Wasn’t it just yesterday, when we couldn’t help but drop our jaw at the opening weekend of the first round? In the blink of an eye, what’s standing in front of you goes from “We the North!” chants in Canada, to Chris Paul letting his emotions loose after a semifinals loss.
The exhilaration of the first round was over the top, a thrilling experience that the NBA wouldn’t let Donald Sterling ruin. Once the shot heard around Oregon fell and the Portland Trail Blazers survived their first series in 14 years, we knew a second round encore couldn’t be avoided.
On Thursday, the second round came to a close, and the lasting feeling is that it all came too quickly. With team fan bases growing larger by the year, each May raises the bar of excitement the NBA brings to the table. Not in any other sport — although crazed NHL fans would argue — will you find a playoff format more exciting, based on seven-game series.
Each series in the respective conference semifinals left you on the edge of your seat. Okay, maybe some of those nights you found yourself falling over in disgust once Portland and Brooklyn proved to be toddlers compared to the schoolyard bullies of Miami and San Antonio. Maybe sometimes the referees exposed your inner-Bobby Knight and cost Doc Rivers a chance to return to The Finals.
One thing can’t be negated: It’s been a sleep-deprived journey to the NBA’s Conference Finals, yet nobody wants the drama to end.
For Portland, Washington, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, the end had to come. Each will be back, as three of those own young, well-coached, and driven talent. Sorry Brooklyn, you can’t have your future Hall-of-Famer playing like he’s a skeleton …. “young” isn’t an adjective to describe Billy King’s team in the Brooklyn borough.
A beautiful quality of the seven-game series format was discovered in these playoffs, as it is every single year. The better team always advances, and you’ll get little to no arguments that the Spurs, Thunder, Heat, and Pacers were all better than their competition. It may have taken different standpoints to realize it, but the truth was unveiled on Wednesday and Thursday. In Los Angeles’ defense, the Clippers are (to many) a more complete, collective unit than the Thunder. The problem turned out to be the basketball gods forbidding anyone from guarding the league’s MVP, Kevin Durant.
Rules are allowed to bend, and sometimes even break, when the task of defeating the world’s best scorer is staring you in the face.
Let’s rejoice and understand this isn’t the final four all fans hoped and prayed for, but it’s what the league needed, especially with NFL Draft reaction stealing a bit of the NBA’s spotlight. We’re headed toward familiar territory in both of these series. But, if there’s one year that has been struck with uncertainty and shell-shocking surprises, we’re living in it. You can thank Indianapolis for 75 percent of that.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio didn’t need anymore adversity to fight through in this path toward their fifth title. Was Game 6 in last year’s Finals not enough? Was that not enough maltreatment and big enough of a road block?
The Spurs are about to either pull dating techniques and tell us age is just a number, or prove that the regular season accounts for something. Oklahoma City imposed their will on the Spurs by sweeping them in the regular season meetings (4-0) between the two. Entering the Conference Finals, San Antonio is 8-4 in the postseason, while the Thunder have lost just one more game (8-5).
Marking the 9th time in the last 16 years they’ve been on this stage, San Antonio has to manage the doubters, believing the Thunder’s 4-0 season series sweep actually matters. It’s not even much of a psychological advantage anymore for the Thunder, since San Antonio has surged past the most prolific offense in Portland with ease.
Matching up with the Thunder, this serves as a more favorable series for the Spurs than it did for the Clippers. Behind Tony Allen, the most formidable perimeter defender in the West is Kawhi Leonard, and he’ll have the daunting task of checking Durant in his isolation situations. Nobody has been more exciting, criticized, and explosive in the playoffs than Russell Westbrook, and Scott Brooks has to like the odds of his point guard attacking the rim with Tony Parker trying to nurse his grade one hamstring strain.
San Antonio’s rim protection isn’t as frightening as DeAndre Jordan roaming the paint, but Tiago Splitter has worked to become a respectable player on both ends, and one that uses his effort to make up for any lack of talent.
Gregg Popovich will be fine, as he’s on the Mount Rushmore of coaching as far as I’m concerned. Adjustments will be made, and the disciplined defense that claimed the number one overall seed won’t let two men beat them. We all know San Antonio’s game; get role players clicking, have Parker in full attack mode the first half, and spread the floor for corner/wing shooters. If everything is executed at even an 80 percent level, the Spurs make anyone cry.
Point guard play took over the league three seasons ago, and winning in the West has been predicated on having a floor general. Whether it be the intelligence of Jason Kidd (2011), athleticism of Westbrook (2012), or the savvy French style from Parker (2013), the representative in The Finals has been led (or co-led) by a guy that makes defenses pull their hair out. Against each other in the regular season series, Westbrook and Parker delivered the same production, but Westbrook’s cold, trigger happy hand kept his efficiency down. This did occur during Durant’s rampage, so it’s not a shocker that Oklahoma City got all four wins.
