From 2012-2014, the Western Conference was ruled by these two foes. No one else came close to matching the pound-for-pound talent on the Thunder or the dynamic team ball of the Spurs. Year after year, they battled for Western Conference supremacy and now, they are back at it again.
Back in 2012, San Antonio and Oklahoma City met in the conference finals, battling it out for a chance to take on Miami. Pop's Spurs took a commanding 2-0 lead after their pair of encounters at home and pushed their winning streak to 20 straight games. They seemed indestructible. Games one and two were a basketballing masterclass. The patented ball-movement and unselfish play the Spurs have based their franchise on stymied the Thunder and the series seemed over already. But as the series shifted to OKC, the fate of the series shifted too, as the Thunder's unparalleled athleticism, pure star power and ability to make big plays won the young Thunder, the last four games and the best of 7 contest as a whole.
In 2013, the NBA world was robbed of a rematch due to the cruel, ill-timed Russell Westbrook injury and as a result, the Spurs eased their way past the Western Conference maze of death. But in 2014, we would finally see another showdown between these two generation defining teams. This time though, the Spurs caught a break through Serge Ibaka's injury and took a 2-0 series lead. When Ibaka returned for game three, the setting for the Spurs was all too familiar. As the Thunder's cast of athletic, long youngsters impeded on the Spurs' march to a second straight Finals appearance, with back-to-back home victories. Would the Thunder prove to be the Spurs' kryptonite again? Or did San Antonio learn from their mistakes back in 2012.
It turned out, it was the latter. San Antonio crushed OKC at home in game 5, before prevailing in an epic overtime fixture at Cheasapeake Arena, vanishing their demons from two years prior and ending their hoodoo against the Thunder.
Two years later, the series that used to be the pinacle of the playoffs, is now ready for its third installment. These two teams never disappoint, so it will almost certainly be more Return of the King than The Godfather III. But the crazy thing is, no matter how tasty this series gets, it's only the second round of the playoffs! This isn't even a semifinal in the grand scheme of things and it's amazing that one of these two all-time great teams is going to go home before we get down to business in the final four. Due to the basketball revolution uprising in Oakland, these two powerhouses will go toe-to-toe in what isn't even a title fight, but merely a challenger bout to see who is worthy enough to take on the Golden State Warriors.
But even so, this series is going to be epic. Hell, we haven't even made the Conference Finals yet and it could turn out to be the best one of the whole playoffs. Based on years past, it very well could be.
In the year 2016, the contest between these two teams is a dinosaur fight, when you comapre the pair to what the Warriors are doing. Both still play with two conventional big men and rarely go small, making for an interesting game of chess on the inside.
OKC rely heavily on their work inside the paint to generate offense. They average around 48 points per game down low, good for third in the league, while generating the most second chance points in the association at 16 per game. The Thunder do this in large part due to their outstanding rebounding numbers. They are one of the few teams that go against modern day wisdom of crashing the offensive glass and they do it effectively, having the highest offensive rebounding rate in the league, by some distance.
Although the Thunder usually destroy teams on the boards and in the paint with their rotation of Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, they may rely on this too heavily. The OKC offense sometimes gets bogged down into simple pick and roll with no movement or straight up isolation, so they count on second chance points more than most teams to get a consistent flow of points, even when the often stagnant offense falters.
The problem here is that the Spurs are going to take this away. San Antonio have the perfect set of big men to take away this advantage, with Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and company patrolling the paint. If they do start to leak some offensive rebounds and some second chance points, Gregg Popovich might just throw 7'3'' behemoth Boban Marjanovic out there just for fun to gobble up any stray shot in sight.
The Spurs are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league -- third in defensive rebounding rate -- which is less than ideal for the Thunder. If OKC continue to go flying in on the offensive glass even when Pop's men are gaining the upper hand, it will lead to Oklahoma City giving up as many fast break points as San Antonio like, something Billy Donovan has to be wary of.
There's more bad news for the Thunder, if you dig deeper into what Oklahoma City rely on, the Spurs have easy ways of taking it away.
Take for example, the Russell Westbrook/Steven Adams pick and roll. If you watch enough Thunder basketball, you will know very well this is Oklahoma City's first option in a lot of circumstances. What makes it so effective is not only does it involve Russell Westbrook hurtling to the rim, it puts two of OKC's poor shooters in the pick and roll, meaning the rest of the floor is spread. But smart teams in the playoffs will do their best to stop this dead in its tracks. Look what Atlanta did to my beloved Boston Celtics in the first round. On every pick and roll, Atlanta clogged the paint and forced Boston's perimeter players to make shots.
