Dean: Inevitable Classic Thunder vs. Spurs Matchup Set
So it’s set. What many of us expected almost a year ago, it’s the Spurs and Thunder set to battle for the chance to advance to the Western Finals. With the injuries to Steph Curry, there's even more focus on who will come out of this classic best-of-seven between familiar sparring partners. Beating the world champs is suddenly not lunacy. That is, if the Trailblazers don’t get them first.
Let’s look at a few items in the OKC-San Antonio matchup:
*The Spurs earned the much-needed extra rest before the Western Conference semifinals by finishing off their ninth postseason sweep in franchise history Sunday by whipping the Memphis Grizzlies 116-95.
*Coach Gregg Popovich – the King of Resting Players – was able to give his starters lots of rest. Even with Kawhi Leonard playing more than 42 minutes in Game 3, the Spurs starters still averaged fewer than 25 minutes played per game during this series. I don’t know that first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan – who turned 40 today – will be much of a factor against the Thunder, but he played just 13:32 in Game 3 and 19 minutes in Game 4. Six reserves played at least 13 minutes in the fourth and final game of Round 1 against injury-riddled Memphis. And Andre Miller was the only Spur not to score.
*The Western Semis will be physical, and coach Gregg Popovich says playing Memphis should have helped: “That physicality will help us I think in the next round." OKC has become a physical juggernaut, led by the burly Kiwi Steven Adams, who combines clean physical play with a dose of on-the-edge dirty play in a way that infuriates opponents. Same for Serge Ibaka, to a degree, but he’s not in the same league as Adams when it comes to real toughness. Enes Kanter isn't as physical as most his size, but he’s getting better at battling bigs and his mere presence makes it an intimidating trio of Thunder bigs that Billy Donovan can rotate in and out of the lineup.
*The Thunder continue to dominate the backboards but will be challenged by the Spurs, who were good against the Griz.
*New Spur LaMarcus Aldridge finished Round 1 by posting a double-double in each of the two victories in Memphis. He went 16 and 10 in Game 3 and was just one point off that in Sunday’s closeout game. The Spurs dominated Memphis in the paint, outrebounding the Griz 41-36. Aldridge will have to bang with the OKC trio and got a warm-up series for that by going against Zach Randolph.
LaMarcus Aldridge...— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 24, 2016
2015 First Round: 41.6 MPG, 33 FG%, 22.4 FGA/G, Lose in 5
2016 First Round: 28.3 MPG, 51.1 FG%, 11.8 FGA/G, Win in 4
*Russell Westbrook will probably be the key to the Thunder if they can pull off the upset and advance to the Western Finals. Russ must use better judgment on when to shoot threes and simply must play harder, smarter and better defensively. He gets a break by going against Tony Parker, who is showing deteriorating skills on both ends of the floor. Still a wily veteran, Parker should have trouble keeping up with the stealth and freakishly athletic Westbrook. Simply put, how much better Russ is than Parker will likely determine whether OKC has a chance to win and advance.
*The series will feature three of the greatest players in basketball who are in the prime of their careers. Kevin Durant will finish below Westbrook in the MVP voting, if that tells you anything about how good Russ is right now. And Kawhi Leonard will finish in that same pack, just behind Steph Curry. Leonard is now the two-time defensive player of the year and led the Spurs in scoring three of the four games. Kawhi played more minutes than any Spur but he’s a machine and could run and jump for days and not tire.
Kawhi Leonard has a fierce resume for a 24 year old.— Josh Eberley (@JoshEberley) April 18, 2016
3x All-NBA Defense*
*The Spurs were better than the Thunder during the regular season. San Antonio went 67-15, including that remarkable record-tying 40-1 home record leading the way. The Thunder finished 55-27, a decent record, but one that left 10-12 wins on the table by not being able to finish teams off after outplaying them through three quarters.
*The Spurs have the advantage on the bench, as they do every time they play. Popovich is darn near unanimously considered the best coach, strategist and motivator in pro basketball. For the record, Pop broke a tie with Zen Master Phil Jackson and now has nine postseason sweeps in best-of-seven series, the most all-time. OKC’s Donovan will be coaching his second playoff series, but has shown he’s more than capable with adjustments to player minutes and X & O strategy in the 5-game series win over Dallas.
*To win the series, Big Blue will need to take at least one game in San Antonio. It’s not impossible. But it is exactly the number of losses the Spurs have had in 44 home games this season. Let’s get it on!