Four questions for four writers, previewing Thursday’s showdown between the Spurs and Thunder and looking down the road at a potential playoff matchup between the two:
1. True or false: The Spurs are now the favorites to win the NBA title.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - False. Miami still has to be the favorite. Forget their current inconsistency. The Heat still have the best player in the world and a relatively easy road to the Finals. And haven’t we said all season that Miami has another level it can reach when it really needs to? I still don’t think we’ve seen the Heat take it there. But I think they will beginning with the second round.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - False. I don’t think there is a clear favorite. But the Spurs are playing the best ball among the five teams that seem to have the best shot (Heat, Thunder, Pacers, Clippers and Spurs). Will it be that way come May/June? We’ll see. There’s so much time — and potential developments — to unfold between now and then. But San Antonio, to me, is as good a guess as any. If they secured a rebound last year, we’d be talking about the defending champs.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - False. If the Thunder is full strength – and I think the team will be when the playoffs roll around – then I believe Oklahoma City is the favorite. But clearly, San Antonio is playing amazing basketball right now. And no one is better at getting his team to play its best in the playoffs than Gregg Popovich. The Spurs are not to be taken lightly.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - False. The Heat remains the favorite, and that changes when LeBron James takes his talents out of South Beach. The Spurs are playing great, but I’m not sure they’re the West favorites. The Thunder would be favored to beat San Antonio in the playoffs, which are all about matchups.
2. Play the percentages: Chances the Thunder can still capture the top seed.
Mayberry - It’s not likely. I’ll say 7 percent. I’d be stunned if the Spurs dropped enough games for the Thunder to surpass them. And even if they did, the Thunder likely would need to win out. It’s just far-fetched, and I can’t see it happening. Especially not with San Antonio knowing it could meet the Thunder in the conference finals and have homecourt advantage over OKC.
Slater - Ehhh, it’s a longshot. For argument’s sake, let’s say the Thunder go 8-1 or 7-2 in their final nine games. In that scenario, the Spurs would have to go either 4-4 or 3-5 for the Thunder to overtake them. Very unlikely, especially with how San Antonio is playing. I’ll say 10 percent.
Carlson - 50 percent. The Thunder has a really tough remaining schedule with so many road games against playoff teams and three back-to-backs. But the Spurs are likely to start resting guys, and they have some tough games, too. I suspect the Thunder is more likely to try to get some forward momentum as Thabo and Perk return, so it seems more likely to be trying to win more games. Still, it’ll be tough to win enough of these tough games.
Tramel - About 10 percent. The Spurs and Thunder have similar closing schedules, and while the Thunder gets San Antonio in OKC on Thursday night, a 3 1/2-game lead is too much to overcome with fewer than 10 games to play.
3. Who wins Thursday? Who wins if these two play come late May?
Mayberry -Thunder on Thursday. Thunder in May. Oklahoma City is just too talented for San Antonio these days. The Thunder puts a ton of pressure on the Spurs, and San Antonio simply doesn’t have enough counters for OKC’s weapons. The games always will be competitive, but the Thunder has matured over the past two seasons to find a way to execute down the stretch and make just enough plays to come away with wins.
Slater - Well-rested, at home, with the Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back. I’ll go Thunder on Thursday. And if you were to promise me that both teams would be healthy and playing their absolute best come late May, I’d take the Thunder then, too. They have a higher top gear. But that’s the weird thing about this matchup. You can almost guarantee San Antonio will be playing crisp, in-rhythm basketball. For OKC, that’s a bigger question mark. Which is why I think it’s a toss-up.
Carlson - I’ll go Thunder and Thunder. I could see Pop sitting some of his guys Thursday night, but even if he doesn’t, the Thunder is tough to beat at home. And these guys know that performing well against the Spurs this late in the season is important. As for a playoff series, I give the nod to the Thunder, providing everyone’s healthy, because it’s a younger, more athletic bunch. I suspect that youth and athleticism wins in a seven-game series.
Tramel - I’ll say the Thunder wins Thursday and would win in May. The matchups are not good for the Spurs. San Antonio doesn’t match up well at point guard. The Thunder is hard-pressed to slow Tony Parker. But San Antonio can’t stop Reggie Jackson, much less Russell Westbrook. And trying to figure out how to stop Kevin Durant keeps Gregg Popovich awake at night, even if he’s had one of his treasured bottles of wine.