Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 5/26/12
When you think about playoff basketball, a certain type of game comes to mind: slow, grind-it-out halfcourt basketball with defensive-minded teams, hard fouls and short benches. That's not going to be what the Western Conference finals are all about. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder do care about defense and play it pretty well. But that's not what got them this far. Both teams blew through their Western competition including an astounding 16-1 combined record so far in the playoffs by using a lot of players, running at every opportunity and shooting tons of 3-pointers. Don't expect them to stop now. It's going to be fun to watch. Speed vs. speed. Both teams want to run. Everyone who's played them has focused on trying to slow them down. But when two running teams meet, it's release the hounds! It probably comes as no surprise to hear that about the Thunder, a team full of young guys who can run all day. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden aren't just good on the fast break. They're great, either attacking the rim or pulling up for transition jumpers. But if you haven't been paying attention, you may not know the Spurs also are an up-tempo team. They won four championships with a defense-first, halfcourt style centered around Tim Duncan. Now they've reinvented themselves as a high-powered offensive team that relies on Tony Parker's speed and great 3-point shooting. The Spurs ranked third in the league in scoring (behind only the Nuggets and Thunder), first in field-goal percentage and first in 3-point percentage. They tied the Bulls for the league's best regular-season record and have won 18 straight going into Sunday's Game 1 in San Antonio. Honestly, I never thought they'd be this good. But I don't think anyone knew how quickly their young players would fit into designated roles around their established stars. Guys like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are starting and playing key roles as defenders and 3-point shooters. Parker has really taken the reins of the team and had his best season. And you have to give credit to Duncan for being willing to step back and play a smaller role. Not all superstars are unselfish enough to do that. Gregg Popovich deserves a whole lot of credit, too. It's not easy changing your team's personality, especially when it's been so successful. But he was willing to adjust on the fly as Duncan aged. What hasn't changed is that the Spurs play the right way. Disciplined team defense. Unselfish offense. Making the right pass. No drama or nonsense. It's almost like a machine. The Thunder are a little more volatile. They can be explosive on offense when they get in the open court. But they turn the ball over a lot. They were last in the NBA in assists. Westbrook kind of personifies their style because he's a point guard who's always looking to attack and score. He gets some grief for that, but I really like Westbrook. As good as Parker is and he had an MVP-type season Westbrook is a better athlete and a better defender. That point-guard matchup is going to be tremendously important. Parker scored 42 points in one game against the Thunder in February. Westbrook scored 36 when they met in March. But it will be bad for Oklahoma City if Westbrook looks at it as a mano-a-mano competition to see who can score more. He needs to keep Durant involved and avoid getting goaded into taking a lot of long outside shots because that's what San Antonio's defense is going to give him. I think you may see the Spurs defend Parker like they did Chris Paul in the West semifinals, with a bigger defender like Danny Green on him and then double him on pick-and-rolls to get the ball out of his hands. The other key matchup is Manu Ginobili vs. James Harden, the former and current Sixth Man of the Year. Both are left-handed playmakers who could probably start for 26 other teams in the league, but they really spark their teams off the bench. They'll probably match up a lot against each other when the second units are in the game. You have to like Harden because he's younger, but Ginobili missed all three meetings with the Thunder in the regular season the Spurs won two, anyway and he can be a difference-maker in the series. Two other Spurs to watch are Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw. They were great midseason pickups and they could play important roles in this series. Jackson won a championship early in his career with San Antonio and can provide leadership and 3-point shooting. Diaw is starting at center and needs to be an offensive threat when the Thunder double-team Duncan. Kendrick Perkins will probably try to push Duncan out of the lane, like he did against Andrew Bynum in the West semis, but Serge Ibaka will come over to help and Diaw can make them pay. To me, the big question for the Thunder is whether they're disciplined enough on defense to handle the Spurs' precision and ball movement. It wasn't an issue last series because the Lakers' offense was more stagnant, but now OKC's rotations have to be precise. The Spurs will run the pick-and-roll a lot with Parker and Ginobili handling the ball. When those two get in the lane, all bad things happen to the defense because they can score in the paint, feed Duncan rolling to the basket or pass to open 3-point shooters. If you're picking your poison, I think you have to go underneath the screen and give Parker open jumpers. He can knock those down now, but it's better than the alternative. I think you'll see the Spurs try to slow down OKC's running game by sending just one guy to the offensive boards and having everyone else run back in transition. They also may take fewer corner threes because when you miss those, it can start a fast break the other way. The Thunder need to run because they don't have a low-post threat on offense. Ibaka isn't comfortable with his back to the basket. Perkins is a tough guy and plays with an edge I like to say he looks like a crabby old man but he's not really an offensive threat. I think Durant and Westbrook are the two best players in the series, and Harden's not far behind. Normally that would make me lean toward the Thunder because I think stars win games for you in the playoffs. But the Spurs are a unique team. They have a unique system, Popovich is a unique coach and they have unique stars. It's a tremendously unselfish organization from top to bottom, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No way will the Spurs beat themselves. You can't say that for sure about the Thunder. Oklahoma City has talent and athleticism and an incredibly bright future. San Antonio has the experience and the know-how to win the title now.
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