Matt took on the Spurs as his choice to best the West, and so I’m left with the difficult (but not unbelievable) task of coming up with similar suggestions as to why OKC will come out on top in the end. In truth, I’m not sure ANYONE remaining in these playoffs has what it takes to bring down San Antonio, suffice to say OKC has the best chance. Here’s why:
1. High Scoring and The Big Three
The only teams scoring higher than the Thunder (103.1) this season were Denver (104.1) and San Antonio (103.7). So OKC can score. The question is: can they score consistently enough against the Spurs’ potent defense to win a Best-of 7-games series?
My answer is yes.
Durant, Westbrook, and Harden can score consistently in double digits – and each capably helps their team in other ways if their shots aren’t falling. The remainder of their team includes the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Derek Fisher, with the latter two providing the most scoring beyond the big three at 9.8 and 6 points per game, respectively.That’s not to say others can’t score. Thabo dropped a couple of nice shots over Kobe Bryant in Round 2, while center Kendrick Perkins chipped in some additional garbage points of his own during key moments of Game 5.
But really it comes down to the big three. Durant’s scoring average dropped slightly from 28 to 26.7 ppg in the post-season while Westbrook’s has jumped a notch from 23.6 to 24.1. It really is up to them to carry OKC’s load. And while San Antonio’s Coach G-Pop likely has numerous defensive schemes to throw at them, the most likely being aggressive half court traps that force Westbrook to give up the ball early, I think both Durant and Westbrook will see a flurry of open shots fall their way mainly due to OKC’s terrific ball movement. Remember, against the Jazz and Clippers, San Antonio was able to bunch up the middle to deny penetration. They forced the Jazz and Clippers to beat them with outside jumpers. Well, outside jumpers are OKC’s specialty.
Westbrook in particular has become quite the little assassin from within 5 to 10 feet of the basket (and his overall FG% remains just above 47-percent). If he can hit a few of those open jumpers early, G-Pop will have to tighten his defense and call upon double teams to take the ball out of his hands. Westbrook can then swing the ball over to Durant who must face (dun, dun, DUN) rookie Kawhi Leonard. At 6-foot-6 Leonard will bother Durant, but not enough to keep him from scoring 20+points per contest. And when Leonard goes out with foul trouble (which will happen), who does G-Pop turn to to stop Durantula? Stephen Jackson? Danny Green? The advantage Durant carries over everybody in the league is his height. The Lakers couldn’t stop him (and when they did he simply dished the ball back to Westbrook), and the Spurs wont stop him. If they do however pin down the game’s best pure shooter along with his trusty sidekick, then James Harden isn’t afraid to take the ball inside where he’ll likely draw many-a-foul during San Antonio’s last-second attempt to fall back into their defensive set.
Harden is what I like to call the clean-up guy. He does the important things that the superstars will not/cannot do. He sparks pivotal runs in late game situations. Draws charges. Hits gutsy layups. Makes tough defensive stops. He made Ron Artest look like a fool, and more or less took Dallas’ second best player (Jason Terry) out of the final three games. Who will the Spurs utilize to guard Harden? Ginobili? Green? Bonner? Neal? Jackson? G-Pop will likely give OKC’s Big Three a hefty rotation of players, but as the series drags on (which it will) anyone and everyone over 30 years of age will start feeling the negative consequences. Which leads me to my second point:
San Antonio’s average age is 29.8 while OKC carries 12 guys who are mostly 24 and younger. The Spurs have experience, but OKC has foot speed and father time on their side. I only bring this up because one of San Antonio’s biggest strengths is Parker’s ability to continually drive the lane. Unless G-Pop makes a last second move, Parker will also have to defend Westbrook which will take a lot out of him, provided Westbrook’s shot drops consistently enough. Parker had to defend Chris Paul in San Antonio’s previous series against the Clippers, but he had other defenders who could jump out and help him when Paul jumped into the lane (mainly because LA’s biggest strength lies in their offensive fire power under the basket – they kept Paul from penetrating and forced him to take outside jump shots … see above). Westbrook won’t be as easy to defend, especially since he can more or less post-up the 6-foot-2 Tony Parker, shoot over him, and dribble around him. Parker will need more than a few smoke breaks before series end.
Another important note: LA and Utah put together at least one good game. It took everything in San Antonio’s power to win those contests. Imagine that type of competition for three or four games? Methinks Timmy will be looking for a time out.
