Michael Walton II is following the NBA throughout this playoff season.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
With the Western Conference being easily the more dominant conference this year in the NBA, there’s a good chance that this year’s Western Conference Finals could provide more entertainment than the NBA Finals will.
That is if the San Antonio Spurs don’t blow the whole thing up.
In the past, that may have meant the Big Fundamental and company suicide-bombing the series with slow-but-effective half-court offense and Bruce Bowen-approved phone booth defense, but as the past couple years have proven, this current edition of the Spurs is something else, especially in terms of offensive fireworks.
San Antonio has the leading offense of this year’s NBA playoffs and they provided arguably their best performance yet in their 122-105 victory Monday night to gain an 1-0 advantage over Oklahoma City, still without Serge Ibaka and without any kind of reinforcements behind stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
This match-up will be somewhat cheapened due to the season-ending injury to Ibaka, but with two of the top ten players in the L, you can’t completely rule out OKC. though its hard to really ride for them after Monday unless you have a sense of recent history.
As I’m posting this, I assume many people count the Thunder out, I can also assume that most forget that when the Thunder made the Finals in 2012 they went down 2-0 to the Spurs before winning four straight to clinch the franchise’s first conference title since moving from Seattle.
But that was then and this is now. With the Spurs making a push to get coach Greg Popovich and the foundations of their dynasty another ring and with KD trying to add to his already impressive legacy as well as his brilliant first MVP season, this series still could go either way.
Why the Spurs Will Win
Every year the San Antonio Spurs are written off as too old, and every year they regroup and storm towards the playoffs and through it behind Popovich’s amazing minute management, an endless reserve of surprising reserve performances and of course, a trio of future hall of famers (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli).
This year the squad is mostly healthy outside of a lingering hamstring issue with Tony Parker. When the Spurs are healthy they are almost impossible to stop. Popovich is one of the best coaches in NBA history because of his ability to adapt — he runs a motion offense with plays that range from simple to downright hard to follow. Popovich scouts, recruits and molds players to fit his system and now the team is in the hands of his greatest creation — Parker, who leads the team in postseason scoring at 18.8 points a game.
The beauty of the Spurs offense is how they base what they do off of what is happening on the court in real time. Since OKC lacks their best rim protector (Ibaka) we saw the Spurs work the ball inside relentlessly in Game 1, outscoring the Thunder 66-32 in the paint. Duncan was the focal point early and he scored 12 of his 27 points in the first quarter. Without Ibaka it is clear that Popovich’s team will attack inside until Thunder Coach Scott Brooks makes an adjustment. And even if such an adjustment comes the Spurs can check it and checkmate it with Ginobili, still a major factor with the ball in his hands. Ginobli scored 18 Monday on 58% shooting.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Spurs shifted towards KD whenever he had the ball. A wall formed in front of Durant when he drove to the rim and ultimately got him more frustrated than any other team has this postseason. Durant still scored 28 points, as it impossible to completely stop him, but Popovich is probably smiling (as long as he’s in private) as the Spurs may have found a “Durant-stopper” in Danny Green.
Green is an excellent shooter, and because of that his amazing defense is usually overlooked. Green held Durant to 0-3 from the field when guarding him — not a great sample source but Durant fights for shots every possession (Westbrook once again out-shot him 21 to 19) so three wasted possessions for KD scoring-wise makes an impact.
If the Spurs continue their hot shooting (57.5% in Game 1) the MVP of the league could be going home a little sooner than expected.
Why the Thunder Will Win
You don’t have to feel sorry for the Thunder, they only have the reigning NBA MVP paired with one of the most explosive players in the League. Still its hard to replace the league leader in blocks.
The Thunder’s offense can hum along fine without Ibaka’s jump-shooting ability, but on defense is where his presence will hurt the most.
Fortunately for the Thunder, their predicament allows them to experiment more with the lineup. I think Kevin Durant is close to unstoppable at the 4 spot (power forward). Durant played at the 4 a decent amount against the Clippers when Scott Brooks elected to go small and in that series KD slapped up an unthinkable 33 point/9 rebound/5 assist average along with 2 combined steals/blocks a game. Now that it is necessary, we will see more of Reggie Jackson, Russell Westbrook, and Durant on the floor together. That combo is OKC’s most athletic and will give them the best chance to win this series. At times, Scott Brooks will also need to tinker with other crazy variations, including putting Durant at center sometimes to run a 5-out offense.
The Thunder now have new ways to force the Spurs out of their comfort zone. Westbrook is for sure one of the top five players in this series, but he has to be more of a playmaker for the Thunder to win this series. Like Durant, he had trouble with Danny Green guarding him, and overall shot 9-of-21 from the field to go along with seven assists in Game 1.
Westbrook needs to look at what Parker is doing in this series. The Thunder can not win this series with Westbrook taking more shots than KD. However as the series goes on it is tough to envision Westbrook only getting to the free throw line eight times a game.
I fully expect Westbrook to have settled down by Game 3 and be in a better rhythm with his teammates. Through all of this OKC should be encouraged by the fact that they swept the Spurs 4-0 during the regular season; teams that sweep regular season matchups usually win playoff series rematches. They may have lost Game 1, but with some slight adjustments the Thunder will be right back in this series.
OKC is desperately looking for ways to replace what Ibaka brought to the floor, and while that is impossible entirely, they do have some interesting candidates to bring something new to this series. Veteran big men like Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison could only surprise at this point of their careers, but I think the x-factor in this series will be rookie Steven Adams.
The 20 year-old 7-footer averaged 8 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes during the regular season. In providing elements of interior toughness that are seen less in the NBA today, Adams does something that can’t be picked up on the stat sheet — he gets under the skin of players. Adams has forced quite a few players into technicals this year from reacting to his physical, agitating playing style. Adams won’t be able to get the typically-humble Spurs to talk trash or be overly demonstrative, but if he can simply prove he isn’t afraid to mix it up down low with opposing bigs then he will give San Antonio something to think about.
And regardless of how coach Brooks feels about rookies in the playoffs, it is painfully obvious that Adams has more talent than Perkins and Collison combined. This is an opportunity for the Thunder to get production from an unexpected source, while also giving valuable playoff experience to a young player who will most likely factor into their future.
This series was meant to be a hard one to predict because they are so many great things about both rosters and both franchises. Also, I wanted to make sure not to overreact to Ibaka’s absence. The Thunder still have the MVP, and he helped them put up 105 points in a loss. It is obvious that they are still a dangerous team, and the Spurs know this.
Even though Popovich’s game management has kept his guys fresh it is hard to see age not catching up with them. At some point in this series I see the uber-athletic Thunder winning two games in a row. Even so, behind their brilliant motion offense and playoff savvy, I have the San Antonio Spurs winning in six.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike