Before we start the Western Conference Finals preview, I want to congratulate the 2015-2016 Spurs on a great regular season. Having broken the franchise record for wins, and securing the second best record in the league this season, a 2nd round knockout would appear to most people as a disappointing season. No doubt there is a sour taste for most Spurs fans, but to put things in perspective, this wasn’t a choke-job for San Antonio. They are just finally “too old.”
This didn’t just magically happen a couple of weeks ago, they’ve been that way. It just finally got exposed. Anyway who watched the Spurs play the Cavs, Warriors, or Thunder this season, could see the nicks in their armor if they looked hard enough. During the regular season, the Spurs had beaten a Curry–less Warriors team once in 4 games, the Thunder once in two games, and the Cavs once out of 2 contests.
The Spurs are old, their once mighty backcourt appeared slow and undersized against the top dogs, and they still managed to eke out 67 wins. That is a mixture of superior coaching, a watered down league this year, and highly intelligent ballplayers. What San Antonio lacked in size and speed, they made up for in technique and basketball I.Q. But let’s face it folks, basketball smarts can only get you so far in the vertical game.
The Thunder were stronger, and faster than the Spurs who got outhustled and outmuscled. Those two things are forgivable. What I did not expect was for the Thunder to outthink the Spurs.50-50 balls fell out-of-bounds, instead of Spurs players grabbing them–they would leave the refs to make a call on possession almost every time this happened. I was also surprised at all the hero ball I saw from players trying to make double and triple moves down in the post instead of working the ball around for a better shot. Role players like Boris Diaw, David West, and Patty Mills were largely ineffective. Danny Green has played well enough on defense, but San Antonio needed him to shoot better.
One big silver (and black?) lining to take from Game 6 was the incredible second half effort by the Spurs (led by Andre Miller and Tim Duncan) that got them to within 11 points. They’d fallen behind by 27 points and though a comeback was feasible, San Antonio could have easily laid down like a more busterish team would have done.
I consider those 67 wins to be Fool’s Gold. The league this year just wasn’t that good outside of the top 4 teams, and it was only a matter of time until the Spurs played a team younger, faster, and more superstar driven. This may sound crazy, but maybe they OVERachieved this season.
One of the main subplots to this year was “will this be the last run for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili?” I may sound crazy for a second time in two paragraphs, but I think these guys still have something to offer. If there were a way for Popovich to work the roster to where Timmy, Manu, and Tony came off the bench, I would like to see it.
Neither of them are superstars any longer, but they are still good, serviceable players in small doses. Couple that with their veteran leadership, and you have something to keep them around for. Unlike guys like Iverson and Kobe, I think the Spurs big 3 realize their limitations. As elder statesman of the NBA, it would still be cool to see them around, and know they are on the bench, and in the locker rooms, pulling pranks and giving advice.
The Spurs will have to do something different going forward however, Boris Diaw isn’t getting any younger, Danny Green is who he is as a player, and it seems crazy to expect him to get much better. Rumors are swirling about Mike Conley Jr, and Pau Gasol moving down to San Antonio. Those would be good acquisitions, but free agency is always crazy, and you never know which of the younger guys on the Spurs roster will make a leap in the Summer Leagues. But forget all that noise, we still got basketball to watch THIS year.
I won’t even bother going into the Eastern Conference Finals, because you know, Cleveland.
Golden State vs. Oklahoma City will easily be the Good Ass Games of the Week, beginning tonight in about 15 minutes (so pardon any typos or grammar errors–I’m tryna get this shit done in time to watch tipoff).
How the Thunder can win
It will be easy to get caught up in the hype of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (yes yes we know–two of the five best players in the league) but its the role players who stepped up big time for the Thunder last round versus the Spurs. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, and (yes) Dion Waiters all chipped in to make the Thunder play the best they have played all season.
They will need that to continue in order to compete for the Western Conference championship. You already can count on the 60-70 points combined by Durant and Westbrook. The biggest question is where will the other points come from. Adams got some easy buckets against the Spurs off of stray rebounds and alley-oops. KD and Russ will need to find a way for him to get 2-3 easy buckets a game.
During the home game that they lost back in February (the OT loss), the Thunder outrebounded the Warriors by 30 boards and still lost. That is unheard of. They will have to continue pounding the glass with their big frontline of Ibaka, Adams, and Kanter if they want to limit the Warriors possessions.
Lastly, the Thunder will have to take care of the ball. Turnovers are costly against any team, they are deadly against the Warriors, who have no problem converting a steal, or a poor shot, into a dunk or 3 point bucket. The Warriors are already efficient in their half court sets, not taking care of the rock is basically handing them points.
Why the Thunder won’t win
Besides sporting the best shooting backcourt of all time in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors happen to have an undersized power forward out of Michigan State, who also doubles as a top 10 player in the league. Though Thunder may have an advantage with their bigs (with an ailing Bogut and clumsy Anderson Verajao) they will have no answer for Draymond Green. I cannot wait to see the Ibaka vs. Green matchup in the low post and on the 3 point line. Dray is going to eat, if Donovan rolls out the Kanter, Adams front line with Waiters, Durant, and Westbrook on the wings. Also, don’t sleep on 3 point threat Marreese Speights, who has no problem hoisting one up.
Russell Westbrook is going to have to play defense this series in a pick your poison scenario of guarding Curry or Thompson. The Thunder don’t have a deep bench when it comes to their guards. If Kyle Singler sees a minute of this series, I’ll be shocked, and Cameron Payne may get his lunch money taken from him if he sees more than 20 minutes a game.
If that weren’t enough, the Warriors sport a large mismatch anytime Harrison Barnes is on the floor, and Steve Kerr (coaching advantage:Dubs) can bring Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston off the bench anytime he needs to spell someone. Brandon Rush, and Leandro Barbosa will see significant minutes against whatever scrub the Thunder roll out, both are luxuries that Gregg Popovich did not have against Oklahoma City.
I think at least 4 of the games will be decided by 6 points or less, but I have the Warriors winning in 5 games. I think the Thunder found a favorable matchup last round, and their luck will run out against the defending champs. What we saw against the Spurs was an aberration and not a trend. This is not meant to disrespect to the Thunder, or their fanbase (though I am hearing a lot of Thunder in 7 predictions). I think OKC provides the best possible matchup for what I expect to be a thrilling Western Conference Finals.