The Oklahoma City Thunder lost the first grudge match this season between these two teams following last season's Western Conference Finals, but they will get a chance to even the season series tonight. The San Antonio Spurs will visit Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday, and will be looking for another win against the young Thunder, who defeated them in six games last season en route to a spot in the NBA Finals.
San Antonio won the first meeting of the season against Oklahoma City, back on November 1, but things are different now. Both teams are in first place in their respective divisions, but the Thunder have continued to ride the Improvement Express and currently own the league's best record.
The team has also won 10 games in a row, and will look to make it 11 tonight against their interconference rivals.
It won't be easy for Oklahoma City to do so, even if they did defeat San Antonio in last season's playoffs. The Spurs are still one of the deepest and most talented teams in the NBA, and their collective experience gives them an advantage going into every game. Tonight's matchup will be no exception, even though bench spark Manu Ginobili is injured and is listed as doubtful.
The stage is set for an epic matchup tonight, with both teams hungry to be the best and get back to the NBA Finals. In a unique battle of youth vs. experience, there really is no clear-cut winner on paper.
Time: Monday, December 17th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: Fox Sports Southwest, Fox Sports Oklahoma
Records: San Antonio Spurs (19-6) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (19-4)
Betting Lines: San Antonio (+5), Oklahoma City (-5)
Injuries: Kawhi Leonard (knee, out), Stephen Jackson (finger, out), Manu Ginobili (thigh contusion, doubtful)
Key Storyline: Can Thunder Extend Streak to 11 Against Experienced Spurs?
The Thunder lost a key piece of their offense when James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets right before the start of the season, but the team has played as though he never left. OKC is the best team in the NBA and is currently riding a 10-game winning streak that has seen them beat the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.
Head coach Scott Brooks definitely wants to win this game, as the Thunder lost a tough one to the Spurs on November 1, their first game of the season. It was a tough defensive battle from start to finish, and it was clear that the Thunder were adjusting to life without Harden. Spurs point guard Tony Parker sank a jumper at the buzzer to give San Antonio the win, and it looked as though Oklahoma City would be lost without its dynamic sixth man.
The team has fully adjusted to life without him today, as Kevin Martin is doing a great job at being a pure shooter off the bench. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have also continued to be a phenomenal 1-2 punch, further establishing the Thunder as the team to beat in the Western Conference.
San Antonio's mission tonight will be just that: defeat Oklahoma City. Though shorthanded, the team is still balanced and experienced enough to take control and never relinquish it, no matter how hard the opposition may try.
At the same time, the Thunder really would love to see their winning streak hit 11 games and their overall record improve. Defeating rival San Antonio would just be an added bonus, and their feisty youth will do all it can to see that it happens.
Key Matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker
Two of the NBA's best point guards play for the Thunder and Spurs, and their battle tonight could very well decide who wins the game.
San Antonio's Tony Parker has continued to be a fine scoring point guard, and his ability to balance that with his passing game has made him all the more valuable to the Spurs. He is averaging 19.2 points and 7.5 assists per game, and his 51 percent shooting from the field is a testament to just how conservative he has become when it comes to taking a shot. Unless he is absolutely sure that he can put the ball in the hoop, he is more than happy to dish the ball off to a teammate.
Westbrook is also a fine distributor who is averaging 8.7 assists per game, but still has a lot to learn in the scoring department. The former UCLA Bruin is averaging 20.8 points per contest, but is shooting just 42 percent from the field. Though talented, he still tends to get a bit trigger-happy despite having one of the NBA's best in Kevin Durant as a go-to guy.
Both players may be different in their approach to offense, but they both never back down from a battle on defense. On paper, Westbrook has the advantage here at two steals per game.
Parker averages just under one steal per game, but managed to come away with four in San Antonio's victory against the Boston Celtics on December 15. Considering that he was guarding the pesky Rajon Rondo, that's a pretty impressive number.
Westbrook is going to have to play even better defense tonight. Not only is Parker a three-time champion and is more experienced, but his ability to create his own shot is incredible. Slowing him down is just one of the keys to Oklahoma City winning tonight.
Similarly, Parker must take advantage of Westbrook's shooting inconsistencies. By locking down on him from the get-go, he will force the Thunder's young point guard to either pass the ball or throw up a bad shot. Either way, San Antonio can win by taking his offense out of the game.
Westbrook will be equally hungry to do the same to Parker, so this matchup is definitely the one to watch.
X-Factor: Serge Ibaka
The first game between San Antonio and Oklahoma City this season was a defensive battle, and the second game has the makings of being an even bigger one—that is, it does if Serge Ibaka is on his game.
Ibaka has picked up right where he left off last season as one of the NBA's best shot-blockers. He is currently tied with Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks for first in the league with three blocks per game, and will need to be fully locked in on defense since he will likely be guarding veteran Tim Duncan.
However, Ibaka cannot just be a factor on defense tonight. He has also shown marked improvement on offense, and the Thunder will need him to contribute his fair share of points in order to keep pace with the Spurs throughout the game.
The 6'10" forward is averaging a career-best 14.2 points per game this season and has also shot 58 percent from the field. He has also been a fine rebounder, posting 7.6 per game.
Ibaka simply must be a force on both sides of the court tonight if the Thunder's streak is to reach 11. He must expose Duncan's age and not back down from a battle, be it on offense or defense.
The man is the key to the Thunder having a shot at winning the game. If he is having a bad night, it becomes all the more difficult for Oklahoma City to come away with the win.
San Antonio may have won its first meeting with the Thunder, but won't be so lucky in tonight's game. Oklahoma City will be hungry to extend its winning streak to 11 games, and their overall youth will just be too much for the aging San Antonio to handle.
More importantly, the Spurs will be at a great disadvantage without Manu Ginobili, whose defense and three-point shooting provide a great spark off the bench. San Antonio is deep enough to play well without him, but the young and feisty Thunder will just be too fast for them.
Who will win?
Westbrook may not score many points with Parker guarding him, but he will be able to post a high assist count in getting the ball to teammates Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin. Both players will score in double-figures, shouldering most of the night's offensive load.
Serge Ibaka will be the story of the game, as he blocks shots left and right and also makes some key plays on offense. Tim Duncan will have a hard time fighting past his defense, and the Spurs will suffer without his 17.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
The fact is that this is Oklahoma City's game to lose, and the entire team is going to make sure that the game stays close from start to finish. Win or lose, the Thunder will know that they have just played a great game.
This time, it will be in victory.
Final Score Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 108, San Antonio Spurs 102
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 16, 2012.