A look-see at the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder, the West’s No. 3 seed, in the conference semifinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
The second-seeded San Antonio Spurs swept the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, earning themselves momentum going into the Western Conference semifinals, a nice stretch of rest and a day off for team captain Tim Duncan‘s 40th birthday.
This sets up a match between two teams that some are predicting may be the playoff series of this year’s NBA Playoffs, and it won’t be as easy for either team as Round 1 was (and that’s saying something, given the extremely physical nature of that round for both the Spurs and Thunder). San Antonio got the drop on Oklahoma City during the regular season, posting a 2-1 record.
That was then. This is now.
Can the maturity and depth of the Spurs overcome the youth and athleticism of the Thunder (not to mention, Russell Westbrook)?
Likely Starting Lineups
Tony Parker (SAS) vs. Russell Westbrook (OKC)
In the immortal words of Grizzlies guard Matt Barnes:
OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Maybe coming to a gunfight with a Taser is more accurate (guess who has the gun and who has the Taser?).
Real talk: Parker du jour cannot hang with Westbrook in his current triple-double-laden iteration. Not for an entire playoff series.
The old Parker? The one in his prime, torching fools as he juked his way to the basket and laid it in? Or glided toward the basket for a gorgeous teardrop or floater?
Nah. He’s gone, hobbled by injuries and a seemingly less-passionate approach to the game. Sure, flashes of his former self arise here and there, but overall that TP hasn’t strung together consistent games in a couple of seasons.
Westbrook … well, we’ve all heard about him. Snatching the triple-double crown from the almighty Michael Jordan. Dishing enough dimes to make the legendary John Stockton nervous. Undeterred from busting a move, wherever, whenever.
Still, Westbrook doesn’t get the respect that Kevin Durant, the other half of his dynamic duo, does. He knows this, and Durant knows this (hence his vociferous and constant defense of his mercurial teammate) which is probably why Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the comment about Westbrook’s lack of superstar status (I see you, Cuban, you sly dog you).
Though Westbrook responded to the jibe by dropping 36 points and 12 rebounds on the Mavs to help his team advance to the second round of the playoffs, that kind of comment has to rankle. And fester. And linger.
Which gives Parker the advantage in this matchup.
The playoffs are more of a mental grind than a physical one, though the physical grind is in a class by itself. The Frenchman knows how to stay cool amid pressure and criticism, lessons that Westbrook is still learning.
And for all of his jaw-dropping stats, Westbrook is still part of the problem with regard to the Thunder’s dubious distinction of blowing leads in the fourth quarter of games, what with turnovers, hero ball and all.
Danny Green (SAS) vs. Andre Roberson (OKC)
Roberson has been crucial to the Thunder’s success this season. After earning a starting spot, he has provided quality scoring that has frustrated opposing teams.
Meanwhile, Green has been living up to his moniker “Icy Hot.” His three-point shot has been off all season and while he has overcome his slumps, he seems to go right back into them after the break. He has contributed to his team’s success by concentrating on the “D” part of his three-and-D job description, bu it may not be enough against the hot hand of Roberson.
Kawhi Leonard (SAS) vs. Kevin Durant (OKC)
The Klaw vs. The Slim Reaper.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has a formidable opponent in Durant, who can guard as well as shoot. Durant is also better at playmaking, an area in which Leonard needs to improve.
LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS) vs. Serge Ibaka (OKC)
Aldridge has certainly come along since he arrived in the Alamo City, adapting to the Spurs’ team-first mentality and transitioning from his previous position as the primary scoring option for the Portland Trail Blazers. He may not get as many ball touches or put up as many points, but he is still money (more or less) from mid-range.
Ibaka is underrated as a power forward, especially this season as the Durant/free agency rumors and Westbrook triple-double stats controlled most of the team narrative. He’s healthy this season and is able to use his larger frame to muscle his way to the basket to either score or defend the basket, or lock down defenders.
Tim Duncan (SAS) vs. Steven Adams (OKC)
Old Man Riverwalk vs. The Kiwi Assassin.
It’s almost not fair.
What Duncan lacks in athleticism at this stage of his career, he more than makes up in craftiness and timing. Still, it’s been increasingly obvious over the past season that the younger, more athletic bigs in the game are taking more energy from the Spurs veteran, and he has looked slower and less efficient than normal.
Adams has been really stepping up for the Thunder, not only punishing at the rim but also being able to make the clutch shot (too bad this one didn’t count):
This is going to be a true matchup of youth versus experience. Duncan can still win a one-on-one battle when it counts, and Adams will remember that this old dog still has teeth. Adams will use his physicality to challenge Duncan and his quickness to maneuver around the more sedentary Duncan.
The Juice Unit (SAS) vs. Enes Kanter (OKC)
The Spurs bench, self-named “The Juice Unit, works as a microcosm of the Spurs’ collective. They come out and light a fire under the team when the starters stagnate. Led by one-third of the Big Three, Manu Ginobili, the Spurs bench has a tendency to outscore that of the competition.
Enes Kanter has been doing a lot for the Thunder this year, on all areas of the floor. He was in rightful contention for the Sixth Man of the Year Award and he should only get better next season. He is going to be a factor for which the Spurs need to plan.
But one man against a collective? David pulled it off, but it’s usually best to put your money on Goliath.
Gregg Popovich (SAS) vs. Billy Donovan (OKC)
Do we really need to discuss this?
20-plus years NBA head coaching experience vs. one.
Five NBA championships vs. zero.
Three NBA Coach of the Year awards vs. zero.
Grey Hair Don’t Care vs. Brylcreem Proper.
Jedi Council vs. Padawan.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant
Durant needs to prove that not only is he still a relevant part of “elite player” conversations, but also that he can lead a team to a championship. Leonard is out to squash, once and for all, that he is not a “system” player, because apparently two consecutive DPOY awards and an All-Star berth isn’t enough to do so.
This matchup is a bit more interesting, given the Durant-to-Spurs whispers that have bandied about lately (and which, if true, I don’t recommend). Actually, anything involving Durant is news given his uncertain free agency status and no shortage of suitors.
San Antonio Will Win If …
… they continue to play Spurs basketball and not get caught up in the faster tempo and shooting barrage of the Thunder. They also need to watch the turnovers and not rely so much on three-pointers (e.g., make the smart play, which may not be the higher-scoring play). Looking at you, Green.
The Spurs also need to make it a point to get more offensive rebounds and limit both OKC’s second-chance points and points in the paint (Westbrook’s specialty).
Oklahoma City Will Win If …
… they can keep their turnovers to an absolute minimum and maintain any lead they may have going into the fourth quarter. Westbrook will also need to play smarter and not let his emotions dictate his playing, which has led to turnovers and ill-advised shots. Durant needs to make his shots, period.
Contributions from other bench players will be key, such as Dion Waiters and Cameron Payne. Waiters has broken out at interesting times this season for the Thunder. When he gets hot, he gets hot. When he doesn’t … well, we see why the Cleveland Cavaliers (read: LeBron James) were glad to let the doorknob hit him in the rear on the way out the door.
Rookie Payne has had some good moments during the regular season (even starting a few games), but it would do wonders for his confidence if he happens to make some positive things happen during the playoffs,
This is going to be a great series. Lots of reputations on the line, plus mind games aplenty.
Spurs in 6.