By: Jeffrey Newholm
When the 2016 NBA Playoffs started, the potential San Antonio-Oklahoma City second round matchup seemed like a fun series, but one that amounted to window dressing. But with Steph Curry’s knee injury making the previously invincible, 73 win Warriors suddenly beatable, this series is now much more than that. It’s not just a matter of “who gets to lose to Golden State”-it’s who gets a winnable shot to go to the Finals. And it would be a very meaningful trip for either team, for different reasons. For the Thunder, as I’ve said previously, this could be the franchise’s last year to get a title for Kevin Durant before his possible free agency departure. While the Spurs do have a crowded trophy case already, a title could signify an end to the Duncan and Parker era, while being the dawning of another great run behind Leonard and Aldridge. For this suddenly must-see series, I’ll recap how these teams got here, preview each match-up, then predict a winner.
Spurs: 67-15, #2 Seed in Western Conference, beat Memphis 4-0
I’ve written about how the Spurs are an elite team this year and how they could at least be a worthy foil for the Warriors. But after losing three of four to Golden State and losing three out of five going into the postseason, it seemed the Spurs would have to settle for being 1-AA this year. Thankfully for them, they got a dream of a first round matchup with the hopelessly over-matched Grizzlies. The Grizz had three significant players out for the season and were so short on talent the “birdman” Chris Anderson was thrust into the starting lineup. It wasn’t just a sweep-it was the third most one sided four game sweep in NBA history, with only one game being remotely close. Honestly the only way the Grizz could have won a game is if the Spurs would have given them a gift win. Popovich’s Spurs are a thoroughly professional franchise. They do not give gift wins. Whatever sour taste was left in the team’s mouth from the end-of-season slump was washed out with their laugher of a opener.
Thunder: 55-27, #3 Seed in Western Conference, beat Dallas 4-1
The Thunder were back to their usual selves after a lost 2015 campaign, but still finished a distant, distant third behind the Warriors and Spurs. The Thunder, like the Spurs, faced an aging team on the way down who could be lottery-bound next year at this rate. When the Thunder struck for a 38 point game one win, a sweep was a forgone conclusion. In fact in the history of the NBA playoffs a team that wins its first game by 30 or more has never lost the series. But game one may have been bad for the team’s mentality as Durant and Westbrook came out flat for game two to the tune of 15 of 55 shooting and the Mavs were able to steal a win. The Thunder snapped out of their funk in time to win both games in Dallas easily, giving them a golden opportunity to finish the series at home in game five. With the Spurs already done, it was important to wrap up the series ASAP so the Spurs wouldn’t have a huge edge in energy late in round two. When Nowitzki hit a three with 4:08 to go to cut the Thunder lead to 4, the specter of a game six surely hung in the minds of the home fans. Thankfully for the Thunder, Durant came through with a huge four point possession, and all the Mavs could manage the rest of the way was a sole free throw. With the Spurs and Thunder clinching within a day of each other, these teams should be on an even playing field in terms of rest.
Forward: Spurs’ Leonard and Alridge vs. Thunders’ Durant and Ibaka
If this was just one player OKC would win hands down thanks to KD, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. But the Spurs’ forwards aren’t exactly slouches. Leonard leads the team in scoring as well (although by not as large a margin as KD) and is two time defending defensive player of the year. Aldridge is right behind Leonard at 18 points a game himself, and it should be noted Aldridge and Leonard are more efficient than KD as their shooting percentages are both a touch higher. What really tilts this area in favor of the Spurs, however, is the fact Ibaka is just a supporting player behind KD and Westbrook. Yes “Iblocka” leads the team in blocks, but he doesn’t average half the scoring output KD does. Ibaka is a fine starter, but Leonard and Aldridge are both stars. In fact I think that, with his development, Leonard is on pace to be a mega-star. I think the Spurs have the edge at forward.
Guard: Spurs’ Parker and Green vs. Thunders’ Westbrook and Roberson
Again OKC has the star that shines brightest. Westbrook averages more than twice as many assists than any other teammate while managing to average 24 points a game himself. Parker and Green are good supporting players but it’s the Spurs starting forwards that really drive the team. Roberson is pretty much a non-factor: he averaged only five points a game in the regular season and only four in the playoffs, playing just 24 minutes a game against the Mavs. Westbrook is so much better than the other three players here that I’ll take the Thunder at guard despite Roberson’s bit role.
Center: Spurs’ Duncan vs. Thunders’ Adams
If one goes off just the name than of course Duncan takes this one in a heartbeat. But if we just look at this year’s numbers these two average similar scoring averages while Adams managed to start 20 more games. I’ll still take Duncan though because if nothing else he can be a voice of experience in the locker room and be an emotional, if not physical leader.
Coach: Popovich vs. Donovan
This one’s so one-sided I shouldn’t even have to justify my pick, but here it is anyways: Pop has won five NBA titles and over 1000 games. Yes, Donovan had success at Florida, but the NBA and its egotistical stars is another ballgame. This is Donovan’s first ever playoff run. This is the 19th year in a row Pop will be coaching in the playoffs. Edge: San Antonio, of course.
On paper, the Spurs have the better team. They finished 12 games ahead of the Thunder in the standings too. But what makes me really concerned about OKC is they seemed to let the Mavs get in their head. Thunder-Mavs was a predictably one sided series, and I think Dallas was fortunate to win even one game. But Durant’s flagrant two foul in game four is troublesome for a usually cool-headed player. Why Durant chose to clobber a guy in an 11 point game with 50 seconds to go is beyond me. The Thunder also had some choice words for the Mavs after game five, including some real zingers. If the Thunder aren’t fully focused against a much lesser foe, it doesn’t bode well for a series where they’re significant underdogs. The Spurs are better to begin with, and I think they’re better prepared for this opportunity as well. The Thunder could win a couple, but I don’t see them walking away with the series. Spurs in six
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