The 2008 Boston Celtics were an anomaly, and their three main cogs each endured years of heartache and growing pains before they became champions.
That’s why the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder has been interesting to witness.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are in just the fifth and fourth years of their respective careers, yet for the second consecutive season they find themselves poised to battle for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs are in very familiar territory. Tim Duncan will be playing in his seventh Western Conference Finals and hopes to have the right to battle for his fifth championship. His running mates, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, will be playing in their sixth conference finals and trying to win their fourth championship.
No doubt, the NBA’s 2012 Western Conference Finals will be a story of the new versus the old. But even better, it’ll be a matchup of the student versus the teacher. A little known fact is that Sam Presti—the mastermind behind the Thunder’s rise to prominence—grew up under the wing of the Spurs’ General Manager, R.C. Buford. Presti is his protégée. So that’s an added element to what already promises to be an exciting series.
The Spurs and the Thunder have been West’s two best teams all season long, and finally, we’ll get to see them battle. Here are the seven key factors (it was supposed to be five, but I went long) that will determine the winner of the series.
- The Half-Court Factor
Statistically, the Spurs and the Thunder are very similar in a number of areas. Most important, though, is probably scoring. During the regular season, the Spurs scored the second most points per game (103.7) in the NBA while the Thunder were third (103.1). The major difference between the two, however, is that the Spurs feature a deep team that has the personnel to play an uptempo game, but also executes better than most other NBA teams in the half-court. After Game 3 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Tim Duncan said he feels better than he has in the past 10 years. If the Big Fundamental can continue his high level of play, Greg Popovich will probably feature Duncan in the post early and often in order to slow the Thunder down. Without a reliable post threat, the Thunder will have trouble winning any game unless they can score 100 points. Expect Popovich to know that, and to attempt to control the pace of the game. The Thunder will look to speed it up and get 3-point looks in transition. This will be a major factor.
- The Bench Lefties Factor
Of all of the subplots in this series, the James Harden vs. Ginobili battle is probably the most interesting. Both are lefties and both are Sixth Man of the Year Award winners. Either would start for most NBA teams and either are capable of singlehandedly dominating a game and leading their team to victory. Harden is probably the Thunder’s best playmaker off the dribble and Ginobili is the Spurs’ best passer. Neither team would be the same without either of these guys, and you can certainly count on them to check into games at the same time—with about six minutes remaining in the first quarter. The lefties from the bench who have the better series will likely lead their team to the finals.
- The turnover factor
Despite being statistically similar in a number of categories, during the regular season the Thunder led the league in turnovers with 16.1 per game. The Spurs, on the other hand, turned the ball over the third fewest times (13.2). The main culprit is Russell Westbrook, who averaged 3.6 turnovers per game during the regular season. Fortunately for the Thunder, in these playoffs, he’s only coughing it up an amazingly low 1.6 times per game. Because the Spurs are an effective transition team, the Thunder will not be able to overcome needless turnovers. It should be noted that during their series with the Lakers, the Thunder turned the ball over just 10.8 times per game. That would have been second best in the league during the regular season, trailing only the 76ers (10.7). If the Thunder manage to take such great care of the basketball against the Spurs, they’ll take easy transition scoring opportunities away from the Spurs. Another huge key.
- The Battle of the Europeans
When Parker first came into the league, opposing defenses could get away with ignoring him on the perimeter because he wasn’t a prolific jump shooter. The same can’t be said today. But even still, Parker is most effective when he gathers a head of steam and gets into the paint. He makes clever decisions with the ball and is one of the backcourt finishers in the league. His effectiveness, however, can be severely limited by the shot blocking presence of Serge Ibaka. Ibaka averaged 4.0 blocks per game against the Lakers and is averaging 3.7 blocks per game through the playoffs. If he continues, and if he can discourage Parker’s forays into the paint, it could make a world of difference. Also, Popovich has been using Boris Diaw, a Frenchman, as his starting center ahead of DeJuan Blair. Does that continue against Kendrick Perkins, who is not an offensive threat and needs to be drawn away from the basket? Probably so.
- The Deeper Than You Factor
The Thunder definitely have the two best players in the series in Westbrook and Durant, but they would be hard pressed to overcome a subpar scoring night from either of them. The Spurs will be able to more easily overcome a subpar scoring night from one of their major cogs mainly because of their deeper supporting cast. Specifically, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson are each capable of putting together some great stretches, and Gary Neal and Matt Bonner are each dangerous 3-point shooters. Offensively, the Spurs execute better than every other team in the league because each and every person that plays stays within the system and does exactly what is required of them. The bench battle will probably be won by the Spurs, but if the Thunder can consistently execute a well thought-out game plan, and if Durant and Westbrook aren’t often forced into attempting to dribble and finish on their own, I’d say their chances of winning are better.
- The Ds In The C Factor
In the playoffs, the Thunder have been involved in their fair share of close games; they’re 4-1 in games decided by three points or less. Meanwhile, the Spurs have played one such game, and although they won, their average margin of victory in these playoffs is 13.8. We can’t have the same confidence in the Spurs’ ability to pull out close playoff games as we can for the Thunder, can we? Even in games in which he’s shot poorly, Durant has made big shots when they’ve counted the most, and he’s rightfully received a lot of attention for his three-game winning shots in these playoffs. With the game on the line, there’s no player I’d rather have with the ball in his hands than Kevin Durant. Being that these teams are so evenly matched—at least, statistically—Durant will probably have a few more opportunities. In the past, when the Spurs have needed big buckets, they’ve gone to Duncan. In years past, he’s made big shots. Whether or not he still can, whether the Spurs will still go to him for that one biggie, and whether or not he can match Durant’s clutch shot making will swing the pendulum one way or another.
- The Perimeter Defenders Factor
Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will be charged with the task of slowing Durant and Harden down out on the perimeter. Although both Durant and Harden have had success against opposing defenders thus far, they have not seen a combination with this combination of youth, athleticism, length, and strength. Leonard is 6’7″ and Green stands at 6’6″. The extent to which Leonard and Green can contain Durant and Harden—or lack thereof—will play a major factor in how this series turns out. And if either of them can consistently provide some offensive production, it’ll be difficult for the Thunder to win.
SHERIDAN: Spurs in 5.
HUBBARD: Spurs in 4.
HEISLER: Spurs in 6.
BERNUCCA: Spurs in 6.
HAMILTON: Spurs in 7.
PERKINS: Spurs in 6.
ZAGORIA: Spurs in 6.
PARK: Spurs in 5.