It’s a series that’s simply too close to call, too tantalizing to ignore, two teams that could easily emerge as the eventual NBA champions.
With so much at stake Sunday when the San Antonio Spurs play host to the OKC Thunder in Game 1 of the Western final, there’s very little that separates two teams that deserve to be on this stage, two teams who have combined to go 16-1 during the post-season.
A lot has been made and will continue to be made of San Antonio’s edge in experience, but it’s of no consequence when considers how the Thunder got to one step of last year’s final, only to lose to Dallas, which would win three in a row to close out the Heat as the Mavs captured the franchise’s first championship.
A lot will be made of San Antonio’s depth, which carried the team through this season’s lockout-shortened schedule, but rotations are tightened during the playoffs and the Thunder is more than capable of matching the Spurs.
As trite as it may sound, this series will ultimately be decides by execution, particularly down the stretch because neither team figures to get blown out, making it a one or two possession game where limiting turnovers and controlling the boards are critical.
It’s no secret the Spurs have adjusted to their roster in appearing in their seventh Western final in the Tim Duncan era.
Gregg Popovich’s teams were often known for their halfcourt offence and stifling defence, which is completely understandable when a post presence such as Duncan, who can dominate at both ends, was on the court.
With age and with the Spurs going to a more youthful and athletic group, San Antonio has become a pick and roll team, a team that will push the pace and score in abundance.
The key for the Thunder is ball movement.
Matchup wise, there’s no discernible edge for either team, providing the Thunder and Spurs play to their strengths.
In Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder features three players capable of creating their own shot and getting their shots off in late shot-clock and game-clock scenarios.
There’s size in the paint to match up against Duncan and a shot blocking presence when penetration is yielded.
Ultimately, this series may come down to coaching, an area Popovich clearly has an edge over Scott Brooks, based simply on experience and Pop’s history of knowing how to get into an official’s head.
In sweeping Utah in the opening round and the L.A. Clippers in the semifinal, the Spurs were challenged, but neither team has enough quality to beat San Antonio.
In sweeping Dallas and beating the Lakers in five games, the Thunder were tested, OKC’s competition much superior to the Spurs’ dance partners.
The best player in this year’s Western final is Durant and if Durant plays to a level many are expecting, then the Thunder will advance and play for a championship.
If the Thunder can’t defend San Antonio’s bread and butter pick and roll, then the Spurs will have a shot at winning their fifth title, an achievement that will invariably begin the debate as to where this team ranks in NBA history.
In the end, it’s a coin toss, a series that promises to be so compelling that a bad bounce, a bad call, a bad decision with the play may decide the winner.
BATTLE OF THE BIG MEN
With so many key matchups, one of the most impactful involves the battle of the bigs.
In Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder has that much-coveted post defender who will back down from no one, a winner who’s as mentally tough as anyone in the game.
In Tim Duncan, the Spurs have arguably the finest power forward the game has ever seen, a slam dunk hall of famer who averaged 21.0 points on 59% shooting in San Antonio’s sweep of the L.A. Clippers in the Western semifinal.
In the opening round, Perkins matched up against last year’s NBA final MVP in Dirk Nowitzki, followed by a mano-a-mano duel against Andrew Bynum when OKC hooked up with the Lakers in the second round.
“It’s kind of going back to the Dallas series, where I had to guard Dirk,” said Perkins. “Still got a great low-post player (in Duncan), probably not as strong as Andrew but very crafty.
“Future hall of famer, arguably the best power forward, so I’ve got my hands full. But I know this series, I’ve got to guard a whole lot more pick-and-rolls. I think they ran 36 pick-and-rolls with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. I gotta be ready to guard that.”
What separates Duncan is his ability to adopt to the changing times and changing styles.
“The idea is to win as many games as you can and put yourself in the best position to compete for a championship,” the man known as the Big Fundamental said. “To do that, you take the best advantage of the players and talent on hand.
“That’s something Pop’s (head coach Gregg Popovich) always been good at.”