"Hey, you know that if you keep me on the bench, Tony can't dominate me? Kthxbai!"
Well, it was inevitable, and now we're here. 66 games of sweat, blood, and calculated rest, and the matchup we all knew was coming is now upon us. It is the deep breath before the plunge.
The Spurs, to outside observers, look like an unstoppable juggernaut, a churning maw of destruction, but I don't think you'll find a player or fan who isn't carrying a hefty amount of what Pop calls "appropriate fear" into this series. The Thunder, meanwhile, appeared to easily dispatch the mighty Lakers, and have the swagger of world-beaters. Many are calling this the TRUE Finals, which may be hyperbole, but there's no doubt this is going to be epic.
There's also a bit of mystery. The Thunder and Spurs have played three times this season, with the Spurs winning two, but the lineups have always been in flux. None of those three games involved Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, or Stephen Jackson.
I (digitally) sat down again with our buddy J.A. Sherman from Welcome to Loud City to pre-hash this series. Our Q&A follows after the jump!
How do you anticipate the matchups shaking out, with so many changes since our last meeting?
I think that the biggest thing that has changed in the match-ups between the two teams is that the Spurs now have a clearly superior bench while still retaining all of the players that bested the Thunder 2 out of 3 times this season. Before you guys acquired Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, I think the respective benches would have proven to be a wash. James Harden would have spelled Manu Ginobili, Nick Collison would have countered Tiago Splitter, etc. Maybe one bench would have the advantage in one game, but that could easily have reversed itself the next.However, I think now the Spurs clearly have an advantage in their bench roster because it seems like your offense can seamlessly shift from being a Parker-led offense to a Ginobili-led offense to a Diaw-led offense, etc., which means that the overall offensive scheme never suffers any letdown regardless of who is on the floor. The net result is that it really diminishes the number of 'bad' quarters the team will have over the course of a series. To be sure, every team suffers through quarters where it feels like they are lucky to even score 15, because the stars are in foul trouble, key players are missing shots, etc. With the way the Spurs are built now though, they are far less likely to ever go through multiple cold spells like that, which puts additional pressure on the other team to execute at a very high level throughout the entire game.I think this is the biggest issue that OKC faces - they and the Spurs are the two top-scoring teams in the playoffs, but OKC is far more likely to have multiple 'dud' quarters during games, and against the Spurs, they cannot afford to do so because the game will be decided there and then.
I think that one advantage that the Thunder have that the Spurs really haven't needed to deal with much this season is that OKC's offense, simplistic as it may be, can engage through three different players. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden can all operate at the point whenever they need to, and they can all score in bunches if their pick and roll isn't defended well. They also all know how to draw fouls well and can finish at the line, so are capable of producing points in a very efficient manner. They will tend to go one-on-one a bit, but the ISO system works because they cannot be double-teamed; a defense cannot risk leaving any one of those guys unguarded. All three of them are going to have to play at a high level just as a baseline in order to keep up with the Spurs' attack.The biggest thing that I fear is how the Thunder are going to defend the Spurs' perimeter game. Defending the corner 3-ball has been the Thunder's weak point all season long and hey, wouldn't you know it, the Spurs are one of the best at generating that particular shot. OKC is learning to play disciplined defense, but any over-pursuit or uncertainty is going to be exploited by Parker, Duncan & Co. Matt Bonner in particular is going to be a match-up nightmare, because starter Serge Ibaka cannot afford to be pulled that far from the rim, lest the interior be exposed to drives into the lane. Parker's ability to get into the lane, make the defense shift, and then swing the ball back out is a formula that I see OKC struggling to defend all series long.
Most importantly, is this series essentially a coin flip, or do you feel like you can make a prediction one way or the other?
To say that the series is a coin flip does great disservice to how well the Spurs have played over the past three months, and I'd feel that way even if the Thunder had managed to hold onto the #1 seed. It is great that the two best teams in the West are squaring off to go to the Finals, but the seeding got it right - the Spurs are the superior team right now. While I would give the Thunder a slight edge defensively because I think they have better personnel to really lock teams down for extended stretches, the Spurs offense is a full letter grade above OKC's at this time. This statement may come across as flattery, but I've been watching the NBA a long, long time and I can't remember seeing offensive basketball played at as high a collective IQ as I do now in watching the Spurs. I'd put the offense up against some of the best offenses of the past 3 decades - I'm thinking '86 and '87 championship-level offenses. Everybody knows exactly what they're supposed to be doing at all times, and they do it well. OKC, as talented as they are, cannot make the same claim.Which is not to say that a perfected offensive team cannot have breakdowns or lose games. They can. Sometimes the better team does not always win, but is defeated by the best player on the court. In the 1993 and 1998 Eastern Conference Finals the team that won admitted that they probably were not the best team that suited up in those games, but they did have the best player on the court. Can Kevin Durant fill MJ's shadow? It is a tall order, but I would love to see him try.In the end, my heart says 'the Thunder have a chance' but my mind says 'Spurs will control.' I think it would be a monumental achievement if OKC can even take it to seven games. To play against a team that has lost only twice in the past two months and beats everybody by 15 or more? Three would be remarkable. Four would be impossible.Spurs in 6.
Thanks, Sherm! For my answers to his questions, GO HERE!
Our previous FWTEs: