Friday, May 25, 2012

Looking Ahead: NBA Western Conference Finals



Regardless who wins the 76ers/Celtics game tomorrow, the more interesting Conference Finals will not include Pierce or Iguodala against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Spurs and Thunder will battle for the Western Conference spot in the NBA Finals beginning on Sunday, and that should prove to be the better series. Why?

Miami, Philadelphia, and Boston have all played inconsistently – and Philadelphia would have never even made it out of the first round if Derrick Rose didn’t get injured. Also, if the duo in South Beach plays anything like they played in the Conference semifinals it really shouldn’t be much of a competition.

On the other side, consistency and dominance has been the name of the game for the top teams in the Western Conference. The Spurs are on an 18-game winning streak, including two sweeps in the playoffs thus far (against Utah and the Clippers). They are playing as good as they have ever played, and really do not look like they have a weakness. Shooters, post players, defense, depth, experience – you name it, the Spurs got it.

The Thunder are equally as impressive, having swept a Dallas team that beat them in the playoffs just last year and handling a perennially playoff-savvy Lakers team. They, too, have no glaring weaknesses. Durant and Westbrook have combined to average over 50 points in the playoffs, James Harden is the Sixth Man of the Year for a good reason, and Perkins and Ibaka are two of the league’s best defensive big men. And with Derek Fisher providing veteran leadership off the bench, the Thunder have some depth and experience to go with some of the best talent in the NBA.

So, with those things in mind, who’s going to win? It will go six or seven games almost certainly, and although both teams matchup up very well, here’s why I am going to stick with my pick to make it to the NBA Finals:

Stars: Tim Duncan and Tony Parker vs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

The cornerstones of the Spurs success certainly have more experience, but at this point in their careers Durant and Westbrook are better players. You can look at the scoring numbers Durant and Westbrook have put up, but also keep in mind they have some playoff experience getting as far as they have the past two years. Durant creates matchup problems for the Spurs (like he does for most teams), and Tony Parker doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with Westbrook. Edge: Thunder

Defense

The Spurs defense has been excellent so far, but it is partially because they haven’t faced the star caliber of Durant and Westbrook in the playoffs. OKC has (see Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki). Defense begins in the paint and as solid as Duncan is, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are elite post presences, as well. Ibaka is averaging nearly four blocks a game and Perkins shut down Andrew Bynum in the Conference Semifinals. Two post presences are better than one. Edge: Thunder

Experience

The Spurs are more playoff experienced than any team in the league. Their core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili has played for Greg Popovich for ten years. Duncan and Popovich go back to 1996. And although the gap between them and the Thunder has closed since last year, it isn’t a question who wins this battle. Edge: Spurs

Role Players

Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, and Boris Diaw provide the shooting, scoring, and defensive support the San Antonio stars need. On the other side, OKC has James Harden, Derek Fisher, and you can throw Nick Collison into that mix. The Spurs know what they’re getting from Ginobili on a nightly basis and Danny Green has stepped up, too. However, the veteran leadership Fisher provides for the Thunder on and off the court compliments their young stars nicely and James Harden would be a primary or secondary scorer on most other teams.
Edge: Thunder
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It remains to be seen how much experience plays a role in this series. This is how far the Thunder made it last season before losing to the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs this year are probably better than the Mavs were last year, so it will be a greater challenge for Durant & Co. This will certainly be a thrilling series. The question is can OKC rise to the challenge or will the Spurs team effort continue rolling through the playoffs?

After Durant came through in the clutch against Los Angeles and Westbrook continues to make his (albeit annoying) pull-up, fast break jumpers, the underdogs can pull it off. In games that will come down to the wire, OKC’s star power will make a name for themselves in the playoffs. Series edge: Thunder

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