In this case, San Antonio will bring help defenders off OKC's least threatening wing player. Obviously, they'll stay at home on Durant and not let him get any open room, but on a guy like Andre Roberson, the clinical Spurs will treat him like he's not even on the floor, essentially forcing OKC to do one of two things. Option one is have Andre Roberson make his open shots that they give him -- which isn't happening. Option two is try playing four on five basketball, pretty much just running their normal offense even if Roberson is alone in the corner on every play.
This may force Oklahoma City into making a long overdue lineup change. They may have to bring in one of their other specialists, like Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters to compensate for this. But even in this world, you are opening up a whole other universe of catch-22 decisions. Mainly because when you play guys like Morrow or Waiters, it will almost certainly hurt your defense, something San Antonio will have fun breaking open with ease.
This is a well documented problem the Thunder have had ever since the Harden trade *shiver*. There is no perfect Oklahoma City five man lineup and the Spurs will make Billy Donovan's life a living hell because of it.
Donovan may have to expirement with going small, with Durant at power forward and Ibaka at center -- something Thunder fans have been calling for all season -- but even this can be dealt with by the Spurs. Popovich has found effective ways of dealing with small-ball centric teams all season, just take a peak at what he did in the second matchup against Golden State. In that game, the Dubs had both Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut out, so they ran with their death ball group the whole game. The Spurs responded with their own small-ball lineup with Boris Diaw inserted in place of Tim Duncan. If OKC try Durant at the four, they will run into a brick wall.
What's amazing is that this series is already mouth-watering without even looking at the potential matchups on the floor, so I'll start in the frontcourt.
The Spurs are still dependent on good post play, of which they get in abundance through LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan. The big question is how the Thunder will guard those two and in particular Aldridge. Serge Ibaka and Adams are both top of the range rim protectors, but may have trouble defending the Spurs' wily veterans in the post. baa especially, may experience a poor defensive series. If you don't believe me, go watch the fourth quarter and overtime of game six in 2014 between these two sides in which 38 year old Tim Duncan destroyed him on the low block. Ibaka is a great rim protector, but isn't very capable of figuring out how to stop polished, slick moves down low.
Therefore, Adams might be the logical answer at guarding Aldridge, he is more physical down there and his history proves for good reading against talented low post scorers. But if he's guarding Aldridge, it means that he will be exposed to everything the Spurs do with him in pick and roll, something Adams is terrible at defending. He way too often comes out too high and allows easy dives to the rim, something the Spurs will make him pay for.
Now let's turn to where the real fireworks happen.
The Spurs have a great luxury in having both Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard defending the wing. Both are exceptional defensive players and I'm sure, will guard Westbrook and Durant respectively, allowing Tony Parker to hide on the least threatening wing. What this cross-matching allows is a little bit more defensive versatility, since if the Thunder go to their most deadly play -- the Westbrook/Durant pick and roll -- the Spurs can switch and have Green guarding Durant and Kawhi on Westbrook.
However, what most have not pointed out is the other side of the coin. In my opinion, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are two below average defenders. Westbrook gambles for steals and falls asleep on his man, allowing for easy, open shots. Durant is long enough to contest anyone's shot, but rarely ever even gets into defensive stance!
The problem here is that Durant and Westbrook are matched up with two near-elite offensive weapons in Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. Logic would dictate, OKC just hide both Durant and Westbrook, but unfortunately, they can only do that with one of them, as Andre Roberson is only one player. I'm sure Billy Donovan will give Roberson cracks at guarding both Parker and Leonard, but there are downsides for both. When Roberson guards Parker, it leaves Westbrook chasing Danny Green around screens and given his track record, he will eventually lose sight of Green. If Roberson guards Leonard and allows Durant to guard Green, the same problem occurs.
Another option would again be going small for Oklahoma City, but the Thunder probably don't want Kevin Durant having to bang down low with one of LaMarcus Aldridge or Tim Duncan.
Alright, as you can probably guess by the tone of my writing, I just think that the Spurs are a mis-match for Oklahoma City. Everything the Thunder do well, the Spurs either do it better or can take it away in the blink of an eye.
But still, in recent years, the Thunder's length, athleticism and star power has proved a major obstacle for Gregg Popovich's men. Every time they face off, the Thunder seem to find the right combination, regardless of what I explained above.
In addition, isn't it pretty likely that Durant and Westbrook are going to win like two games just by themselves anyway? They're two of the best 5 guys in the league, so I'd expect they would. There are just going to be couple of games in this series where OKC just get their two stars going beyond belief and they take a game or two by themselves, due to their exceptional star power.
But I just cannot go past all the advantages the Spurs have. Tactically, they have the advantage. Coaching wise, they are superior. In terms of depth, yes please. Homecourt, you betcha, they have lost there once all season -- to the Dubs by the way -- and have 4 of the 7 games there. Everything apart from Durant and Westbrook is essentially a negative for the Thunder. So unfortunately for them, I have to pick the Spurs.
FINAL PREDICTION: Spurs in 6
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