The Spurs and Thunder are set to renew a budding rivalry on Thursday night in OKC (tip at 8:30 p.m. on TNT), battling for bragging rights and the best record in the West.
In advance of the game, we’ve asked four questions to four writers, analyzing the matchup and breaking down the most pressing storylines between the teams:
1. True or false: San Antonio is the toughest Western Conference playoff matchup for the Thunder.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - True. San Antonio’s system still seems to be too much for the Thunder. We’ve seen that twice this year, once with the Spurs missing Manu Ginobili and once with them missing Tony Parker. The Thunder has all kinds of trouble slowing down the Spurs’ pick-and-roll game, which really is just a basic set they use to kickstart about five options out of that. Chances are the Spurs are going to get a layup or pull-up jumper by the ball-handler, a layup by the roll man or a kick-out for a 3. Everybody knows what’s coming. Yet the Thunder is powerless to stop it.
John Rohde (beat writer) - True, but not by much. The West is loaded. The Clippers won 17 straight this season. Denver won 15 straight. OKC won 12 straight. The Spurs won 16 of 17 during one stretch. Memphis won 14 of 15 in one stretch and 12 of 13 in another. Pick your poison.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - True. The Spurs are the best team among the Thunder contenders. The Grizzlies are a tough matchup, too, but the Spurs are just so fundamentally sound. Nothing easy about playing San Antone. Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job implementing young studs — Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard — with his old crew. The Spurs can’t be chomping at the bit to face the Thunder. But the Thunder can’t be excited about having to get through San Antonio, either.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) – False. But don’t be too quick to label me a Spurs hater. I think they’d give the Thunder a great battle in the conference finals, should it come to that again. But the Western Conference playoffs will be a minefield (as opposed to the East, where it’s a Miami cakewalk). And I think OKC’s biggest road block will be Denver. That’s right, I’ve officially hopped aboard the ever-increasing Nuggets bandwagon. Some may scoff, say they’re not for real, but I’ve been impressed. And I think they’re dangerous, particularly against OKC, where they can match athlete for athlete and use their nightmarish home court as a scary weapon.
2. How much does the one-seed truly matter?
Mayberry – A ton, especially for the Thunder. Last year’s results were a fluke. It wouldn’t be wise to bank on that history repeating itself. Sure, the Thunder can win down in San Antonio. But the fact is OKC hasn’t done so consistently. The Thunder has one regular season win in Spurs country. And without James Harden, this year’s team is not as equipped to win in San Antonio again in the playoffs. Add to that, San Antonio’s role players that vanished in the Western Conference Finals are now a year older and wiser. They aren’t likely to disappear like they did a year ago, especially not at home. That’s why it’s critical for the Thunder to catch San Antonio.
Rohde - Not much. The most it can matter in any series is having Game 7 at home, which last year did the Spurs no good in the Western Conference Finals and did the Thunder no good in the NBA Finals. The No. 1 seed is more about pride than anything, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with pride. There’s much more pressure being the No. 1 seed, just like in the NCAA Tournament. Eighth-seeded Memphis beat top-seeded San Antonio two years ago and the NBA world gasped. Not nearly as many people gasp when a No. 7 beats a No. 2, however.
Tramel - It matters in one way and one way only. If the West finals are OKC-San Antonio, and the series goes seven games, it matters. It’s sort of like life insurance. Life insurance is not at all necessary. Unless you die young. Then you’re screwed if you don’t have it. Same with Game 7 in the West finals.
Slater - Very little. And I’ll give you a stat to back that up: Six out of the past nine seasons, the West’s top seed has failed to make the NBA Finals. During that same timeframe, the East’s top seed has only made it once. That means, out of the last 18 NBA Finalists, only four have been one seeds. Homecourt advantage is nice, especially in a game seven (as Berry mentioned), but it often doesn’t get there. The best team, playing the best basketball in late May, usually moves on, regardless of seed.
3. Against the Spurs, where is OKC’s biggest area of concern?
Mayberry - Defending them. The Spurs make you play defense for 24 seconds — if they don’t score in transition first. The Thunder absolutely has to give second and third efforts on each possession. If not, OKC is toast.
Rohde - Ball movement — too much of it by the Spurs and not nearly enough of it by the Thunder. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said last year’s Western Conference Finals were like a game of role reversal. The Spurs were themselves the first two games, the Thunder become the Spurs the last four games, and Pop has no idea why.
Tramel - I’d say defensive rebounding. The Thunder routinely gets brutalized on the boards, usually by Dejuan Blair. The Spurs actually are a good matchup for the Thunder. The Thunder can counter Tim Duncan (Kendrick Perkins) and Tony Parker (Thabo Sefolosha). And though the Spurs have a guy who theoritically is the kind of guy to at least match up with Kevin Durant, he’s old (Stephen Jackson). And the Spurs don’t have an answer for Russell Westbrook. But San Antonio is so fundamentally sound, the Spurs still are tough to beat.
Slater - Depth. If the Spurs are full strength (a big if), they confidently dip much deeper into their well-oiled rotation than the Thunder. San Antonio always feels like they have a strong lineup on the floor, regardless of who is actually on the floor. Meanwhile, the Thunder bench can be suspect at times, especially with all the minutes Derek Fisher has been receiving recently. So those underrated mid-game segments (end of the first quarter and beginning of the second / end of the third and beginning of the fourth) loom as very important and potentially costly lulls for OKC over a seven-game series.
4. Who’s your prediction to win the regular season Western conference crown? Playoffs?
Mayberry - Spurs for the regular season. San Antonio has four cupcake games remaining at home against Orlando, Atlanta, Sacramento and Minnesota. Their four remaining road games are tough — Thunder, Nuggets, Lakers and Warriors – but they can go 2-2 in those. That would put them at 6-2 in their final eight, which is probably the same finish the Thunder will have (assuming all goes well). That puts the Spurs at 61-21 and the Thunder at 60-22. Of course, nobody can account for how Gregg Popovich will play it. He could sit his guys down the stretch. If so, all bets are off. As for the playoffs, my gut says Spurs. They’re better than they were a year ago and still have the memory of losing four straight to the Thunder. On the other hand, the Thunder is not as good as last year and still has a ton of question marks going into the postseason.