What a boring first round of these NBA playoffs. With that, however, you have the elite of the elite advancing with ease setting up the rest of the playoffs to be some of the most competitive in recent memory. The series in the second round with the brightest spot light would have to be Spurs-Thunder.
Since Kevin Durant was drafted and the Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City, the Thunder are 6-6 against the Spurs in the playoffs, 1-1 in series’. The Thunder started their run to the 2012 NBA Finals by winning four straight after going down 2-0, mainly led by James Harden in route to an NBA finals loss. The Spurs got revenge two years later by beating a banged up Thunder team on their way to getting revenge on the Miami Heat as well in 2014.
All that said these teams are a bit different now. The stars are the same, the role players have adjusted a bit. The biggest difference however, is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was a role player in 2012, was becoming a known player in 2014, but in this round you can make the case he is the best player on the court. Durant is a better scorer, but the key to this series is Leonard will be watching Durant almost every step of the way. Leonard, the best defender in the NBA has the length, and strength that usually is able to produce less than anticipated numbers out of Durant.
Danny Green, another stud defender will have the harder task of taking on Russell Westbrook. Leonard will see time on Westbrook, no doubt, but if Green is able to hold his own and keep Westbrook in check this series will be as boring as the first round. Oklahoma City doesn’t have the role players like the Spurs, and will need whichever of their stars that Leonard is not guarding to dominate in spurts.
Putting Green or Leonard on Westbrook is huge because it means Tony Parker will never really have to watch Westbrook. The Thunder do not have a two guard threat, and the Spurs can ease Parker on whoever is out there to rest his legs on defense. The Thunder would be smart to play Cameron Payne a ton, as he moves the most without the ball and will be able to make Parker work. Roberson is the best defensive wing the Thunder have, and with Westbrook and Durant such offensive studs, they really like to pair Roberson with both. Unfortunately to play Roberson is to tell Tony to leave him to stand around the three point line and to cause havoc as a guy who can chip in with help on drivers like Westbrook. The Thunder lastly can throw Waiters out there and while Parker will have to respect his shot, Waiters likes to stand in one place, get the ball and shoot, not the hardest guy to defend.
With Parker being comfy on defense, he should be able to explode on offense. The best idea for OKC is to put Robertson on Parker because Roberson is so much longer than Parker. It puts Westbrook on Danny Green, who will do what the Thunder hope to do with Parker and run around the three point line wearing down Westbrook. Green has to be given respect as a shooter and whether it is Westbrook on Green or Parker it will take a lot out of him. Add that to the fact that off the bench you get a rested Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills, and it just seems to be too much for the Thunder and their unstable guard depth.
In the front court the Thunder have depth, but again, the Spurs can neutralize it with matchups. Steven Adams can defend bigs like Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but Adams is an easy assignment on defense for either. Enes Kanter can score on Aldridge and Duncan and make them work, but every time on offense Duncan and Aldridge will destroy Kanter and force him out of the game. Serge Ibaka can defend the rim next to Kanter and take out Duncan or Aldridge, but when they play together, one of the two has an easy matchup with Kanter away from the hoop. If they sub the two, David West, Boris Diaw or Boban Marjanovic can step right in, and again destroy Kanter away from the hoop. Ibaka can also score away from the hoop, but the Spurs can assign any of West, Duncan, Aldridge, Diaw, or Marjanovic.
Lastly, the biggest advantage by far is Gregg Popovich over Billy Donovan. Donovan is a rookie coach, and did well at the University of Florida, but this is the big leagues, and Pop is the master of all masters. Donovan is just now learning to stagger minutes to keep his super stars in games. He also has yet to figure out how to play Kanter without getting torched on defense. Those are two problems that Popovich will see too easily and expose rather easily as well. Durant and Westbrook may have to play the entire game of every game to stay in this thing, because when one is off of the court, Popovich will have the perfect combination to expose OKC.
All signs point to the Spurs here. Oklahoma City has two of the five best players in the NBA and with that you really do not count them out of anything, but as a whole the odds are against them. Having a Spurs future from the pre-season there is no smart play here. You can argue a hedge is in play, but personally I am not that nervous and would rather load up hedging on the Warriors against the Spurs than anything else. The Thunder will certainly hang around and I expect this to go 6, but the Spurs should be able to move into the Western Conference Finals.
San Antonio Spurs in 6