Western Conference Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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?

Which big three will lead their team to victory? Durant, Westbrook and Harden? Or Parker, Duncan and Ginobili?

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

If Westbrook can keep Parker out of the paint, the Spurs won’t get so many open looks.

Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.

Spurs Take Commanding 2-0 Lead

Credit the Los Angeles Clippers for withstanding a few runs from San Antonio and a frenzied home crowd, but the Spurs would not be denied and, like they have for the majority of the postseason, eventually overpowered their opponent. The Spurs didn’t have a breakout quarter to extend the lead, but outscored the Clippers in three quarters by at least six points and steadily built a sizable lead that LAC couldn’t overcome, resulting in a convincing 105-88 victory.

Tony Parker led San Antonio with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists on his 30th birthday and Tim Duncan followed up with 18 points and five rebounds. The Spurs’ depth and balanced scoring was also on full display in Game 2: Boris Diaw had 16 points, Daniel Green had 13 off of four 4-pointers, Manu Ginobili chipped in 10 and Tiago Splitter added nine. Meanwhile, Chris Paul’s offensive struggles continued as CP3 only managed 10 points and five assists on 4-of-9 shooting. Blake Griffin led LA with 20 points and Randy Foye had 11, but no one else reached double digits for the Clippers. Mo Williams, Nick Young and Caron Butler had nine apiece, but it wasn’t enough to provide a legitimate threat to San Antonio.

Tony Parker and the Spurs took a commanding 2-0 lead and the end result was never in doubt.

The Spurs controlled the tempo and flow of the game and the outcome was never really in doubt. The Clippers have done an excellent job of weathering the storm and haven’t crumbled under the pressure of some of San Antonio’s most impressive scoring sprees, but they also haven’t been able to provide a real challenge yet. That might have something to do with the Spurs’ home court advantage, but the Clippers haven’t been able to take a lead and sustain it in this series so far. So event though they aren’t getting completely demolished like the Utah Jazz were in the first round, unless the Clippers can find some way to even the series back in Los Angeles, the Spurs will be too offensively dominant to beat.

Chris Paul absolutely has to pick up his game with back-to-back games coming up at Staples Center. Paul has been virtually nonexistent and the Clippers can’t afford for Tony Parker to outplay him, which has been the case for this series so far. Blake Griffin improved in Game 2, but no one else was able to contribute enough to keep this one close. It will take a concentrated defensive effort, a few more missed shots from San Antonio and a collectively improved offensive night from LAC to make Games 3 and 4 competitive. But at this point, the Spurs are on fire and have a wide array of scorers that can catch fire at any time. They pass the ball well and have all the pieces of a championship team that everyone in the West should be wary of.

The Clippers have no chance unless Chris Paul regroups and gets something going offensively against these San Antonio Spurs.

Spurs Win Game 1 Over Clippers

The Clippers played even with the Spurs through the first half, but San Antonio’s offensive onslaught was too much for Los Angeles in the second half and Gregg Popovich’s squad took a 1-0 series lead last night with a 108-92 victory in Game 1. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 26 points and 10 rebounds, dismantling the Clippers interior defense, while San Antonio’s perimeter shooting gave LA no chance as they knocked down 13 3-pointers and shot over 52 percent from beyond the arc.

Eric Bledsoe had a breakout playoff performance with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists off the bench, but it wasn’t enough for the Clippers to contend after a brutal third quarter extended San Antonio’s lead to 15. Los Angeles got everything it needed out of its bench and even Blake Griffin played well considering that he was playing through an injury, but the one player whose lackluster performance really hurt was actually their superstar point guard, Chris Paul. Paul went 3-for-13 from the floor and finished with just six points and ten assists. Although Tony Parker only put up seven points and 11 assists, the Clips have no chance in this series with their best player producing such underwhelming numbers.

The Clippers’ bench came to play, but they can’t win without Chris Paul playing well.

Just as I anticipated in the Spurs-Clippers preview, the Spurs’ depth gave the Clippers a lot of problems. Although Bledsoe and Nick Young combined for 36 points off the bench and Kenyon Martin chipped in seven, Manu Ginobili’s 22-point performance was a killer. San Antonio also couldn’t miss from 3-point range as Ginobili, Daniel Green and Kawhi Leonard each nailed three shots from downtown to keep their distance from the resilient Clippers in the second half. Los Angeles was much more competitive than I thought they’d be (specifically in the first half), but then the Spurs woke up in the second and were too much to handle. Duncan absolutely destroyed the Clippers in the paint, Leonard and Green had surprisingly above-average offensive nights and Manu Ginobili played his second quality game in a row. So despite any concerns about the Spurs being rusty after sweeping the Jazz in the first round, if anything, they looked well-rested.

