The Western Conference Final is set and the West’s two best teams (maybe the league’s two best teams) tip off what should be an epic series.
There are a lot of storylines and match ups to watch but probably the most important one is Tony Parker versus Russell Westbrook. Two of the top five point guards (two of the top three?) in the NBA this season who use blinding speed to create shots for themselves that are nearly impossible to stop.
It would do a disservice to the many other moving parts for both teams to say that whoever wins the Parker-Westbrook match up will win the series, but whether or not Westbrook can stay in front of Parker will go a long way in determining who ends up winning the West.
The San Antonio Spurs won the season series against the Thunder 2-1 in large part to Parker’s brilliant play. In the first game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in January, Parker was dreadful, scoring only four points in the Thunder blow out win over the Spurs. The two Spurs wins? Parker scored 42 points and dished out nine assists, the next game he scored 25 points and tallied seven assists. If you look at the player vs. player comparison on NBA Stats Cube, Parker shot better and finished with a +/- of 10.7 with Westbrook on the court as opposed to with him on the bench. Westbrook spends a lot of time covering Parker when they’re in at the same time, and often times Parker goes crazy because despite his physical gifts, mainly freakish athleticism, Westbrook is a lazy defender.
As was the case with Chris Paul, defending Russell Westbrook won’t be just a one man job. You can be sure that Danny Green will get his fair share of time covering Westbrook as well. Against the Spurs this season, Westbrook averaged 23 points per game, but almost half of those points came from a 36 point explosion in March. Despite the improvement in his pull up jumper, the key to guarding Westbrook is to keep him out of the paint and get him to keep shooting. The best way to beat the Thunder is get Westbrook not just to shoot more than Kevin Durant, but to get him to do it AND keep him out of the paint.
The really good news about all this is that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has almost a week to game plan on how to slow down Durant and Westbrook. If the Spurs can keep the Thunder in the half court set and keep Westbrook out of the paint, they’ll be in good shape. On offense Parker needs to keep doing what he’s been doing, stay aggressive and keep up the excellent ball distribution. The Western Conference Finals starts Sunday at 7:30 Central time at the AT&T Center.