The Oklahoma City Thunder welcome in the San Antonio Spurs for a battle atop the Western Conference.
These teams are separated by just 1.5 games in the standings. They met in the Western Conference Finals last year, and the conference title will likely be a duel between them again this year.
San Antonio has the advantage in this season's series. The Spurs won the first and third games, which came at home in the AT&T Center.
In terms of momentum, both have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. It's extremely hard to see much difference in these two teams. They've had stellar regular seasons once again, and a case could be made that either should be favorites for the NBA title.
This game could have a real playoff feel. Here is a preview of this massive West matchup.
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
When: Thursday, April 4, 2013
Live Stream: NBA League Pass
Records: San Antonio Spurs (56-19) at Oklahoma City Thunder (54-20)
Spurs Injury Report (courtesy of CBS Sports)
Manu Ginobili, Hamstring
Thunder Injury Report (courtesy of CBS Sports)
Key Storyline: Western Conference Supremacy
For most of the season, these two have been the class of the West. There was that time the Los Angeles Clippers looked like the team to beat, but they've since fallen off.
It's not impossible for either the Spurs or Thunder to slip into third place, but it's highly improbable at this point. Finishing first would ensure a likely first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Second place would mean the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers.
For Oklahoma City, the top of the West standings was exactly where it expected to be. As soon as Kevin Durant looked into the camera walking off the court in the NBA Finals, it was assumed the Thunder would get their revenge on the Miami Heat.
It's a bit different for the Spurs. Seemingly every year for the last decade now, we've been hearing about how San Antonio is too old to remain an elite team and this is the year it falls off. Maybe that'll be next year because the Spurs have been methodical in their success this season. There's something mechanical about the way Gregg Popovich continues to have this team winning.
Key Matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant
This of course would be predicated on Kawhi Leonard actually playing. He didn't suit up against the Magic on Wednesday night due to a sore knee. The Spurs will really need his energy to help neutralize Durant, who's coming in as the league's leading scorer.
In his three games against the Spurs this year, Durant is averaging just 22.7 points, which is a little over five below his season average. It's not as if San Antonio has always given him fits, but this year has been successful for the team in that regard.
However, as weird as it seems, it might actually be better if Durant doesn't go off. He's averaging more points and assists in OKC's 20 losses than he is in their 54 wins.
Leonard has been the high-energy guy who perfectly complements the veteran leadership of the Spurs. He and Kenneth Faried have to lead the league in distance traveled on the court.
Perimeter defense is a key asset for Leonard. He leads the team in steals, at 1.7, and his defensive win shares is fourth on the team. He's got the athleticism to handle Durant from that perspective, but he clearly doesn't match up talent-wise.
Durant is gonna go for 20-plus. That much is a given. It's just a matter of making sure those points don't come in crunch time when the game is on the line.
The Thunder are going to be refreshed for this one. Their last game was on Sunday against the Milwaukee Bucks. San Antonio has to deal with the second half of a back-to-back, so OKC gets the advantage there.
This is going to come down to a battle of the frontcourts. You've got the trio of Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins going up against Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.
Playing at home will be key in this game, as Oklahoma City and San Antonio have near equal home and road splits. The Thunder and Spurs are both 32-5 at home.
The Thunder get the edge with the game in OKC, and Durant and Ibaka are going to have big games. The last two matchups between these teams were both decided by double digits. This will be a back-and-forth game, with Oklahoma City pulling away late.
Prediction: Oklahoma City 99, San Antonio 88
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