For the second straight season, the Oklahoma City Thunder will play in the Western Conference Finals.
This time, after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the semifinals, the Thunder will face San Antonio in a best-of-seven series to decide which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
The Thunder lost the regular-season series with the Spurs two games to one. That record, coupled with the Spurs' incredible 18 straight wins, has raised plenty of questions about how this series will take shape. In time, answers will be revealed.
Game 1 is Sunday night.
Meanwhile, here are five preliminary questions facing both teams as they prepare to start this series.
What's changed since they last met?
The Spurs upgraded their roster through midseason additions. They added swingman Stephen Jackson in a trade that sent Richard Jefferson to Golden State and inked free agent forward Boris Diaw and guard Patty Mills.
The Thunder, on the other hand, brought in Derek Fisher.
Additionally, the Spurs welcomed back crafty guard Manu Ginobili, who missed all three meetings with the Thunder due to injury/rest. Since the Spurs' last meeting with the Thunder, Ginobili has averaged 12.6 points in 28 games, 27 of which he came off the bench. San Antonio also replaced DeJuan Blair in the starting lineup with Diaw and handed the reserve minutes to Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter. The additions have made the Spurs deeper and even more dangerous because of their improved versatility.
Who will guard Kevin Durant?
Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard will get the start defensively on Durant. In the regular season, Leonard actually did a decent job on Durant — and the reigning three-time scoring champ still averaged 22.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Those averages might seem impressive, but Durant's scoring average against San Antonio was his lowest against any opponent he faced more than once this season.
Jackson is expected to come off the bench and be thrown at Durant as well. Between Leonard and Jackson, the Spurs have an athletic and physical duo that possesses ample strength and length to make Durant work to get his points. But after watching how Durant annihilated Metta World Peace and the Lakers, there may no longer be a defender on the planet who can cover him.
Has the Thunder kicked its turnover problem?
By now, you're well aware that the Thunder led the league in turnovers at 16.3 per game during the regular season. Against the Lakers, though, Oklahoma City averaged just nine turnovers in the five-game series, which helped contribute to the Thunder's playoff-low average of 10.7 turnovers.
But given the fact that the Lakers were the worst team in the league in the regular season at forcing turnovers, there is reason to question whether the Thunder's ball security is now a real or perceived strength. San Antonio was only marginally better than the Lakers at forcing turnovers in the regular season, so it's possible that the Thunder can continue its impressive ball security.
But the Thunder averaged 14.3 turnovers against the Spurs, so it could go either way. The best news for the Thunder is Durant (2.8) and Westbrook (1.0), who were the second- and third-worst players, respectively, in turnovers during the regular season, both saw a drastic cut in their turnovers against the Lakers.
How significant will the point guard matchup be?
The series could be decided by Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. That's how significant of a matchup this is. But don't expect Westbrook and Parker to cancel out each other. Both are much too good and far too dominant for that. Neither will be able to defend the other.
So the key will be which player can consistently make others better while contributing in other areas. Because the Spurs' offense is much more pass-oriented than the Thunder's, it seems Parker will have the advantage in that department and Westbrook will have his work cut out for him.
Westbrook will have to be locked in while defending Parker in the pick-and-roll and try to limit Parker's penetration. If Parker can blow by Westbrook it will break down the Thunder's entire defense and lead to layups and open 3-pointers. So Westbrook needs to focus on defense first and offense second. He doesn't have to be great. He just has to be solid.
Parker averaged 23.7 points and 7.7 assists against the Thunder this season, including a 42-point game on Feb. 4. If If Westbrook can make Parker one-dimensional, either as a scorer or a passer, the Thunder can have success. Parker can't be both.
Should OKC be relieved that DeJuan Blair has been squeezed out of the rotation?
San Antonio always seems to have some sort of X-factor who torches the Thunder. At least once in each of the past three seasons, that guy has been Blair, the second-round draft pick the Thunder passed on.
As a rookie in 2009-10, Blair came to Oklahoma City and posted a 28-point, 21-rebound game. Last year, he annoyed the OKC crowd by grabbing seven offensive rebounds in a game. And this year, he came to town and put up 22 points while pulling down 11 boards.
But with Diaw in the mix, Blair has been banished to the bench. He's appeared in just six of the Spurs' eight playoff games and averaged only 8.2 minutes. With Blair becoming the 11th man, the Thunder might no longer have to deal with a rugged and relentless rebounder that it had no answer for.
But in Diaw, the Spurs added a more versatile threat who can put pressure on the Thunder with an inside-outside offensive attack, as well as his ability to defend multiple positions. It very well may end up being a pick-you-poison proposition for OKC. Either Blair keeps possessions alive and puts the Thunder at a greater risk of putback opportunities, or Diaw finishes drives and kicks with equally deflating 3-pointers.
And don't forget about Bonner, the sharpshooting Florida product who, like Blair, has a history of burning the Thunder. Over the past two regular seasons, Bonner is 14-of-20 against the Thunder from beyond the 3-point arc. Less minutes for Blair means more minutes for Bonner. And that means matchup problems for the Thunder. OKC doesn't want Serge Ibaka covering Bonner on the perimeter.
Even if Ibaka successfully does defend Bonner on the 3-point line, it would take away his best strength, which is shot-blocking. So don't breathe too big of a sigh of relief if you don't see Blair in the mix.