There’s really not much the Clippers can do if the Spurs keep up these high shooting percentages, especially from behind the 3-point line. Los Angeles has struggled with giving teams wide open looks from long range this year, which is definitely something they can’t afford to do against a team with so many efficient 3-point shooters. Chris Paul can’t afford to have such an underwhelming night from the field but he also really hurt his team with five turnovers. Other than Paul’s performance, the Clippers really did everything they needed to in order to be competitive. Unfortunately for Lob City, this series looks like it’s going to be entirely determined by the San Antonio Spurs.

Los Angeles had no answer for Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ perimeter shooters.

Second Round Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers showed great resilience and determination in their big road win against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 just a few days ago, but it doesn’t get any easier for them from here. Chris Paul and the Clips now face the offensive juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, and you can be guarantees they will provide a much more difficult challenge for this talented team in its first year together.

Unfortunately for fans of Lob City, the Spurs will present numerous matchup problems for LAC. Chris Paul has an advantage over Tony Parker, but San Antonio’s depth will not be easy for the Clippers to overcome. Blake Griffin would normally be a challenge for the aging Tim Duncan to handle, but it’s still unclear how healthy Griffin will be for this series. The Spurs’ biggest weakness is talented post players, but Griffin’s post play is limited to his athleticism and high-flying dunks, which will be pretty limited if he’s not 100 percent. And because Duncan will still produce on offense, Griffin doesn’t constitute enough of a challenge from the Clippers in the paint, especially considering how offensively inept DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin have been at times during the postseason.

Will Blake Griffin be healthy enough to give the Clippers an advantage over Tim Duncan?

To be competitive in this series, the Clippers will need to play stellar defense and find a way to slow down this well-oiled offensive machine. That requires a strong defensive effort from the entire roster, because San Antonio’s offense doesn’t ever slow down with their starters on the bench. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and the other big names of this series have excelled in the three meetings between these two teams during the regular season (San Antonio went 2-1), so this series will come down to which role players and supporting cast outplays the other. Everyone knows Manu Ginobili is a threat, but guys like Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter and Daniel Green can all put points on the board. The Spurs’ bench is fully capable of extending leads against opposing teams’ supporting casts with a barrage of 3-pointers and good ball movement. So if the Clippers’ bench can’t keep up or gain a clear advantage from their starting lineup, they will have rough time competing in the series.

You can never count out Chris Paul in the playoffs, but if Blake Griffin is anything less than 100 percent, the Clippers are going to struggle against the Spurs’ balance scoring and depth. Los Angeles will be able to do a better job of keeping Tony Parker from penetrating than Utah did, but he will still find a way to facilitate and with so many perimeter and post options to choose from, the Spurs are extremely difficult to guard. Los Angeles needs a constant high level of production from guys like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Nick Young, who have all had big nights in the playoffs but haven’t been able to consistently do so. The Clippers have a promising future and will hopefully receive a huge boost next year when Chauncey Billups returns to the floor, but they don’t match up well with the Spurs and will likely not be able to overcome San Antonio’s depth.

Prediction: San Antonio over Los Angeles in 5 games

Chris Paul has to keep Tony Parker out of the lane and outplay him on the offensive end.

San Antonio Spurs: Best In The West?

The Spurs made their intentions of sweeping extremely clear in a complete 114-83 rout of the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz yesterday. Utah looked like a dangerous team entering the postseason, especially when one recalls that the Spurs were in the same position last year before falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. But so far, San Antonio has been absolutely dominant. So now the question stands: does Utah have any chance in this series against the Western juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs?

To get to the point, the answer is “no.” But let’s take a more in-depth look at why the Spurs have been so dominant this far. Aside from Utah not having any guards that are an offensive threat and playing pretty poor basketball, there have been three main factors in San Antonio dismantling the Jazz so far:
1) Tony Parker has been playing like an MVP candidate
2) Manu Ginobili is healthy and is playing with energy
3) The Spurs bench makes this team truly unstoppable by consistently contributing every night.

Tony Parker is the biggest reason why the Spurs are steamrolling the Jazz so far.