I know I’m jumping into random tidbits here, but look at it this way: Utah was happy to make the post-season. Big Al cashed in his chips after the Phoenix Suns game and played against the Spurs on cruise control. The Clippers likewise were eager to make a mark, but had difficulty overcoming a tough 7-game bout against the rough n’ tough Memphis Grizzlies (that back-to-back certainly didn’t help matters). On the flip side, you’ve got OKC who battled the defending champs and made them look like chumps. Dallas tried and tried and tried, but just couldn’t top the Thunder. Then you had Kobe and a (still) very good Lakers team give their best shot in each and every contest, only to fall short in four out of five quick games. That’s no small feat, either.
The Lakers had numerous big guys, an all around superstar, and some decent perimeter players and they still couldn’t stop OKC. Not even when they were pissed off, with their backs pressed firmly against the loser wall. They gave everything they had and couldn’t beat Durant and co. No matter what they tried. And they tried it all – they slowed the game down, they tried to run, they hit outside shots, they attacked the rim, they played tough defense, etc. OKC still managed to hit the big shots down the stretch … all because they are HUNGRY. More so than Utah, LA, and even San Antonio.
The Spurs play with a sort of arrogant, smug-like demeanor. After that last bout against the Clippers, Ginobili said, “That’s good. We needed a tough fight.” Or something along those lines. They believe they’re invincible, and while they carry the game’s best coach, nothing about them screams “Untouchable” to me. The Jazz gave up after two quarters. The Clippers played hard for three. OKC won’t stop coming at the Spurs until that final horn sounds. And they’ll do it every single game.
4. The Paint Wars
A lot of people keep giving the edge to San Antonio with this one, and while Timmy (I hate how people call him that) can still pack a punch, his biggest competition thus far has been … wait for it … 6-f0ot-11 DeAndre Jordan. Not to diss the Clippers big or anything, but Jordan’s primary focus is offense. Duncan tore him to shreds mainly because a) he was slow and … that’s about it.
OKC has four BIGs who each are 6-foot-10, and none of them are looking to do anything but rebound and defend. Timmy won’t be able to score as easily in and around the paint as Ibaka and co. are more nimble around the basket than anything Utah and LA had to offer. And while Ibaka’s blocking totals will likely drop due to his being forced to defend Timmy away from the basket, coach Scott Brooks has so many other options available at his disposal to keep Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan from hitting easy layups – just look how they decimated Kobe Bryant around the hole.
This is the biggest asset that I see that others don’t. San Antonio runs an outside-inside offense. They try to force defenders into the paint so they can kick the ball out to an open 3-point shooter. Guys like Neal and Bonner offer little, if any, inside-scoring threat and so patiently wait outside the arc for their chance to score. Teams like Utah suffered as a result because they couldn’t stop San Antonio’s inside game with man-on-man coverage. That meant Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, and/or Josh Howard would have to leave their man in order to stop dribble penetration, or help out with Tony Parker.
OKC has enough defensive gusto to hold man-to-man coverage. They can drop into a 3-2 zone if necessary, but Coach Brooks isn’t dumb enough to give up 3-point shots as easily as Corbin and Del Negro. When I look at the match-ups, San Antonio excels perhaps only at SG, but only because Sefolosha doesn’t look to score as frequently as he probably should. I think Westbrook can cover Parker – the two will cancel each other out in scoring, provided they don’t net any more than 30 points – and Durant can easily take on whomever is thrown at him purely because his arms are twice as long as AK’s. Duncan will have so many bodies thrown at him he’ll likely capsize in the fourth quarter … and San Antonio’s other BIGs, namely Diaw and Splitter, will find scoring difficult against Perkins and (to a lesser extent) Collison.
5. The Refs
San Antonio knows the ins and outs of the NBA rule book like I know Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (seriously, I’ve seen that movie at least 1,011,242 times). They know how to foul, when to foul, how to draw a foul, etc. More often than not, the refs are on their side. Except, OKC gets special treatment. You see, they have superstar status in Durant and Westbrook – some might even argue Harden as well. Even Kobe Bryant found the officiating severely one-sided when he played against OKC – and this is Kobe Bryant! The man who practically wrote the book on superstar treatment. The NBA will not allow any harm to befall Durant or Westbrook, especially since they’re the only chance the league has of earning a profit outside the Miami Heat this season. For that reason, OKC will get the calls. The Spurs will get their typical fouls, but no more, no less.
If you were the evil head of a billion dollar organization and had to decided between an OKC/Miami match-up vs. a Boston/San Antonio match-up, which would you prefer?
Yeah. Me too.
OKC in six.