Ginobili, whose back has been acting up. This means that Parker may have to shoulder some more of the scoring load, and with a quality defender in Westbrook guarding him, this could prove to be tough.
In Westbrook's case, it's all about him making wise decisions.
As a scoring point guard, his desire to score often gets the better of him and results in some bad shots. If he can get past Parker's defense and drive the lane to either draw a foul or dish off a quick pass to a teammate, then the Thunder will have a better chance of winning the battle.
X-Factor: Kevin Durant
Though Westbrook's performance is important, the Thunder cannot win this game without Durant playing well. The man is just so phenomenally good and has played a critical role in the overall improvement of the team each of the past three years.
Durant has a great NBA body at 6'9", 235 pounds, and his ability to rebound the ball is vastly underrated. The former Texas Longhorn has led the league in scoring for three consecutive seasons, averaging 28.7 points per game over that stretch while shooting an astounding 48 percent from the field.
Simply put, if Durant struggles tonight, so does the entire Thunder squad.
There is no more James Harden to come off the bench and instantly get the team back in the game with a key three-pointer or four-point play. Nothing against Kevin Martin, but he's nowhere near as accurate as the man traded for him.
Still, Durant is at an advantage in that he will likely be defended by second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who is 6'7", 225 pounds. Leonard is a fine athlete, but no match for the unquestioned leader of the Thunder.
In the end, Durant should have no problem taking control of the game when necessary.
No matter how you look at it, this game is going to be a dogfight from start to finish. The Thunder are hungry for another great season so that they can get back to the NBA Finals and come away winners, while the Spurs want to avenge their loss in the conference finals and ride the momentum of last night's victory into a two-game winning streak.
Who will win the game?
This time, however, the Spurs have the upper hand, as the Thunder have lost one of their key players in Harden and now have to learn how to factor Martin into the offense. Though a strong scorer who has averaged 18.4 points per game for his career, Martin is not nearly as electrifying as Harden and thus puts OKC at a distinct disadvantage.
Despite that, this game is going to be close from start to finish, as both teams will fight and claw as best they can to bring home the victory.
After the final buzzer, it will be the Spurs celebrating a hard-fought victory.
San Antonio Spurs 113, Oklahoma City Thunder 110 (in overtime)
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