Howlin' Around the NBA: Western Conference Finals Preview

Cant wait to see Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan square off to determine who represents the Western Conference? Neither can we.
Can’t wait to see Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan square off to determine who represents the Western Conference? Neither can we.

Note: Since the Wolves season has come to a close, this is the second in a series of email exchanges between Tom and Derek about the NBA playoffs.

Derek: Well Tom, the Western Conference Finals have been decided, setting up an excellent matchup between the San Antonio “Oh no, not these guys again!” Spurs, and America’s darlings, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs, as we know, are riding an 18-game winning streak, and have seemingly peaked at the perfect time. As for the Thunder, they made quick work of the Lakers on their way to facing the Spurs. I guess we should begin by discussing the keys to the series for both teams.

The first thing that comes to mind to me is the Thunder’s offense versus the Spurs’ defense. Durant and Westbrook are a lethal combo, but San Antonio’s defense has been excellent so far. The big issue will be finding a way to contain Russell Westbrook, like they did with Chris Paul, but without leaving Durant open. They have more than a puncher’s shot at beating them if they can shutdown one or the other, but not if both players start going off. On the other side, Oklahoma City is not a great defensive team – not a bad one though – and San Antonio’s offense should still be able to be successful.

Intangibly, this comes down to experience and know how (Spurs) v. hunger and focus (Thunder). The Spurs have their championship nucleus of Popovich-Duncan-Parker-Ginobli intact, while the Thunder are trying to find out if they have that with Brooks-Durant-Westbrook-Harden. This is the storyline that makes this series truly intriguing to me.

Tom: I have a buddy who is a huge Thunder fan, and I’ve been trying to convince him of several reasons why the Thunder are really going to struggle with the Spurs.

  1. Westbrook should be able to cause Parker fits on defense. Parker isn’t big or strong enough to contend with Westbrook’s size, and Parker occasionally can let people get past him to the hoop. Westbrook has the speed to do that. HOWEVER. Westbrook isn’t used to chasing people around screens like he will have to against Parker. Parker is like San Antonio’s version of Ray Allen, constantly ducking through screens, except unlike Allen, Parker does it off the dribble and looks to hit floaters in the lane, as opposed to running off ball screens for catch and shoot three pointers. San Antonio’s impeccable pick and roll game should be of extreme concern to anyone with a vested cheering interest in OKC.
  2. Westbrook played OUT OF HIS FREAKING MIND against the Lakers, especially in three of their four wins. In Games 1, 4 and 5 against LA, he shot 57% from the field. He turned the ball over four times in five games. This is a guy who averaged 3.3 turnovers per game this season.

    On the one hand, you want to give Westbrook credit for a ridiculous series and hope that he continues to play that well in the coming games. On the other, you worry about his regression to the mean. Those aren’t sustainable numbers from a young point guard in the playoffs. And he won’t be facing Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake.

A minor tangent: can you think of a bigger mismatch in recent playoff history than Russell Westbrook against Steve Blake? It was like watching a shark rip apart a baby harp seal. A very, very, white baby harp seal.

The other thing that worries me for Oklahoma City is their scoring droughts. Against the Lakers, whenever the Thunder would stop scoring, their defense would tighten up like a clamp and keep them in the game. But the Spurs aren’t the Lakers, offensively. They have options that can score at every single position at every time, and they never devolve into one player trying to take on an entire team the way Kobe did. They won’t be as easy to defend as the Lakers. One is tempted to say that if the Thunder stop scoring, the Spurs just WON’T. Things could get ugly if that happens.

Basically, what I’m saying is that for OKC to have a chance in this series, Russell Westbrook has to continue playing way above his usual level and they need to never stop scoring ever. Ruh roh.

Derek: I think what we’re talking about is that the Spurs’ offensive attack is more balanced than the Lakers’ (As well as most teams in the league, I’d bet.), and their ball movement is a big part of that, and their ability to make that extra pass to find the best shot. What I’ve noticed from both of these teams in the first round is that the Spurs’ offense never really stagnated for longer than that one 1st quarter against the Clippers, but the Thunder’s did, and that allowed the Lakers to linger. And how much of that was the Thunder’s defense clamping down, and how much was attributed to the Lakers offense becoming one-dimensional thanks to the Kobe Show? This Thunder defense has something to prove too.

The one thing I’ve noticed for over one season is that you cannot send the Thunder to the line. We talk about the Spurs solid foundation of fundamentals, but Oklahoma City are an excellent foul shooting team, especially for being such a young team. It keeps them in games since they’re practically a guaranteed 2 points, and that makes them scary in crunch time.

