The Western Conference Finals have a familiar ring to them as the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder clash at that stage for the second time in three years. Injuries on both teams seem to be taking most of the spotlight heading into game 1, but that will be soon forgotten as the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook faces off against the against core three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, with Gregg Popovich pulling the strings.
The Thunder beat the Spurs four times in the regular season. This is the fourth time in NBA history that a team that has won four or more games against a regular season opponent faced the same rival in the conference finals. In all three previous instances, the team sweeping the regular season meetings went on to advance and twice win the NBA title, so the Thunder have that going for them.
But when taking a look at Serge Ibaka and his absence, it means time for Scott Brooks to get creative. The Thunder blossomed when Russell Westbrook was injured this season, but that’s because he isn’t the heart of their defense. Things were more difficult when Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins both struggled with their own injuries. Ibaka might be the best shot blocker in the league and is an excellent outlet for Durant and Westbrook to pass to when they’re double teamed.
This might mean Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams playing together, although probably not for too many minutes. It means more time for Nick Collison on the floor and more of a smaller lineup with Kevin Durant as the power forward, although that backfired more than once during the postseason, especially when Sefolosha wasn’t on the court. On offense it means one less option for Durant and Westbrook to go to when they’re in trouble, and more pressure on Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler to be there when they need them to be.
So while Ibaka isn’t playing, the Spurs aren’t overly confident about this series. They lost to the Thunder in six games, including four in a row after taking a 2-0 lead, two years ago. Tony Parker isn’t completely healthy, which means we’ll see Reggie Jackson and Westbrook attacking him right from the start to see just how bad his hamstring injury is. This means someone – Danny Green or one of the bigs, helping out a lot on the most athletic duo of point guards in the NBA.
How about stopping Durant? There’s no such thing. There’s only making it more difficult for him, and Kawhi Leonard looks like the one to do it, although it has been proven that alternative approaches, as long as they involve someone who is stronger than Durant, does the work just fine. But the key will be not committing their entire defense to slowing him down, with preventing the role players getting on the scoreboard easily being more important.
On offense Popovich will try and make the most of just Perkins or Adams being in the paint, but frustrating Westbrook and attacking both him and Kevin Durant with screens might be the biggest key of all. Taking Westbrook’s confidence away hurts his offense and the Thunder’s in general. The Spurs can run, but on their terms, and keeping away from turnovers which really hurt them in some of their games against OKC this season will be a must. If Westbrook and Durant spend most of the game zooming in the open court, it’s going to be impossible for the Spurs to keep up.