Series Outlook: Do you remember those NFC Championship matchups between the 49ers and Cowboys back in the early to mid-90s? If so, you probably also recollect that whichever team advanced from that matchup went on to successfully win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t that the competition coming out of the AFC wasn’t formidable during those years, it had more to do with how the 49ers and Cowboys were prepared for the Super Bowl after having to face each other. They were always the best teams remaining in the playoffs during that era. Unfortunately, their fate would be decided in the conference championship games, and not the Super Bowl. Ironically, I get that same type of feeling from this Western Conference Finals matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. They just might be the two top teams remaining in the postseason.
From a pure offensive standpoint, the Spurs and Thunder have been extremely impressive during this postseason. Both teams rank first and second in points per game during the playoffs (Spurs-102.5 vs. Thunder-100.0). San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the only teams remaining in the playoffs that are both shooting over 46% from the field (49.1%-Spurs vs. 46.5%-Thunder), as well as above 35% from beyond the arc (42.3%-Spurs vs. 35.4%-Thunder). Both teams are outshooting their opponents by over 5% from the field as well.
Matchups: With both teams apparently entering this series firing on all cylinders, specific individual matchups could be the determining factor in who eventually advances, and who is sent packing. Let’s take a brief overview of each position, highlighting strengths, weaknesses, and selecting which team will have the advantage.
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook has developed into one of the premier scoring point guards in the league. He is particularly effective beating his defender with a quick first step, that more times than not, allows him to attack the paint area. Westbrook also possess a strong mid range jump shot that he can get off at any time. From a pure athleticism standpoint, there probably isn’t a better point guard left in the playoffs. Westbrook’s biggest weaknesses are his poor shot selection (at times) and the fact that he simply isn’t a true point guard.
Tony Parker is your quintessential point guard, and he is a great one at that. He revitalized his career this season, and re-employed many of the strengths that made him successful during the Spurs championship runs. Similar to Westbrook, Parker is one of the fastest players in the league. That speed allows him to beat opposing players down court during transition opportunities. Parker is masterful at pick and roll, and has the uncanny ability to knock down floaters in the lane. Once he breaks containment and gets into the paint area, Parker will always find the open man on the perimeter if the defense breaks down. Parker’s only real weakness is his limited range from beyond the arc.
Both players produced near their season averages in matchups versus one another during the regular season. Westbrook’s shot selection is always a key to the success of the Thunder. If he can stay within the parameters of the offense, he will give his team a better chance to win. However, Parker gets the slight edge here for the simple fact that he produces offensive production for the Spurs via his shooting and passing ability. Keep in mind, the Spurs lead the post season in assists per game (24.1), and have knocked down 37 more three point shots than their opponents. Parker has his hand in both of those stats.
Slight Edge Spurs
Shooting Guard: Although Thabo Sefolosha starts games at the scoring guard position, James Harden logs more minutes (especially in the 4th quarter) for the Thunder. Harden is an excellent scorer off the bench for the Thunder. He can score in a variety ways, and he is effective in just about everyone of them. Harden can effectively knock down three point shots (39%-Regular Season), split the defense, and run the floor in transition. Harden’s biggest strength might be simply getting to the basket and drawing fouls. His 71 free throw attempts during the playoffs lead the Thunder. Harden’s only true weakness is his perimeter defense, which he has improved on immeasurably since he entered the league back in2009.
Danny Green really flourished on both ends of the court for the Spurs this season. The former North Carolina Tar Heel experienced his finest season as a pro, averaging 9.1 points per game (44% from the field). Green is one of the Spurs better perimeter defenders, and will likely be called upon to try and contain Harden. Green’s biggest strength is that he stays within the parameters of the Spurs offense, and doesn’t try to do too much. He is a huge asset from beyond the arc, knocking down 45% of his three point shots in these playoffs. His biggest weakness is that his offensive game is rather limited.
How happy is James Harden that he doesn’t have to matchup with Kobe Bryant anymore? Harden’s offensive production really dipped as a result of having to covering Bryant (35% from the field). We expect Harden to conserve a little bit more energy on defense during this series. That should help translate into big things on the offensive side of the ball for him and the Thunder. Look for Harden to post numbers similar to the Mavericks series(18.3 ppg & 50% from field).
Small Forward: Kevin Durant has established himself as the premier offensive player in the league. During these playoffs, Durant is averaging 26.7 points per game and shooting an impressive 48% from the field. Durant’s biggest strength is probably how effortlessly he can get his shot off. He has surprising quickness for his size, and can stop on a dime and knock down an outside jumper. Durant is also effective in the post, and similar to Harden, gets to the free throw line frequently (67 attempts in the playoffs). Durant has proven to be clutch during crunch time of these playoffs, knocking over 70% of his shots during 4th quarter play (including 7/9 under two minutes). You can nitpick that Durant should be a better offensive rebounder, however aside from that argument, it’s hard to pinpoint any weaknesses in Durant’s game.
