As Oklahoma City secured its place in the Western Conference Finals, the NBA-watching public licked their lips at the prospect of the Thunder and the Spurs duking it out in the (at least four) games to come. It took six crazy games for the Thunder to beat the Clippers, each one with a more ridiculous ending than the last. Actually, the clinching game stood out because it didn’t have the breathless finale that had become customary, mainly because when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook really get going, few teams can keep up. That the Clippers lost Blake Griffin before the end because of foul trouble didn’t help things. The Clippers just didn’t have another miracle finish in them, maybe fatigued as much by the mental stress of the Sterling saga than anything else. Kevin Durant, after a very slow first half, ended up with 39 points, his performance punctuated by an three-pointer so deep he was half-way to China when the ball left his hands. He was imperious, looking every inch (6’11’’ or 7’0’’?) the MVP.
So once the matchup was confirmed, the collective gaze turned to the Spurs, who have been quietly and confidently looking exactly like the team with the best record in the NBA. Although they took seven games to get past Dallas, they have gotten back to their ruthless best by disposing of the Trailblazers in five games. The Spurs have an air about them; confidence and assuredness, things that come standard with the experience of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, all held together by Coach Popovich. The know-how of all these figures flows like adrenaline through the team, steadying the young stars and the role players. Everyone relies on everyone else, and it shows in the box score so far in the playoffs. Parker is the star man in most games, and for good reason; he is a diamond point guard. But we saw in the final game against the Trailblazers (where Parker was removed very early for precautionary reasons) that the team can not only survive, they can thrive without him. In that case, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Danny Green stepped up to fill the void. It was truly impressive they way the Spurs didn’t even break stride after Parker left the game, especially because Green had been having a torrid time so far in the playoffs. But a potential crisis was averted and the close-out game was won with ease.
It makes for a stark contrast with the Thunder. OKC’s leading scorers in the post season have been Westbrook and Durant, with around 30 points each. The next highest scorer is Ibaka with 12, who may be unavailable for at least part of the Conference Finals. Durant is the highest defensive rebounder. Westbrook is the leader when it comes to offensive rebounds, assists and steals. The only statistic that Durant or Westbrook don’t lead during the post season is blocks. The Thunder have no others to rely on. If Durant can’t drop 40 points, with Westbrook scoring 30 or so, then who else will do the job for OKC? Derek Fisher, Sefolosha and Butler can’t be relied on to contribute anything more than the odd basket and assist here or there. Perkins is not a scoring centre. It makes the Thunder incredibly hard to beat when their superstars are firing, but also very fragile if one was to get injured, or get into foul trouble or simply have a bad shooting night.
The Spurs are the opposite. Parker has averaged 20 points in this post season. Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili each with around 15. Splitter, Diaw, Mills and Green each have scored nearly 10 points a game. We’ve seen that Green and Mills are capable of scoring more when it’s needed. Similarly, assists are shared around evenly amongst the starters and the bench players. Rebounds too. During the Portland series, the massive discrepancy between the bench points from the two teams was brought up often; the Spurs’ bench outscored the Blazers bench by a huge margin over the six games. This is a team so well-oiled, and so finely tuned. Where the Thunder’s half court offence consists mainly of Westbrook or Durant taking one-on-one jump shots, the Spurs ping the ball around like few other teams in the league and it’s incredible to watch (even when they miss). The Thunder are constantly taking (and often making) tough shots, but the Spurs make fluid offence look easy.
This Western Conference Finals series will be an epic clash of styles, the virtues of which can (and will) be debated by the disciples of each long after the season is over. But regardless of which one wins out after all’s said and done, there is one thing we know for certain: it’s going to be damn entertaining.