SAN ANTONIO – For the third time in five years, the Spurs will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Playoffs.
The two have split their previous postseason series with OKC defeating the Spurs in 2012 and San Antonio returning the favor in 2014.
Both series featured high drama and compelling matchups. In 2012, it was “I want some nasty” and James Harden’s Game 5 dagger.
In 2014, Manu Ginobili’s and Tim Duncan’s Game 6 heroics, along with a huge defensive play by Kawhi Leonard, propelled the Spurs to the NBA Finals.
This series is expected to be as good as those. Both teams are elite, healthy and familiar with one another.
The season series was tied 2-2 with each team defending their home court. Here’s a positional breakdown for both teams. (Scroll through the individual matchups for stats and comparison.)
Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is a top ten league player and if he plays like he did in the first round, the Thunder will put a real scare into the Spurs. Westbrook will obviously face tougher defenders with Green and even Leonard sharing the load, but should still score in the 20s and continue his solid all-around floor game. The Spurs forcing Westbrook to be a high-volume shooter and making tough decisions down the stretch will be key for San Antonio.
Tony Parker struggled in the first round and will need to play better, especially on offense, to somewhat counter Westbrook’s production. Parker averaging 16 points and 7 assists would be my benchmark for a successful series from Parker. ADVANTAGE: Westbrook.
Danny Green vs. Dion Waiters
This series is where Green should show his true value to the Spurs. Green is an exceptional wing defender who will be tasked with guarding Westbrook, Waiters and possibly Durant throughout the series. His primary goal is to put the clamps on those three and if he’s efficient on offense and continues to shoot well from 3-point range (46 percent in first round) that should equal a successful series for DG.
My apologies to San Antonio native Andre Roberson, but Waiters is the shooting guard to watch for OKC. Waiters averaged 11 PPG and shot 40 percent from 3-point range in the first round. Waiters is extremely streaky so I don’t expect him to decide the outcome of this series, but if he goes 20+ in any game, that would be a huge bonus for OKC. ADVANTAGE: Green.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant
This will be another chapter in what has become an epic rivalry between two of the top five players in the league. I won’t break down the numbers too much because we know both players are elite, but Kawhi gets the nod over KD because he is simply the best two-way player in the game right now and his offensive game has gone to the next level.
KD will put up his usual array of big numbers and can win games by himself, but you can now say the same for Leonard on both ends of the court. Either way, this is great matchup and what the playoffs are all about. ADVANTAGE: Leonard.
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Serge Ibaka
LaMarcus is firmly entrenched as Spurs option “1B” on offense and with that being said, he will need to do even more in this round. Aldridge’s numbers overall against OKC weren’t great this season, but he dominated the game that really mattered in March (24 pts, 9 rebs).
Aldridge should be able to handle any of OKC’s primary big men so an average of 20 PPG and double-digit rebounds will be needed with the amount of work Leonard will put on both ends. Ibaka has gone from an elite defensive player to simply a pretty good one. Ibaka’s offensive production has dropped off since the Spurs and Thunder last met in the playoffs, but he is still a solid third option, just not as good as he was projected to be three years ago. ADVANTAGE: Aldridge.
Tim Duncan vs. Stephen Adams
This matchup is closer than you would think because Adams has become an effective big man. I would also not be surprised to see Adams defend Aldridge at times due to his versatility and length.
The question then becomes what does Duncan have left in the tank? He’s been used sparingly this season and the time would be now for yet another Duncan rebirth similar to what we saw last year against the Clippers and two years ago against the Heat. Duncan’s savvy and the fact he is the team’s pseudo defensive coordinator gives him the edge on Adams. ADVANTAGE: Duncan.
Spurs bench vs. Thunder bench
The Spurs bench alone could have beaten the Grizzlies in the first round and I expect them to continue to play well. There’s too many parts and versatility to the Spurs bench, but my key performer will be Patty Mills. If the Spurs can get similar stats from Mills as the first round then it spaces their offense and allows Manu and Boris to operate all over the court.
We talked Thunder bench earlier with Waiters, but their other key player is Enes Kanter. Kanter would be a matchup problem for other teams because he works inside and out, but the Spurs have the depth to defend him. Kanter is more consistent than Waiters, played very well in the first round, and I expect him to have an impact in this series, but it’s not enough to match San Antonio’s bench. ADVANTAGE: Spurs.
Gregg Popovich vs. Billy Donovan
Yep, nothing to see here. No comparison needed, but this will be Donovan’s biggest coaching challenge to date. ADVANTAGE: Coach Popovich.
Westbrook and Durant will keep the Thunder in striking distance and each game should be competitive, but the only way I see OKC winning this series is if KD and Russ combine to score 60 per game and the Spurs suffer a key injury. It’s possible, but not likely. The Spurs have more depth, more options and the home court advantage. FEARLESS PREDICTION: SPURS IN SIX.