Previewing the conference finals: Spurs vs. Thunder positional matchups

I like to think we’re in store for a great Western Conference Finals. We’ve got the veteran team with the experience and the championships and we’ve got the young up-and-comers looking to start a dynasty. The Oklahoma City Thunder were crowned the Western Conference champs before the season even started, but with the way the San Antonio Spurs have been playing lately, they look poised to take the crown for themselves.

Let’s break down the matchups.

Starting 5

To me, the most exciting matchup is going to be between the two All-Star point guards. Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook are going to have to battle each other on both sides of the court during this series. They’re both scoring-minded point guards that can put points on the board just as easily as assists. Whoever works hardest on the defensive end is going to make a huge splash in this series.

I’ve been very impressed with the way Danny Green has been playing lately. He doesn’t look at all like an inexperienced guard. He already looks like he blends in well with the veterans on the team. Unlike the starting guard for the Thunder, Thabo Sefolosha, Green isn’t just a placeholder in the starting lineup. Sefolosha only starts because James Harden likes to come off the bench. It’s a similar strategy to what the Spurs have with Manu Ginobili, but I think Green is much more useful than Sefolosha.

Here’s where the advantage starts to swing in favor of the Thunder. Kawhi Leonard is outstanding, but he’s no Kevin Durant. Everyone knows what the NBA’s scoring champ is capable of, and whoever is guarding him will have to play their best defense possible. I imagine Coach Gregg Popovich will have a few different looks to throw at Durant and it may be a trial and error scenario, but no matter who’s guarding him, he’s capable of going off.

The Thunder also have two very talented big men in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. They’re both very defensive-minded so Tim Duncan will have to work a lot harder than he did in the last series. Boris Diaw has been playing well so I imagine he’ll still be starting at power forward, but he too will have to really step up in this series. Ibaka and Perkins aren’t the kind of guys that will create a lot of their own shots, but they definitely know how to dunk it and Ibaka can even step out and hit the jumper. Both Duncan and Diaw (or Splitter and Bonner) will have to work their butts off at both ends of the floor.

Advantage: Push

Sixth Man:

There has to be a special section for this because it is going to be one of the greatest sixth man battles ever. Manu Ginobili is a former NBA Sixth Man Award winner and James Harden won it this year. Ginobili may have lost a step or two in recent years but he still finished 5th in this year’s vote and he’s still capable of taking over a game. Harden is an amazing spark off the bench and is a great boost to the Thunder. He’s talented and is capable of leading the Thunder in scoring on any given night. Either of these guys could start on any team in the NBA, but they love their sixth man roles and both thrive in that situation. This will be one of the matchups to watch throughout this series, but I may have to give the edge to the younger guy .

Advantage: Thunder

Bench

This section of the matchups would go to the Spurs against any team. They have the deepest bench in the NBA and guys that don’t even get real minutes (Blair, Anderson, Mills) could all probably get their fair share on a number of other teams. I already gave Harden the advantage over Ginobili, but after that the scales are heavily tipped for the Spurs. Derek Fisher will still hit the wide-open shots if he gets them but he’s not a very dynamic point guard. He’s mostly in there to give Westbrook a few minutes of rest, but he’s not anything special when he’s on the floor. The same goes for Nick Collison. He’s a hustle player that works hard at the defensive end but he’s not going to do much else. I will say this for the Thunder bench though. If you focus too much on guys like Durant, Westbrook and Harden, they are capable of finding these role players for easy buckets. I still give the advantage to the Spurs though because the talent and depth on their bench is overwhelming.

Advantage: Spurs

Coaching

This is another section that I would give to the Spurs against any team. Scott Brooks has brought this team a long way, and he deserves all the recognition he’s gotten for that, but he’s still young. We’ve seen him make some big mistakes in the postseason for the Thunder before. Even last year he got out-coached by Rick Carlisle in the Conference Finals. This is another situation where the Spurs can take advantage. No doubt Pop will have a great game plan for the Thunder, and I don’t know how well Brooks will adjust.

Advantage: Spurs

Prediction

The Thunder are very talented and by far the toughest test the Spurs have faced. I think the shock of playing a much better team might take the Spurs by surprise and they could drop one of the first 2 games at home. I think they’ll make up for it by winning one on the road though. I think the Spurs’ experience and depth carry them through this series and they’ll pull out a slug-fest in the end. I predicted 5 games for each of the first 2 series, giving too much credit to the other team, that could easily be the case in this one too.

Spurs in 7

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