The streaking San Antonio Spurs and the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder tip off tonight in Game 1 of what is sure to be an exciting and enjoyable series. These two teams are coming off convincing victories and certainly earned their appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But with two seemingly unstoppable, high-scoring teams heading on a crash course to get to the NBA Finals, who’s got the edge?
The San Antonio Spurs have silenced critics who wrote them off, calling them old, boring and irrelevant. They’ve won 18 games straight and swept the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in dominant and convincing fashion. Tony Parker has been involved in MVP talks all year, Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth that allows him to continue producing at a high level despite being way beyond his prime and Manu Ginobili is starting to warm up on the offensive end again after missing significant time with an injury. Ginobili’s absence during that stretch strengthened the Spurs’ supporting cast and his return only boosted this high-scoring team’s offensive totals. The Spurs are averaging 102.5 ppg in their eight playoff games and haven’t lost in a month. However, they did face a rather weak Jazz team in the first round, followed by an inexperienced and pretty banged up Clippers squad. Now we’ll get to see just how deep this team is against a team that has a prolific starting five and the bench depth and defense to back them up.
The Oklahoma City Thunder convincingly swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and then made the Lakers look like an eight seed by finishing them off in five games. OKC is a jump shooting team that can play quality defense, has decent depth and can get out and run. They are the only other team in the playoffs averaging at least 100 ppg (by averaging exactly 100.0 ppg in their nine games so far), so we can certainly look forward to a high-scoring and exciting series. The Thunder’s games were much closer than the Spurs’ and unlike San Antonio, they’ve lost a game, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. Each side has a big three. Each side has a great coach. Each side knows how to score and how to win. So who’s going to come out on top? The experienced, streaking Spurs? Or the young, white-hot Thunder?
This series is basically a pick ’em, but the outcome will be decided by a few key factors. First of all, whichever big three outperforms the other will give their team a huge advantage in this series. Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have been great in the postseason so far, but because of San Antonio’s depth, they haven’t had to carry the load or even play extended minutes. The Thunder can’t afford for the Spurs’ big three to outplay Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I don’t think that will happen, but the Thunder’s big three have got to squeeze every ounce out of what little advantage they have in their big three. In a which-octane matchup like this, the Thunder’s big three have got to come to play every single night and outshine the Spurs’ best three players. The second major factor will be the role players. The Spurs are able to put up so many points because of how many guys they have that consistently put up solid numbers. Their bench is fully capable of piling on the points by knocking down 3-pointers with good ball movement and they’re a big reason why the Spurs tack on so many points every night. The Thunder can’t afford for guys like Gary Neal, Daniel Green, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner to knock down open looks.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s supporting cast is more defensively inclined (we’re not counting Harden as supporting cast since he’s OKC’s third-best player), but they’ve shown they can provide solid offensive contributions from time to time. If OKC’s big three puts up big numbers, the Thunder will have an advantage, but they’ll still need to score a decent amount of points to balance out how many points San Antonio’s bench will pile on. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and especially Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to be ready to step in and knock down a few shots in addition to locking down the Spurs’ prolific offense. The Thunder have an advantage in their starting five, but if their bench isn’t capable of putting up points, San Antonio will be extremely tough to beat. The final factor is defense. With such high scoring teams on the court, whoever can get a few stops, especially down the stretch, will come out on top. The Thunder need to limit Duncan’s production with their defensive specialists, Ibaka and Perkins. Duncan has the fundamentals and post skills to put up points, but if Ibaka and Perkins’ physicality and length can bother him, the Thunder will have a big advantage. On the defensive end, Oklahoma City will also need to limit Tony Parker’s penetration. But because Russell Westbrook is so quick, I think the Thunder can slow him down and limit the Spurs’ wide open looks on the perimeter.
All in all, this is going to be a close series between two unstoppable teams. Whoever advances from this matchup and on to the NBA Finals is an automatic favorite to win a championship just because of how good these two teams in. Whoever wins have all the momentum coming off such a monumental series and I can’t say the Heat or the Celtics will pose much of a threat to either the Spurs or the Thunder. So even though San Antonio is 2-1 against the Thunder during the regular season and has home court advantage, when all is said and done, I think the Thunder are too much for anyone to handle when they hit their jump shots. They have a tendency to fall in love with jumpers, even when they’re not falling, but with everything on the line, I think this OKC is too young and too hot to stop. This is their year to advance to the Finals and win an NBA championship. Keep in mind that the last two teams to sweep their first two playoff series didn’t advance to the NBA Finals, and the Spurs fit that category perfectly up against the formidable Thunder.
Prediction: Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six games