Beginning Monday night, the insane thrill ride that has been the Western Conference playoffs will come to a fitting conclusion. The San Antonio Spurs, attempting to reach their second straight NBA Finals (the sixth in their franchise’s history) face off against the young, hungry Oklahoma City Thunder—a team led by the league’s MVP, Kevin Durant, but a team also under immense pressure to triumph in this year’s postseason.
The Spurs and Thunder met two years ago at this same stage, when the Thunder won in six games after trailing by two—no disrespect to the Memphis Grizzlies, but had Russell Westbrook not gone down with injury last season, they likely would have faced off again.
As it was, the Spurs swept their way to NBA Finals only to lose in gut-wrenching fashion to the Miami Heat—not that Spurs fans need to relive the experience, but one free throw or one defensive rebound would have won them their fifth NBA title.
After that finals defeat, the media penned their usual (ill-advised) obituaries for the Tim Duncan-era Spurs. As the narrative went, the Spurs blew their best chance to win another title under Gregg Popovich, and a combination of age, general wear and tear and the psychological impact of such an agonizing defeat would be too much for the Spurs to overcome heading into the 2013-2014 season. But, as is so often the case, media-spun narratives proved incorrect. The Spurs are not dead and buried, they are very much alive.
San Antonio finished with the best record in the regular season, Gregg Popovich won Coach of the Year—in part, thanks to the brilliant management of his star players’ minutes—and the team finds itself in another Conference Finals. The Spurs had an almighty scare in their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, but they barely broke a sweat dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in what was a rather anti-climactic second round.
The Spurs’ offence is humming—machine-like in its beautiful efficiency—and their defence has started to come together. But heading into the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs appeared similarly unbeatable, having swept their first two opponents. Then they ran into the Oklahoma City Thunder.
If any team is built to dismantle the Spurs juggernaut, it’s the Thunder. When the Thunder are at their best, no team possesses a greater combination of speed, athleticism and skill. In their last playoff series against the Spurs, they triumphed because of that speed and athleticism (James Harden helped too, of course). However, they are going to have to face the Spurs without the services of Serge Ibaka. The Thunder’s starting power forward—one of the best defenders in the game and a shot-blocking sensation—will miss the rest of the series with an injured left calf muscle.
Ibaka’s absence is a massive blow to the Thunder’s chances—you cannot overstate that fact. Without Ibaka’s deterring presence in the lane, Tim Duncan will have a much easier time working in the low post, and Tony Parker will be able to drive into the lane with far more ease. Offensively, the Thunder will miss Ibaka’s shooting abilities from the midrange on the pick-n-pop and his work on the offensive glass. It may also alter what Scott Brooks can do as far as smallball lineups. The Thunder are at their best when Ibaka sees time at centre and Durant shifts down to the power forward spot. Without Ibaka, expect to see a lot of Nick Collison and Steven Adams in this series. They will both have to be huge defensively.
The Thunder insist that they can overcome Ibaka’s absence to win the series (what else would they say?) and can point to the fact that they’ve overcome adversity all season long. Russell Westbrook, who has been brilliant in these playoffs, only played 46 games during the regular season, and the Thunder were forced to adapt to life without their second-best player. In Westbrook’s absence, the Thunder’s young players (Reggie Jackson in particular) rose to the occasion. But the real catalyst for their 58-win season was the next-level play of Kevin Durant.
Durant, although he would be too humble to admit the fact, carried the Thunder on his back all season long and deservedly took home MVP honours. In these playoffs, despite a slow start and some unwarranted criticism from local media (they dubbed him “Mr. Unreliable”), Durant has continued his awe-inspiring performance. The league’s MVP is averaging 31 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game in this year’s postseason. The regular season was certainly no fluke.
If the Thunder are going to win this series, Durant is once again going to have to come up huge. He’ll create matchup issues against the Spurs, as he does against any opposing defence—Kawhi Leonard is going to have the unenviable task of guarding him—and he’ll need to score plenty, while getting to the free throw line. In Ibaka’s absence, the onus will be on Durant to perform defensively. He’ll have to continue to rebound well, as he did in the Clippers series, and hold his own in the paint against Duncan and Tiago Splitter.
But while Durant will need to be the best player in the series in order for the Thunder to triumph, Westbrook will have to give his teammate ample support at the offensive end. The Thunder’s point guard is often criticized for playing reckless and hurting his team down the stretch will ill-advised pullups and a tendency to get tunnel vision, but the Thunder are at their best when Westbrook straddles that fine line between explosiveness and recklessness.
It’s simply counterproductive to hem Westbrook in—to make him play within a restrictive half court system. Westbrook is at his brilliant best when he’s driving to the basket in transition, crashing the offensive glass, and jumping passing lanes. Occasionally Westbrook does things that make you cringe, but for every bad decision, he’s liable to make two or three plays that can change a game. It’s a trade-off worth living with.
For the Thunder to win this series, they’ll need Westbrook and Durant to score a huge amount of points and hope that they can stop the Spurs at the other end. But that’s easier said than done. The Spurs have weapons at every position. They can score in the post with Duncan, have two point guards (Patty Mills being the second) that can drive and score in the paint, and they spread the floor with top-rate shooters. That last Spurs attribute could play a huge role in this series. Throughout the season the Thunder developed an unhealthy habit of unnecessarily collapsing in the paint and not getting out to shooters. If that happens in this series they’ll be toast.
Depth could also play a big part in this matchup. When the Spurs’ starters sit, their bench, led by a rejuvenated-Manu Ginobili, is usually able to sustain the onslaught. While the Thunder possesses the best player in this series, the Spurs have the best and deepest team. The Thunder simply cannot afford to sit Durant and Westbrook for long stretches, which could lead to some burnout, while the Spurs should be able to stay above water when the likes of Duncan and Parker are resting.
The biggest disparity in this series, however, is between the head coaches. Gregg Popovich is a basketball genius, and will do everything in his power to ensure that his team is prepared to beat the Thunder. Scott Brooks is no basketball genius. Brooks is a liability.
Non-factors like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher get way too many minutes in his rotation, he doesn’t call timeouts at the right moments and, most worryingly of all, he seems unable to come up with plays on offence that bring out the best in his considerable offensive weapons.
Too often the Thunder’s offence reverts to isoball, with very little movement from the guys off the ball. Because of the transcendent brilliance of Kevin Durant and his ability to make shots out of thin air, the Thunder are often able to get by. But when the games get tight and the opposition’s defense is at their best, it takes more than a succession of 30-foot prayers to win basketball games.
Ultimately, the Thunder have more than enough individual brilliance to win this series—Durant and Westbrook, at their best, can steal games all on their own. But the Spurs, with their greater balance, depth and coaching, should narrowly edge this one. With Ibaka healthy, the Thunder win in six. Without him, the Spurs triumph in a back-and-forth seven-game series.