Shortly after the San Antonio Spurs made quick work of the Portland Trail Blazers by winning their second-round series in five, the Oklahoma City Thunder dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center to advance after six games. Now those two juggernauts will square off in the Western Conference Finals.
UPDATE: Friday, May 16, at 6:27 p.m. ET by Ben Leibowitz
According to the OKC Thunder's official Twitter account, Serge Ibaka's calf injury is expected to keep him sidelined for the remainder of the 2014 playoffs:
While the Thunder do have frontcourt depth by way of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams, this could potentially thwart OKC's run at an NBA Finals appearance as they prepare to face the Spurs.
---End of update---
San Antonio is back in the WCF again after reaching the NBA Finals a year ago. OKC, meanwhile, is eyeing a Western Conference crown for the first time since 2011-12 when it, too, reached the season’s final series. Both teams eventually fell to the Miami Heat.
With a combined 121 regular-season wins in 2013-14, the Spurs and Thunder were the top two overall teams from a record standpoint. San Antonio holds home-court advantage, but the tandem of first-time MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook has been dominant during postseason play.
Gregg Popovich’s crew just keeps on winning, but a hamstring strain Tony Parker suffered in Game 5 against Portland casts a degree of doubt for the Spurs.
Each team is just four wins away from returning to the NBA Finals, but only one will advance for a shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Here's a quick series rundown:
Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder No. 2; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder 59-23; San Antonio Spurs 62-20
Season Series: Thunder swept Spurs 4-0
Schedule for Series: Game 1 Monday, May 19, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Wednesday, May 21, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Sunday, May 25, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 4 Tuesday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5* Thursday, May 29, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 6* Saturday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 7* Monday, June 2, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
* = If necessary
Key Storyline for Oklahoma City Thunder
Can Durant and Westbrook continue their dominance?
That’s truly what everything comes down to for Oklahoma City.
Unlike the Spurs—a balanced offensive team that sported the league’s best bench in terms of points (44.4) and assists (10.9) per game during the regular season, per HoopsStats.com—the Thunder depend heavily on their two best players to put W’s in the win/loss column. Luckily for Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ job security, both stars have shined bright on the playoff stage thus far.
|Postseason Stats: Durant and Westbrook|
The stifling defense of Memphis Grizzlies swingman Tony Allen caused Durant fits in Round 1, but his shooting efficiency bounced back in a big way against the Clippers.
Although critics often pick at Westbrook for his inherent flaws, his hustle plays have often made the difference for OKC. Namely, his late-game pickpocket of Chris Paul in Game 5, which set up a miraculous comeback win for the Thunder.
The supporting cast of Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Steven Adams and others will be huge, but KD and RW are the pistons that make OKC’s engine run at optimum efficiency. With Ibaka out for the remainder of the postseason, the Thunder's superstars will be tasked with picking up most of the slack as far as productivity is concerned.
Those two have been tremendous in the postseason thus far, but each had issues against the Spurs during regular-season play.
Westbrook, for instance, finished with just six points on 2-of-16 shooting against SA on Nov. 27.
Durant racked up an astonishing 11 turnovers at the AT&T Center on Jan. 22 sans Westbrook.
Still, the Thunder swept the season series against the Spurs. Regular-season matchups clearly haven’t meant much in the playoff atmosphere to this point, but it’s worth noting that OKC has had San Antonio’s number.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
The biggest conundrum facing the Spurs is obvious: How healthy is Parker?
The veteran floor general played just 10 minutes in the closeout game against Portland before a hamstring strain sent him to the locker room. He missed both of his field goals and didn’t score in Game 5.
“It’s OK; not too bad,” Parker said via text message, per the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Monroe. “Not as bad as the NBA Finals. NBA Finals was a Grade 2. This one is Grade 1. So should be fine for Monday.”
That’s encouraging news if you’re a Spurs fan. However, having Parker at 100 percent from a health standpoint would have been the ideal scenario.
Would the Frenchman have been able to make a defensive impact even if health wasn’t a factor? The answer to that question is no. He'll likely stay hidden on D by guarding the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, so this may not be a gigantic setback for San Antonio.
Nevertheless, Parker is at his best when he’s penetrating to the bucket and orchestrating the offense to set up teammates for easy scores. If he’s hampered to the point where he isn’t able to do that consistently, San Antonio will have a hard time returning to the NBA Finals.
