NBA Conference Finals Preview: San Antonio-Oklahoma City

The NBA’s Western Conference Finals start on Sunday night when Oklahoma City goes to San Antonio. It’s a battle between not just the top two seeds in the West, but the teams with the best remaining records in the NBA and teams that have rolled through the first two rounds of the postseason at a combined record of 16-1. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…

If you’ve become bored with the slogging play of the Eastern Conference, then Spurs-Thunder should be a welcome respite. Each was in the league’s upper third during the regular season in pace (possessions per game) and they were the best two in offensive efficiency. It’s the best of both worlds—teams that play at a fast pace and still know how to execute in the process. The defenses—once adjusted for pace—were both good, albeit not great, and they are fairly even when it comes to crashing the boards.

While the general statistical outlook of each team is fundamentally the same, San Antonio and Oklahoma City have gotten there in different ways. For the Spurs, it’s all about quantity, and while Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are the clear leaders of the team, a slew of talent is run in and out by head coach Gregg Popovich around them. Parker and Duncan are the only players averaging 30-plus minutes per game in the postseason, with Manu Ginobli and Daniel Green drawing 25 minutes or so in the backcourt. Both guards are playing at a high efficiency level, scoring in double digits in the series wins against Utah and the LA Clippers and shooting well from both the floor and behind the three-point line. Gary Neal effectively spells Parker at the point and Stephen Jackson has been a big role player off the bench.

Jackson’s contributions come from hitting threes, and it’s that area that San Antonio has relied in—perhaps to access in its 8-0 start to the playoffs. The Spurs won three-point shooting against the Jazz by an astonishing 33-9 count in the four first-round games. Even more astonishing was that two-thirds of the production game from the bench, with a disproportionate amount from Jackson. The trend wasn’t quite as extreme against the Clippers, but San Antonio still hit 38 treys compared to 22 for their rivals. That’s an edge that’s extremely difficult to overcome, but it’s also tough to sustain over a long period of time.

Thus we come to the frontcourt and Duncan. The veteran is averaging 18 points/9 rebounds per game in the playoffs, but he needed more help on the boards during the Utah series, where the Spurs were beaten on the glass. They turned that around in the second round and with everybody—guards and all—helping in the rebound area, San Antonio enjoyed an advantage. It’s worth noting here that Popovich has taken away forward DeJuan Blair’s minutes and given them to Boris Diaw. Blair is a pure post player, while Diaw is a little more inclined to shoot a trey. This suggests the orientation to the three-ball is at least a little bit by design and if it becomes a problem the coach could also go back to Blair.

Oklahoma City’s reputation is that of being Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, right in that order. And that rep is mostly earned. Durant has been the league’s best player in the postseason, averaging 27 ppg and hitting every big shot, from the game-winner in the first-round opener against Dallas to the nothing-but-nylon trey he buried in the face of Ron Artest to take command of the Laker series. Westbrook’s not far behind at 24 ppg, while Harden is averaging 17, including a big 29-point game on the road to clinch the Dallas series.

The Thunder’s key players have given them an advantage at crunch time. There’s no obvious statistical edge they’ve enjoyed against either the Mavs or the Lakers, but it’s the young Thunder who’ve consistently made the biggest plays at the biggest moments, and done it against the teams who have won the last three NBA titles and the last four Western Conference titles. If they add to the Spurs to the list, you could make those numbers four of the last five NBA crowns and all five West winners. If there’s a changing of the guard in the works this season, a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have plotted it any better.

But if OkC is to make that push into the NBA Finals, they need to be able to hit the boards the same way Utah did, which puts the burden on Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. And thus far in the playoffs, I’m disappointed with the board work these two interior starters have put forth. They combined to average a pedestrian 13 per game against Dallas. And while the team overall hung in well against the Lakers, ending up (-2) for the series against a team with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, that was as much Durant hitting the glass as it was Ibaka and Perkins. Championship teams have to have players like these filling their roles to perfection and this series will be the first one anywhere in the playoffs where each team will have to play to a championship level.

You can run this series a lot of different ways. San Antonio’s got the championship mojo with Parker and Duncan and a load of depth. But OkC’s shown they can handle teams with the mojo and you can argue that big games in the NBA are more about stars than about depth—and the Thunder have got the brightest stars of any team outside Miami. Of course if you play that card on Oklahoma City’s behalf, San Antonio can counter that Parker and Duncan might be older, but they can still play like elite players in big games. If we look at a concern for the Spurs being the reliance on three-point shooting, it’s counterbalanced by concern over Ibaka and Perkins’ play thus far—forcing misses doesn’t mean as much if you’re not the team rebounding those misses, and if the Spurs beat Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to the glass, they can beat Ibaka and Perkins.

Like I said, you can spin it a lot of ways and have it spin right back at you. But one thing I am convinced of is that Oklahoma City is not getting enough respect. You can bet them to win the series at (+160), while taking San Antonio requires you to give a (-190) price. For those not familiar with the terms, if you bet $100 on OkC you win $160. If you want to win a hundred bucks on the Spurs, you have to bet $190 to get it. I think San Antonio’s going to win this series and ultimately the NBA title, but I’m not so sure of it to expose myself at that level. I’m looking for the teams to split the first four games, with each winning one on the road, then San Antonio to win a nailbiter in Game 5 and then eke out one more tough win on the road in Game 6, as Duncan continues to smell his fifth ring.

The Boston-Miami series for the Eastern Conference Finals begins Monday night. You can preview that series here.