With Durant’s recent barrage against Los Angeles, expect Popovich to throw numerous defenders at him in halfcourt situations. It’s all on Westbrook to apply the pressure, make things easier for Durant, and turn into the facilitator once again. Oklahoma City is unbeatable in this league — and the world — when Westbrook is more determined to use his court vision, draw defenses, and kick to shooters, rather than when he’s coming down the court 100 mph and pulling up from 20-25 feet.
From their first meeting together in November, Oklahoma City has been able to effectively make the right play, and use patience on the offensive end. You have to when matched against a team that normally rotates perfectly on defenders, and encourages tough jumpshots rather than letting a scorer get into the paint:
In the first of four Thunder victories in the season series, we saw Westbrook struggle with his shot, as a lot of them were forced (shocker!). However, he’s normally able to get quality looks off vs. San Antonio, due to the Spurs’ attention to detail when it comes to making guys feel pressure in the painted area.
Above, Parker believes it’s time for Durant to put the ball on the floor and attempt to score (with 9 seconds on the shot clock), and he heavily lays off Westbrook. This is where Durant has to revert to his season-level play, and act accordingly to how San Antonio is going to guard him. A double team is about to be thrown Durant’s way, and Parker is setting up to box out for the miss. One thing that’s become normal with the Thunders’ duo is that they love feeding off each other:
Another interesting feature about the Spurs is that they’re willing to pack the paint, and force you to beat them from the outside. Usually, it puts a ton of pressure on shooters, knowing they have to knock down perimeter shots because their team is getting nothing easy. Ask LeBron James about that, as he finally realized in last year’s Finals that you can’t hesitate to pull the trigger if Popovich gives it to you.
If you’re Scott Brooks, the time is here. These Spurs aren’t the same team you defeated four straight times after falling down 0-2 in 2012. The two-man offense can rip the opposition for 70 combined points, but there will come a time in this series that Durant and Westbrook will have to trust teammates, and become more organized down the stretch of games. Too often, we see long-range bombs being launched in order to prevent a team (Clippers in Game 6) from making a comeback, and Serge Ibaka is the man left hung out to dry.
Nobody has the guts to deny that Durant is the best scorer since Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and he’s only going to move up the ladder of greatness if he knocks off this season’s Spurs. However, he’ll have to do it the right way, and get his own role players emerging, prepared for the Finals:
Here, we see a particular play in the second meeting between the two, with Durant operating in a right wing pick-and-roll from mid-range with Nick Collison. Boris Diaw hedges the screen set by Collison, giving Durant double pressure and helping Marco Belinelli as the MVP makes a move into the paint. Collison is left rolling, with Durant taking a tough fadeaway over the two defenders. A shot outside of Durant’s arsenal? Not a chance. But the plays you hope to see Durant make throughout this series are the ones that relieve him of some of the scoring, i.e. the drop-off passes to Collison and Ibaka.
Closing out the Clippers in Game 6 on Thursday, the Thunder’s offensive game plan was head-scratching for a four minute period down the stretch. Take away the fact Oklahoma City stole the win due to the home struggles of the Clippers. Take away the fact that crucial calls by the refs made a difference late in the game. Am I the only one that despises this type of offense more and more by the day?
Durant collects the rebound on the other end, charges up the floor (in a tied ball game), and uses Steven Adams‘ screen as a decoy to fire up a 3-pointer two feet behind the line …. with 18 ticks left on the shot clock. The Thunder can live by Durant — it’s a tremendous life most of the time — or they can die by the lack of offensive creativity and game plan.
Reggie Jackson has inherited the same traits, as we realized on the very next play. Patience is a virtue, and there’s only one team in the West that has the utmost patience, and consistency, to get things finished. It’s the Spurs, since everyone probably figured the Lakers’ reign at the top would’ve lasted longer. Shocked to be wrong? Yes, but San Antonio’s three stars have aged perfectly, with no true wear and tear. Take note, Garnett …. Duncan’s the real “man.”
With Oklahoma City’s bench not being fully reliable to score without one of the two juggernauts on the floor, look for them having a hard time matching Manu Ginobili‘s brilliance in the second unit attack. In addition, Ibaka still struggles with pick-and-roll defense, getting burned numerous times in the series win over Los Angeles. You know, it’s astonishing. As many flaws as anyone can point out while watching Oklahoma City play ….. they still win. They still are one of the last four teams battling for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
That stops in the following two weeks. Hero ball isn’t completely dead in Oklahoma City, despite Westbrook facilitating and being a triple double machine. There’s still way too many instances you find yourself squinting your eyes in confusing fashion, when the Thunder’s only two scorers allow the team to get in a deep hole at home. The Spurs, with the time capsule full of experience, steal games on the road better than anyone. They just have to close the deal and keep their mind on the goal for all 48 minutes.
There’s one squad that leads all remaining teams in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, points per game, assists per game, steals per game, and finals appearances. That same team will be taking the Western Conference title, and further writing their blueprint to redemption.
Spurs win series, 4-3.