Just for the record, I laughed when teams kept passing up on Kawhi Leonard during last season’s draft. I watched countless games of Leonard while at San Diego State, and just knew that his game would translate at the next level. And translate it has. Leonard can knock down the corner three, but his biggest strength is unquestionably his defensive prowess. At just 20 years old, he is already a polished defender. It’s unusual to find consistency out of young players coming straight out of college (underclassmen no less), but that is just exactly what Leonard provides. Similar to Danny Green, Leonard’s main weakness is his limitations on offense. Still, we would expect those to improve over time.
Obviously, Durant and the Thunder have the advantage here. Anyone who has seen Durant play during this postseason knows that he is dialed in. Still, I honestly believe that Leonard is the “x-factor” in this series. His size and length can potentially disrupt Durant, and as a result, get him off his rhythm. Durant will get his points versus the Spurs, that is a given. The only difference; it won’t be as easy to come by versus Leonard.
Power Forward: At just 22 years of age, Serge Ibaka is one of the rising stars in the league. He has really improved his perimeter shooting since entering the league. Ibaka has consistently knocked down the mid-range jump shot all season long. Without question, Ibaka’s biggest strength is his shot blocking ability (33 blocks in 9 postseason games). His presence in the middle allows for the Thunder’s perimeter defenders to play a lot more aggressively, knowing full well that he will disrupt most shots in the paint area. Ibaka has limited lost post moves, and struggles sometimes at the charity stripe (66% during the regular season).
Boris Diaw is a multi-dimensional player who can excel both on the post and perimeter. He is an excellent passing big man, which corresponds with what the Spurs like to do on offensive perfectly. Diaw has been effective for the Spurs during these playoffs, logging over 25 minutes per game and shooting over 50% from both the field and three point land. Diaw’s biggest weakness the last couple seasons has been his lack of conditioning. As a result, he is only effective for certain stretches throughout the game.
In an effort to get Ibaka out of the paint area, you can bet that Diaw is going to roam out on the perimeter. If he is able to knock down shots consistently, head coach Scott Brooks might be forced to switch matchups and put Ibaka on Duncan. The Thunder are not going to allow Ibaka to give up his shot blocking ability just to cover Diaw on the perimeter. As a result, look for constant rotation from the Thunder big men (Perkins & Collison). Ibaka’s importance to the Thunder far outweighs that of Diaw’s to the Spurs. Ibaka and the Thunder have the edge here.
Center: Kendrick Perkins is a tough minded competitor on both ends of the court. He is a very effective low post defender, and has the ability to score with his back to the basket (albeit in a limited capacity). Perkins biggest weakness has always been his temper. Sometimes his emotions get the best of him, and as a result, he picks up cheap fouls. He needs to do his best to stay away from these all-to-frequent scenarios in this series.
You always know what you’re going to get with Tim Duncan. The 36 year old isn’t as quick and athletic as he once was, but that doesn’t mean he is any less effective. The reliable Duncan has increased his minutes per game, points per game, and field goal percentage during these playoffs. Duncan and Parker run the pick and roll masterfully, and his ability to knock down the perimeter jump shot is invaluable to the success of the Spurs. He is still a very tough cover on the block, and can command a double team if the opposing defender can’t keep him out of the paint. In years past, Duncan’s main weakness was his free throw shooting. However, he is shooting 79% during these playoffs (10% above his career average).
Perkins is going to struggle mightily in pick and roll situations versus Duncan. Look for him to get in early foul trouble frequently during this series. Duncan’s big game experience (Ginobili’s and Parker’s as well) simply can’t be overlooked in this series. Huge advantage here for the Spurs.
Bench: Even with the 6th man of the year coming off the bench, the Spurs have the clear cut advantage here. The Thunder really only employ an eight man rotation, with Fisher, Collison, and Harden getting the majority of the minutes off the bench. The Spurs counter with talented depth at every position, not to mention playoff experience (Ginobili and Jackson). Although, Ginobili has struggled from beyond the arc thus far in the playoffs (25%), he has a knack for showing up when it counts. Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, and Matt Bonner have played huge roles for the Spurs all season long.
Prediction: This has the makings of a classic playoff series. There are so many questions waiting to be answered as we draw closer to this matchup. Can the Spurs contain Kevin Durant? How will the Thunder defend against Parker and Duncan in pick and roll situations? Can Scott Brooks possibly outwit Greg Popovich?
Although the Thunder might have the best three individual players in the series (Durant, Westbrook, Harden), the Spurs have more experience (player & coaching), depth, and an unconquerable mentality (18 wins a row seems to do that) as this series sets to tipoff on Sunday.
Westbrook will need to try and disrupt the Spurs offense by getting Parker off his game. If he can consistently keep Parker out of the paint area and out on the perimeter, the Thunder will benefit from not having to crash their defense on Parker. Bad things happen for opposing teams when Parker gets in the paint area consistently. Unfortunately for the Thunder, we’re not convinced that Westbrook will be able to accomplish this. The Spurs efficiency on offense will be just too much for the Thunder to contend with.
Spurs in 6
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