San Antonio Spurs: Western Conference finals preview

Ready to Roll

The San Antonio Spurs didn’t secure the number one seed in the playoffs for no reason.  They took care of business in the regular season and now that the first two rounds have come and gone, the Spurs are proving that the Western spot in the Finals still belongs to the black and silver.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder team headed by MVP Kevin Durant is looking to get back to the Finals after coming off a disappointing season plagued by injury.  Unfortunately, that familiar narrative has reared its ugly head once again, forcing starting power forward Serge Ibaka to the sidelines with a calf injury.

Both the Spurs and Thunder had a rough go at the first round but have since gotten their acts together and proven that they are in fact the best two teams in the West.

The series will begin on Monday in San Antonio. Tip is scheduled for 9pm and the game will be televised on TNT

Season Series

After playing a four-game season series in the regular season, Oklahoma City proved to have the Spurs’ number.  The Thunder came out victorious in all four meetings, winning by an average of 9 points in each matchup.

Thankfully for the Spurs, the precedent for this kind of matchup has already been set for the 2014 playoffs in the form of the Miami-Brooklyn series. In this case, Brooklyn was the victor of the regular season sweep.  As we are all aware of, the better and more battle-tested team won the playoff series, proving that regular season matchups just don’t hold much water once the season is on the line.

Still, the Thunder aren’t the Brooklyn Nets.  They have two of the best, young players in the league that can score a combined 60-70 points on a team at will.  That’s scary.  The season series as a whole should be taken with a grain of salt, but that in no way means that Oklahoma City couldn’t come out firing and secure the series early.

Key Matchup Breakdown

After a series of mismatches that went in the Spurs’ favor against the Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City has proven to be the opposite.  The Thunder are longer, faster, and have enough experience in the playoffs and as a cohesive unit to take away any advantages that San Antonio usually hold over their opponents.

The Durant-Leonard matchup isn’t as good as some think.  Leonard’s hands and length are enough to slow down the average small forward in the league, but Durant isn’t your average small forward.  He stands over 6’10″ tall and has the quick trigger necessary to rise up over any opponent.

Durant is averaging only (“only” being used very loosely in Durant terms) 26 points against the Spurs this season, but this includes two outlier games of scoring 17 and 36.  Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league, so that’s what he’s going to do. Don’t get your hopes up for a typical Kawhi “the Hand” Leonard shut down series.

Over at the point guard position, it’s no secret that Russell Westbrook has a noticeable step on Tony Parker.  Frankly, Westbrook has a step over practically everyone in the league.  If you add in Parker’s new hamstring tweak, the matchup gets even more daunting.

Oklahoma City clearly seems to have the edge in the iso-ball situations that often dictate late-game stretches of games.

The Difference

Serge Ibaka. Rather, the absence of Serge Ibaka should be the difference in the series.  He’s a presence on both in the restricted area defensively and from midrange on offense. Ibaka alone has proven to be a critical x-factor in the wins thus far in the playoffs.  Now, Ibaka’s impact is an automatic non-factor after going down with a calf injury in the final game of the Clippers series.

Check out these numbers the Spurs are putting up when Ibaka isn’t on the floor for the Thunder this season.

[table id=584 /]

I’m no fancy basketball expert, but that’s a huge difference.  Ibaka’s presence in the paint is obviously a HUGE factor for Oklahoma City’s defense.  Without Ibaka, the Spurs were able to drive and finish, or drive and collapse the perimeter defense enough to open up the 3-point attack.

Oklahoma City definitely has the depth at the 4/5 position to compete down low, but no one will replace the athleticism of Ibaka.  Rookie Stephen Adams and veteran Nick Collison will both take on bolstered minutes in order to compensate.  Both players play with a chip on their shoulders and can frustrate their opponents, but don’t expect the veteran Spurs to get to discombobulated.

Prediction

I’m really torn as a basketball fan on what I actually want the outcome of this series to be.  The Spurs have obviously proven that they can still make it to the Finals and compete once there.  The Thunder have improved farther in the last few seasons and also could compete for the title.

I think that the Ibaka injury will either destroy or empower Oklahoma City.  They will either fold under the adversity or the role players will rise to the challenge and stomp down the Spurs attack.

This is a tough series to predict, so I’m going to take the cop-out option that no one likes and go with the home team: Spurs in 7.

All in all, I’m just hoping for a long, intense series that will showcase the true talents of this star-studded cast.  This should be a fantastic Western Conference Finals.

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