Sunday, May 27, 2012

WCF Preview: Thunder vs. Spurs

When Kevin Durant was asked if he could envision his young Thunder team following a similar life arc as the San Antonio Spurs- perennial rulers of the NBA for the past 15 years- he said that yes, that's the team's desired path.

They've got everything in place.  Durant is their quiet, no glitz-all guile superstar, their Tim Duncan. Both teams have rabid fans in relatively small markets.  Most importantly, they share a cultural structure that molds players into whatever is needed- to hell with one's ego.

The Spurs hid Sam Presti for a while, but now that he's out, he might have created a team that can take out the Spurs this year and reproduce what they've done over the last decade plus.

Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2)

The Spurs are playing the perfect brand of basketball this postseason.  Swing passes lead to the open man getting a high-percentage look on nearly every play; it makes sense then that the Spurs are shooting 54.8% eFG, including nearly 43 percent from 3-point range.

But that was against mediocre defensive teams with poor closeout defenders.  The Thunder understand that a defense's answers for swing passes are closeouts that see five play as one, each defender covering for his teammate. OKC's youth breeds mistakes, but their incredible length helps.

The defensive trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha force the opposition to think quickly.  The Lakers had a decent size advantage against the Thunder, but OKC combatted L.A.'s physicality by being physical themselves and collapsing on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol with lengthy double teams.  The Thunder rotate quickly without getting burned.  It is this interaction with San Antonio's controlled chaos on offense that looks like a thrilling matchup.

Tony Parker will work his way into the paint against Westbrook, and the usual chain reaction will ensue.  But unlike the Jazz and Clippers, the Thunder possess the perimeter quickness to slow down the 3-point shooting and secondary slashes of the Spurs.  Sefolosha vs. Manu Ginobili is a major matchup to watch.

Kendrick Perkins can contain Duncan in the post, but what about on the perimeter where Duncan spends a lot of time?  OKC may find it appealing to place Serge Ibaka on TD and simply treat him like Bynum when he posts.  Ibaka can switch and recover better than Perkins can, a useful trait against a springy Duncan.

Either way, The Big Fundamental is a matchup problem.  With him and Parker leading the way, the Spurs should have a strong offensive series, though it's doubtful they annihilate their opposition with their shooting as they have in previous rounds.

What will determine this series is how San Antonio defends OKC.  Will they cause enough turnovers and misses to generate their own fast-break opportunities? How do they match up against Westbrook, Durant, and James Harden?

If Westbrook continues to take care of the ball like he has throughout the playoffs, it's over.  The Spurs are below average at causing turnovers, and Tony Parker isn't good enough defensively to pressure RW.  If it's the case that Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard is put on Westbrook, Parker becomes what Steve Blake and Jason Terry were: mince meat for Harden. Green needs to be put on Durant anyway; KD is surging after torching Metta World Peace for 26 points per game on over 51 percent shooting.

Westbrook's poised play, Durant's consistent production, and Harden's matchup distortion will shock the Spurs in game one. Sweet chin music- hit them right in the mouth. The Thunder will roll into the NBA Finals from there, possibly with the torch in hand.

Pick: Thunder in 6 (Thunder take Game 1 as well)

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