Durant, Westbrook, Parker and Tim Duncan will define this series with their play, but specific role players will also need to step up and make a significant impact.
For the Thunder, that niche guy is Reggie Jackson.
Brooks’ sixth man played his best basketball when facing off against the league’s only 60-win team. He was arguably the biggest reason why OKC went 4-0 against the defending Western Conference champs during the regular season.
|Stats vs. San Antonio Spurs (2013-14 regular season)|
In three games off the bench and one start, Jackson scored more than 21 points per contest on an absurdly effective 67.9 percent shooting clip.
“We couldn’t guard (Jackson) tonight,” Coach Pop said after a 94-88 loss on Nov. 27, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). Jackson had 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting in the win. “He was basically the difference in the game. He did a great job.”
After a 27-point, eight-assist, zero-turnover outburst in a start against the Spurs on Jan. 22, Brooks said the following of his backup point guard, per the AP (via ESPN.com): “He has had great games against the Spurs. I can’t put my finger on it. We want him to play aggressive basketball on both ends of the floor. I thought he did a good job of finding spots on the floor that he can finish around the rim.”
For reasons that his coach can’t explain, Jackson has continued to punish San Antonio. That makes him a key player to look out for in this series.
As for the Spurs, their own backup point guard must match Jackson’s confidence.
Patty Mills, who has averaged 8.0 points per game in the postseason on 37.8 percent shooting from long distance, may see an increased workload as a means of spelling Parker.
The 31-year-old’s injured hamstring needs time to recuperate. If Mills can provide Parker with rest by playing well and giving Popovich a reason to stick with him, then the Spurs will have a much easier time gaining an advantage.
Mills' defense is still a work in progress, but he’ll need to do anything and everything in his power to stifle Jackson—who has gotten everything he wants against San Antonio this year.
Key Matchup: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard was absolutely robotic in the Western Conference semis against Portland. He averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals while shooting 56.1 percent from the field and draining 52.9 percent of his three-point looks.
Still just 22 years old, the San Diego State product continues to save his most productive performances for playoff action.
The question now is whether or not he can continue his stellar play while matched up against the league’s most valuable player.
Leonard will likely spend the majority of this series trying to defend one of the best scorers on the planet. Taking on that responsibility while maintaining his efficiency on offense is asking a lot of anyone.
Even so, there’s reason to believe Leonard is up to the task. His even-keeled demeanor has never wavered, and Pop was able to lower his minute count in the Trail Blazers series to keep him relatively fresh.
Durant is going to get his points—he always does.
At the very least, though, Leonard will force KD to work for every bucket he scores.
Again, the Thunder managed to sweep the season series against San Antonio. Of the Spurs’ 20 losses on the year, 20 percent of them came courtesy of OKC.
I don’t expect that stat to carry much weight into the Western Conference Finals, especially with Ibaka—who terrorized San Antonio with his length and athleticism to the tune of 14 points and 11.5 rebounds per game this season—sidelined by a bum calf. After all, the Dallas Mavericks had lost their previous nine meetings against San Antonio prior to Round 1, and they managed to force a Game 7.
The Spurs got back to what they do best against the Trail Blazers and were honestly much better prepared for Round 2 when compared to the series against the Mavs.
OKC, meanwhile, has had to scratch and claw its way to victory every step of the way.
Ultimately, three factors will swing this series—one of which has already impacted the pendulum swing considerably.
The question mark surrounding Parker’s leg injury is the first. Anything less than his best on both ends of the court will be exploited.
Second, while KD and Westbrook are sure to pour in their points like usual, Jackson’s confidence and consistency against the Spurs will be the X-factor that continues putting Oklahoma City on top.
And, finally, there's Ibaka's absence. His absence will open up more minutes for Steven Adams and Nick Collison, who shined in Ibaka's stead down the stretch in Game 6 against the Clippers. But that depletion of OKC's front-court depth might also force Scott Brooks to lean more heavily on Kendrick Perkins, whose glaring limitations on both ends of the floor leave him vulnerable to strategic exploitation on the part of Gregg Popovich.
Spurs win series 4-2
Additional analysis provided by Josh Martin.