Usually, when young teams rise in hope for contending for the NBA title, they have to go through the old guard. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant didn’t just go through the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. They ripped them to pieces, en route to meet the San Antonio Spurs.
Just so you get your facts straight regarding the whole passing the torch thing – The Lakers, Mavs and the Spurs are the last three teams to win the NBA title for the Western conference. They’re the last three teams to visit the NBA finals from the conference since the Utah Jazz in 1998. If there was ever a playoff series about proving you’re up for the challenge and ready to win an NBA title by beating all the defending champions, this is it for the Thunder.
Are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the best duo in the NBA? We’ve argued that along with James Harden they form the best trio in the league, even better than the one in South Beach. But Durant and Westbrook probably don’t bring to the table what James and Wade do in terms of overall play. Nobody in the league brings what LeBron brings to the table. But they’ve got a better supporting cast, so they can focus on simply scoring.
And that’s the best thing about the Thunder. It might sound simplistic, but Westbrook and Durant are simply impossible to contain. The entire offense revolved around Perkins and Ibaka setting high post screen for the both of them. Westbrook is right up there with Rose and Rondo in his efficiency when he blows by the first defender. Durant has limitless range, and just like Nowitzki, very very difficult to deny from shooting the basket. You can make it hard for him. That’s about it.
Where are the Thunder fragile? Their defense, which does usually show up in fourth quarters, especially in the post season so far. But it’s a gambling defense. Their weakest defenders, Durant and Westbrook, aren’t exactly liabilities, but I don’t see any of them getting an All-Defensive nod sometime in their career. But they gamble and jump passing lanes late in games. That won them two games against the Lakers. When it’s unexpected, it works; But the Spurs are a smarter, and better ball moving team than the Lakers are.
On offense, it’s when they fall into their own routine of settling for jump shots. Durant and Westbrook are great in the fourth quarters of games, but if their forced to being plays away from the basket and eat enough time off the clock, they’re more likely to go up for a difficult jumper than actually make a decent basketball play. Adjusting to their screen and pick n’ rolls is the massive To Do on Pop’s check list. He has Tim Duncan who really doesn’t need to be taught anything, and he has Leonard who is a fantastic defender, to try and disrupt the Thunder’s rhythm.
Some say the Thunder are the new Spurs. Deep team, relying completely on the scoring of their big three – Durant, Harden and Westbrook, who don’t surprise anyone if they combine for at least 75 points together each night. It’s usually enough to live by and get a win. The Spurs used to be that way, but no longer. Not in the postseason at least. Tim Duncan seems rejuvenated, but Ginobili is settling for low double figures, while focusing on him helps free up players like Green and Leonard, who haven’t been shy about stepping up.
The key to stopping the Thunder is forcing Durant and Westbrook to pull up from far away and for as much as many three’s as possible. Durant shot 32.4% from beyond the arc during losses, averaging 7.2 attempts in those games. He shot 42.8% in wins. Westbrook shot 26.1% as opposed to 34.6% in the same scenario. The Spurs offer team basketball, depth and spreading the scoring. The Thunder offer a much more individual version for winning NBA games. It’s up to Durant and Westbrook and how they perform as to who will come out of the West, and probably win the NBA title.