The 2014 NBA Playoffs have been incredibly entertaining from the outset, but with the conference finals approaching, the league has to be doing cartwheels at the sight of their two match-ups. In the West (much like the East), the top two seeds square off, as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs get together for the battle that everyone in the league has been looking forward to for months. Let’s break down the match-up.
Path to the Conference Finals
As you may expect from the torturous Western Conference, both teams have had a difficult road, and that is certainly true of the Thunder. Kevin Durant (who just happens to be the reigning NBA MVP), Russell Westbrook and company were taken to the brink by the Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round before they were able to vanquish the 7th-seed in seven games, and Oklahoma City managed to outlast a big-time threat from the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals. OKC’s head coach, Scott Brooks, has been roundly criticized throughout their playoff run (myself, included), but it’s tough to argue with the results, and their uber-talented bunch sits in the top-6 among all playoff teams on both offense and defense.
The Spurs were unexpectedly challenged by the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round before they escaped with a seven-game victory, but they were granted a reprieve that included four blowout wins over Portland in a five-game annihilation. However, San Antonio is dealing with a banged-up Tony Parker and a very difficult match-up from an athletic standpoint in this series, and that has some factions worried about Gregg Popovich’s club. Still, they are a rested bunch after the easiest of the second round wins, and the low minute totals for guys like Tim Duncan are always a plus.
As I’m sure that many of you have noticed, we haven’t discussed perhaps the biggest sidebar to this series, and that is the season-ending injury to Oklahoma City big man Serge Ibaka. The absence of the 24-year-old defensive stalwart is an enormous one in this series, and it has led to some people thoroughly dismissing OKC’s chance of grabbing the upset victory. Fortunately for the Thunder, their roster is able to support this type of injury in a way that most could never dream, as Brooks can deploy the combination of Nick Collison and Steven Adams to make up for Ibaka’s loss. Obviously, that can’t begin to replicate his explosiveness on both ends (any Spurs fan could recall Ibaka’s 11-for-11 shooting onslaught in the 2012 conference finals), but it is possible that the loss is being overdramatized.
Match-up to Watch
While it is tempting to blow out the coverage of the seemingly lopsided coaching match-up between Scott Brooks and Gregg Popovich (read: San Antonio has a big edge), we’ll keep it on the floor in discussing the point guard battle between Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. Parker, who is now 32 years old, was limited to just 10 minutes of action in San Antonio’s close-out victory over Portland, and if he isn’t at full-strength, it could be trouble for the Spurs. Parker is arguably the best player on their roster at this point (even though some would still side with Tim Duncan), but Westbrook is a different animal from an athleticism standpoint.
Speaking of Russ, his playoff performance has been of the epic variety. For reference, the explosive “point” guard has averaged 26.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game over their 13 playoff contests, and while Parker likely won’t guard him exclusively (or even primarily), the difference in shear physicality will be evident. Parker doesn’t have to win the match-up against Westbrook for San Antonio to get a win, but if he gets eviscerated, it will be tough to overcome.
In the interest of full disclosure, I would have picked the Spurs in seven games even before the Ibaka absence. The Thunder have defined advantages in speed and quickness, which allows them to defend San Antonio differently than most teams would even attempt, but when the Spurs have it rolling on that end, they are virtually unguardable. Throw in the fact that Popovich would be the odds-on favorite to put a virtual clown suit on Brooks and things could easily get out of control. With that said, the Thunder have the best two players in the series in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and that is impossible to ignore. Even without Ibaka, Durant has the ability to keep this close if he has the full arsenal on display, and that gives the Thunder a puncher’s stance. Still, the Spurs are simply better as currently constructed, and that can’t be ignored.
San Antonio in 7.