Originally written on Just Cover Blog  |  Last updated 11/13/14

Still really good

What follows is not intended to be a prediction of what will transpire in the NBA Championship series, but more an aesthetic claim: The Western Conference just plays much better basketball than the East. While the East collectively plays like the 1993 Knicks, complete with 150-point games, scrub-on-scrub flagrant fouls, “fake tough guys”, and a genuine lack of play-making, the West, starting this weekend, will serve up the most aesthetically pleasing basketball you’ll get a chance to see played for high-stakes this season.

While the East is a constant drudgery occasionally spiced up with a Heat fast-break, the two remaining Western teams are offensive juggernauts that still represent a stark contrast in style. While both play at a fast pace, the Thunder rely on the startling athleticism of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka (the first two locks for All-NBA honors, the third the 6th-man of the year, the last a first-team All-Defense selection) to overwhelm the opposition. There isn’t much here in the way of offensive sets – Durant, Westbrook, and Harden generally create for themselves off the dribble, and all three display an uncanny knack for getting to the free-throw line.

The Spurs, on the other hand, probably only have one player likely to receive post-season recognition (Tony Parker, though Kawhi Leonard will likely make an All-Rookie team), but Coach of the Year Greg Popovich has an absurdly deep roster shrieking like a doomsday machine. While the Thunder operate as freelancers amongst chaos, the Spurs are a disciplined, relentless attack. While the Thunder overwhelm in isolation, the Spurs less talented roster achieves commensurate results through spacing, adherence to ball-movement, and execution.

Moreover, these are the two most poised teams in the league. Anyone who has watched enough Thunder games this year knows that this is a team that tends to play offense and defense considerably better when facing a fourth-quarter deficit, and, while Durant isn’t better than Lebron James, he’s the best clutch shooter in the league. The Spurs, on the other hand, haven’t had to test their late-game mettle to nearly the same degree, merely because 4th quarters have generally been spent with their starters in warm-ups laughing on the sidelines. That said, this is a team that came back from more than 25 down in Game 2 against the Clippers, and stole a 4th quarter lead in the final closeout game.

Matchups? There are plenty of intriguing ones here – Parker vs. Westbrook, Durant vs. Leonard (the “new Bruce Bowen”), Harden vs. Manu Ginobili in a contest of guys with identical games – but the most important will likely be how the Thunder guard the Spur bigs. When the starting lineups are on the floor, expect to see Duncan guarded by Kendrick Perkins – Perkins can push Duncan out of the paint and make him a jump-shooter, and, while Duncan is a very capable jump shooter, that’s preferable to letting him shoot layups. Moreover, this frees Serge Ibaka to be the help-side shot-blocking whirlwind he’s been all year (3.7 blocks a game both regular and post-season), as Boris Diaw isn’t much of a shot-maker. In this configuration, Ibaka can serve as an additional deterrent should Duncan get close to the basket, and can also help squelch the layups of Parker and Ginobili.

Fear the flat-footed shot-put

The Spurs, however, will counter with the front-court pairing of Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter. While the prospect of a slow, chubby ginger may not strike fear into the casual fan, his presence causes a ton of changes. To start, Splitter is roughly as effective an offense player as Duncan, scoring over 9 points a game in only 19 minutes, making over 61% of his shots (on a per-minute basis, Splitter is among the 30 most effective players in the league). The true issue is Bonner – while he’s only one of a slew of deadly three-point shooters on the roster (along with Danny Green, Gary Neal, and Ginobili he’s one of four players making over 40% of his threes while taking more than three a game on this roster), he’s the only that plays in the post. What that means, simply, is that unless the Thunder play small, with Durant at power forward, he’ll be guarded by Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison – neither of whom is comfortable guarding on the perimeter. Regardless of whether the Thunder guard him with Ibaka or Durant, the effect is the same – the shot-blocking at the rim is gone (either because Ibaka is chasing a perimeter player or is off the floor), and Parker and Ginobili can waltz to the basket without fear. Moreover, Perkins and Nazr Mohammed won’t get the shot-blocking help defense on Splitter or Duncan, either. Bonner will play some minutes with Duncan as well, where the effect will be the same.

The challenge for the Spurs is much more straightforward: who guards Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, especially when all are on the floor? Ginobili and Leonard are quality defenders, but the Spurs seem to dislike playing them at the same time. Regardless, the two of them combine to play about 50 minutes a game, while the Thunder’s trio plays roughly 110 – other people will need to step-up. Parker, Green, Stephen Jackson, and Neal range from “average” to “bad” defenders (according to defensive PER) – neither of which are the type of guy you want guarding one of the Thunder’s big three.

We know both offenses will score (in all three games between the teams this year, both teams were over the NBA’s average offensive efficiency, and neither will melt under pressure, so what will the game hinge on? Statistically, the biggest pressure point is with the whistle – Oklahoma City attempts a free throw for every field goal attempt, leading the NBA in free-throw rate. On the other hand, the Spurs only allow a one free throw attempt per every five field goal attemtps – second best in the NBA. Simply: The Thunder thrive at the line (they also have the highest FT% in the NBA), and the Spurs excel at keeping teams off the line. If you’re looking for a single stat that will sway the battle, look no further.

After going back and forth and back again, trying to figure out who will win the series, the pick here is the Thunder in 6 – the talent level is somewhat overwhelming, and the NBA is still a league where talent reigns supreme. If the Spurs, however, manage to protect home-court in the first two games…look out.

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