It’s amazing how the Spurs can pick guys like Boris Diaw and S-Jax off of the scrap heap, and plug them into a title contender. Not just that, but they’re very effective on top of it. As far as the Thunder’s bench, I’m not sure they’re as deep; there is a noticeable drop-off after James Harden. Certainly, this contributes to the Spurs’ offensive balance as well.

Completely agree on Westbrook. I had a thought that he’s made KD’s life so much easier these playoffs, but that could be because he’s been guarded by, not just Sessions and Blake, as you mentioned, but Jason Kidd’s cadaver, too. Here are Westbrook’s numbers against the Spurs this season: 22.3 ppg; 5.7 apg; 4.3 rpg; 44.8 FG%. Granted this is a whole other season, but those numbers are in the middle of the pack when you compare his splits against other teams. 22-5-4 is a nice line, but is it enough to lift the Thunder over a team like the Spurs? Sure it depends on some other factors, but it’s a valid question.

(Also, Tony Parker against the Thunder this season: 23.7 ppg; 3.3 rpg; 7.7 apg; 45.8 FG%. Don’t think he’s afraid of the Thunder.)

Wrapping up, I see a hard fought 6 or 7 games. It’s a tough pick to say who wins, since I can see this going either way. I don’t want to feel like I’m undervaluing the Thunder, because they are an excellent team, but I think I’ll say the Spurs in 7. The Thunder still have to prove that they can do it, and a big part of that will be being consistent, and the Spurs just have more of it. Furthermore, the Spurs may be old, but they’ve been proving they still got it. Sure, the Thunder are focused on the title, are hungry enough, but do they know what it takes to get there? We’ll find out, but we know the Spurs do. What’s your call, Tom?

Tom: You are absolutely right that the Spurs need to keep the Thunder off the line, but like every other part of San Antonio’s game, they are good at doing just that. The Spurs averaged about 17 fouls per game, which was 3rd best in the NBA. That means that the Spurs, on average, don’t even put their opponent in the penalty. Seriously, this team is sickeningly efficient. The good news for OKC is that during the regular season, the Spurs committed the same number of fouls against the Thunder (22.3) as the Lakers. So perhaps the Thunder will still be able to consistently get to the line.

I saw someone on Twitter make an excellent point: the Lakers were a harder out than the Clippers, and that has value for the Thunder. This is absolutely true. But Los Angeles also had a terrible defense for the last half of the season, including the playoffs. If the Thunder struggled to score against the Lakers broken defense, how are they going to do against the Spurs? I go back to my original point: if the Thunder stop scoring, the Spurs just won’t, and the game could get out to double digits quickly.

I can’t see the Thunder winning this series, which makes me sad on several levels. First: are we going to hear an entire summer of chatter about “ZOMG will Durant ever win a ring?!!” if the Thunder don’t win right now? Ugh.

But that’s neither here nor there. If the series goes to six, OKC will probably win Game 6 at home in front of their crazy fans. So it will be important for the Spurs to make sure that the Thunder don’t have them on the brink of elimination when that game arrives. To be honest, though, I don’t think that Game 6 WILL arrive. The Spurs are too good, too robotic. Spurs in five.

Reader’s Predictions

We decided to open up the debate to our Twitter and Facebook  feeds, since basketball isn’t just observation, but participation too. Needless to say, we aren’t the only ones who think we’re in for a hard fought series. To be honest, the results were a little surprising.  Of course, these are real tweets and comments from real people. See a take you like, click the link, and tweet at or follow at your discretion. (As always, “If you have nothing nice to say…”) As always, you can follow Derek (@DerekJamesNBA) and Tom (@Tom_NBA), as well.

@KillebrewDJ: Thunder win in 6

@_battletested: Spurs and Celtics in NBA Finals. If IND isn’t S-O-F-T they can beat HEAT. OKC may win two vs spurs. hbu? ur the expert

@DeronMavs: Spurs in 6, Thunder steal 1 of the first 2 and everyone overreacts

@JADubin5: Spurs in either 5 or 7. I can’t decide.

@j_euerle: Spurs-Thunder-Thunder-Spurs-Thunder-Thunder. Thunder in 6 as no one on Spurs can contain Durant

@AtweetVirani: Spurs in 5

@KJ_NBA: Spurs in 7. Home team wins every game.

@ORLMagicMatt: Spurs in 6.

@loganthewriter: spurs in 6!

@Sonicsdontexist: my prediction:Team who get 4 wins first, will advance to NBA Finals

@davidjsmith1232: I think the winner of OKC/SAS will be the champions, with my nod going to the Spurs.

About Jonah Steinmeyer

Been a Wolves fan for probably way too long to be considered a sane human anymore. An avid golfer in my free time.