It’s the marquee matchup of the playoffs that many say will determine who will be NBA champions.
Along their respective journeys to the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder have faced arguably tougher opponents than the San Antonio Spurs, vanquishing the defending champ Dallas Mavericks and the venerable Los Angeles Lakers on their finals march. Two good teams who were unable to have anything near the success the Spurs have had against the Thunder. Indeed, the Spurs have won nine of their last 10 against Oklahoma City, which begs the question: what are the Spurs doing that no one else can?
Player for player, the Thunder likely have more individual talent than the Spurs. With the reigning scoring champion in Kevin Durant, the Sixth-Man of the Year in James Harden, and one of the most exciting and athletic young point guards in the league in Russell Westbrook, it’s a daunting lineup. The Lakers and the Mavericks had no answer to the Thunder’s talent. At point guard, Westbrook has cruised through the playoffs, outmatching his position opponents with ease. The Spurs, however, present match up problems for the Thunder that no other team could.
Tony Parker has had an MVP type season. Matching up against Parker adds a level of difficulty to this series that Russell Westbrook has not faced. Tony has been unbelievably productive against the Thunder (and Westbrook) in recent memory, putting up a season high 41 points against them earlier this season.
The inability of Westbrook to defend Parker leads to other matchup problems for OKC. Whether off a pick-and-roll or in dribble-drive penetration, the Thunder have to clog the lane to prevent Parker (and sometimes Manu Ginobili) from getting easy buckets in the lane. When OKC is forced to defend the lane that creates open shots for the Spurs wing players. The Spurs, at 41% are the best three-point shooting team in the league. Ironically, the Thunder are one of the worst at defending the three as well. The Spurs’ strengths are the Thunder’s weaknesses.
The Lakers simply are not a major three-point shooting threat. Ask Steve Blake. And while the Mavs are top three in the NBA in three-point shooting, they lack the tools necessary to create the penetration into the lane that opens up those opportunities beyond the arc. The majority of the Mavericks scoring was from jump shots inside the arc which led to lower shooting percentages and an inability to score the easy buckets and put up the kind of points necessary to outscore an offensive juggernaut like the Thunder.
It’s a simple problem of matchups and execution. A problem similar to the problem that the Spurs faced in the first round last season against the Memphis Grizzlies. As long as the Spurs continue to execute the pick and roll as flawlessly as they have this post-season, take care of the basketball, and continue to shoot well beyond the three-point line they will continue to dominate this series.
My pick was the Spurs in five. I don’t believe this series will be that close with the Spurs playing at this level and I don’t believe a sweep is out of the realm of possibilities.