Tony Parker has been able to pick Utah’s defense apart so far. He’s getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line and when the Jazz’s interior defense actually does prevent him from scoring, Parker has been able to find open teammates like Tim Duncan on the inside and a plethora of 3-point threats on the outside. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili finally looks like himself again after struggling with injury problems for the majority of the season. Ginobili is attacking the basket and in two home games, his ability to fire up the crowd with some flashy passing and drives to the rim is priceless. But Ginobili’s injury actually was a blessing in disguise; when he was out, the Spurs’ role players all had to step up. They haven’t stepped down since. The Spurs have nine active players who averaged at least 7 points per game during the regular season: Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Patrick Mills, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. And that number would be 11 if you include the injured Tiago Splitter and Richard Jefferson before he was traded away. Utah has had a hard enough time defending Parker and Tim Duncan, but you throw in another full lineup of guys who can score, play defense and launch 3-pointers and it’s no surprise this series has been a blowout so far.

The Jazz are struggling with their own problems of course. Devin Harris and
Gordon Hayward haven’t played like the guys who made this team so dangerous just a few weeks ago; Al Jefferson hasn’t had a standout game; Paul Millsap disappeared in Game 2; and Utah just doesn’t have enough depth to contend. But this has been a case of the Spurs asserting their dominance and imposing their will rather than the Jazz failing to show up; San Antonio is just too good and they’ve played like it so far. Who knows? The Jazz might have been able to compete in a different Western matchup, but the Spurs have too much experience, talent and depth for this to be anything other than a massacre so far. The Thunder have looked extremely good against an experienced Dallas team and the Lakers are a threat in the West as well, but the San Antonio Spurs are playing extremely well and definitely have to be one of the top candidates for the title of Best in the West.

Stephen Jackson is one of many role players who does his part night in and night out for San Antonio.

Tony Parker and the Spurs Take Game 1

After the top-seeded Spurs made history last year by losing to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last year, there were concerns that a similar situation might arise this year with the dangerous Utah Jazz in town. But Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs squashed those sentiments right away with dominant performances in San Antonio’s 106-91 Game 1 win.

It was the first time the Spurs have won their playoff opener in four years and they did so in convincing fashion. The Jazz hung around in the first half and looked like they might be able to keep up, but Tony Parker added more validity to his MVP considerations with total control over the flow of the game. Parker finished with 28 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one steal. Tim Duncan chipped in 17 points and 11 rebounds and Manu Ginobili fired up the crowd with a few flashy and athletic plays (even though he missed a wide open fast break dunk in the first half). But what made San Antonio’s victory so impressive was their display of depth. Ginobili only had seven points, but everyone except Patrick Mills and James Anderson scored in this game. Matt Bonner hit three 3-pointers, Stephen Jackson was once again a spark off the bench and Boris Diaw, who started in DeJuan Blair’s place, had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. The Spurs got something out of everyone and pulled away in the third quarter with a barrage of 3-pointers and an MVP performance from Parker.

Tony Parker put on an MVP performance for San Antonio in Game 1.

However, there are still some positives to take out of this game for Utah and the Spurs aren’t home free just yet. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap bothered some shots at the rim with their length and the Jazz finished with eight blocks compared to the Spurs’ two. Parker ended up abusing the Jazz defense with his penetration, but if Utah can contest more shots at the rim, they will stay competitive in the series. Also, Millsap, Jefferson and Gordon Hayward were able to score pretty effectively; Jefferson and Millsap shot high percentages in the paint and even though Hayward’s shots weren’t falling, he got to the free throw line 12 times and didn’t miss a single one. And on the San Antonio side, Tiago Splitter left the game with a sprained left wrist and did not return. His status for Game 2 is currently unknown although an MRI has been scheduled. Even though the Spurs are extremely deep, they would eventually miss their seven-footer as they advance deeper into the playoffs.

Utah still has a chance to keep this competitive, but they definitely need a road win before taking care of business at home. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have to keep doing what they’re doing down low, Hayward will need to shoot better from the floor, but a critical piece is Devin Harris. Harris made the Jazz such a dangerous team entering the playoffs, but he disappeared today, finishing with just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting. If Harris shows up for a game and makes himself a threat, the paint opens up for Jefferson and Millsap. But if he disappears again, Utah’s only perimeter threat becomes Gordon Hayward, who makes his living off of hustle plays and 3-point shooting. The Jazz could definitely use some bench scoring (looking at you, Derrick Favors) and Josh Howard can’t go scoreless. But the most vital aspect of this series for Utah is Harris; unless he picks his game back up, the Spurs will cruise to a first-round playoff win.

Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap did okay, but they need to pick it up and get something out of Devin Harris to contend in this series.