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Western Conference Finals Preview: (1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder

Let's switch things up. As the playoffs roll on, we've reached the Western Conference Finals. It's a battle between the two top teams in the Conference as the Spurs and Thunder will battle for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

How'd these teams do in the regular season? Let's check the numbers:

2011-2012 Regular Season

Pace

Offensive Efficiency

Defensive Efficiency

Turnover Rate

Offensive Rebounding %

Free Throw Rate

Effective FG%

Opponent eFG%

San Antonio

94.9 108.5 100.6 12.81 25.09 26.1 52.85 48.88

Oklahoma City

95.3 107.1 100 15.25 27.76 33.4 51.6 46.46

League Average

93.8 101.8 101.8 13.77 26.93 27.6 48.7 48.7

Looking at San Antonio in the regular season, the transformation of this team came into full bloom this season. For as long as gregg Popovich has been coaching San Antonio, the Spurs have always played at a slow, deliberate pace. But, as time has gone on & the personnel changed, Pop adapted his style to a faster, almost European-style game. Even though they were the #1 seed last season, they've been a better team this season. The defense is above average, but their real strength has been their offense. They've been the best offense this season in terms of points per 100 possessions, and that's thanks in large part to their excellent three point shooting. They were 7th in attempts and tops in %, which led to them being number 1 in Effective Field Goal % & #2 in True Shooting Percentage. They didn't get to the free throw line much, which makes sense considering that they didn't grab that many offensive rebounds (who really cares when you shoot it as well as they do?), didn't have that many attempts at the rim (15th in the league), or employ a "shot-creator" that draws a ton of fouls like Miami & Oklahoma City do.

Say hello to the second best offense in the NBA. Much like San Antonio, Oklahoma City likes to get up and down the floor. The Thunder were 2nd in points per 100 possessions, third in eFG% & tops in True Shooting%. The strength of this team is their ability to draw fouls. They were tops in Free Throw rate & percentage, thanks in large part to the efforts of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, who were all in the Top 10 in free throws attempted. Their defense was better than we think, as they were Top 10 in defensive efficiency. Also, and perhaps most importantly, they were Top 5 in the league in opponent's field goal percentage at the rim, from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet. A lot of that is thanks to the defense of Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

How have they done in the playoffs? Let's take a look:

2011-2012 Playoffs

Pace

Offensive Efficiency

Defensive Efficiency

Turnover Rate

Offensive Rebounding %

Free Throw Rate

Effective FG%

Opponent eFG%

San Antonio

91.5 112 97 12.9 20.5 21.2 54.8 44.9

Oklahoma City

89 112.4 103.3 10.7 23.1 26 50.6 44.9

That 8-0 playoff record is no mirage. The Spurs beat the hell out of the Jazz in Round 1, and took the Clippers' heart in Round 2. I remember after the first quarter of Game 3 when San Antonio fell behind by 22, I thought to myself "maybe Popovich will use this game to rest his key guys." The score the next three quarters? 85-53. They'll never be out of a game due to their great shooting, solid defense, and impeccable ball control. Everything so far matches up to their regular season, as they've been stupendous shooting the ball, haven't done much on the offensive glass, and have stifled their opponents on defense.

In general, the game tends to slow down in the playoffs, so I wouldn't read too much into the slow pace the thunder & Spurs have played at. However, there is something that I think deserves mention. They've been turning over the ball much less in the playoffs compared to the regular season, when they had the highest turnover rate in the league. They swept the Mavericks in the First Round, and took out the Lakers in 5. They've had a tougher road to the Conference Finals than the Spurs, as a lot of their games have come down to the wire.

The regular season series:

Game 1

Game 2

Game 3

Before we jump into the matchups and predictions, let's head back into time. The first clip takes us back to the 1999 Western Conference Finals between San Antonio and Portland. This is extra special because Sean Elliot had just returned to basketball after a kidney transplant.

The second clip brings us to Oklahoma City's only win in last year's Conference Finals vs. Dallas.

And lastly, we head back to the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

*pours out a little beverage for basketball in Seattle

Game 1 starts at 8:30 Sunday night on TNT. Jump time!

Point Guard: Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook

To truly appreciate Parker's excellent season, we have to go back to 2003. We remember that season. The Nets made it back to the Finals and ran into Tim Duncan, who had a series for the ages as the Spurs won the Championship. That summer, Jason Kidd was a free agent and almost signed with the Spurs. The popular belief at the time was that Parker should be pushed aside for the superstar Kidd. Here are some snippets of ESPN's Ric Bucher talking about Kidd vs. Parker:

What he is not, though, is a reason to pass on Jason Kidd if the San Antonio Spurs can get him.

I only bring this up because I've heard arguments to the contrary, and the subject is sure to be hot fodder if there's a Nets-Spurs final. The very notion makes my ears bleed, watching Parker repeatedly sort-of-kind-of run a high pick-and-roll that does nothing other than reduce the shot clock to 12 seconds while Kidd produces an easy shot for himself or a teammate on nearly every possession.

To Parker's credit, he's only 21. As the 28th pick in the 2001 draft, he has proved to be a tremendous discovery. If the Spurs were content in simply being a playoff team, he's good enough, alongside Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, to get them there every year.

But if it's a perennial championship contender they're building, Parker simply isn't the answer. He is, at best, a slightly smaller, hopefully less injury-prone Kevin Johnson. That made the Suns very good for many years, but it never made them the best.

Funny how things turned out 9 years later. While Jason is winding his career down, Parker is raising his level of play. He had a great season, as he finished 5th in the MVP voting. Parker is one of the better finishers in the league, as he shot very well near the rim and from 3-9 feet, as his trademark floater led to one of his better seasons. He didn't face much of a challenge from Devin Harris in Round 1 and faced an injured Chris Paul in Round 2. In order for San Antonio to make it to the Finals, Parker is gonna have to raise his level of play even higher.

Russell Westbrook is an intriguing player. On some nights, like Game 5 vs. Los Angeles, he can take over games and remind us why he is one of the better point guards in basketball. And on other nights, he makes you wonder why he's shooting so much and why he won't give the ball to Kevin Durant. He is super aggressive, as he tied with Derrick Rose for second most attempts at the rim and was in the Top 10 in free throws attempted in the league this season. Westbrook might have a tough time getting to the line, as the Spurs had the second lowest foul rate in the league (only behind the Lakers). The midrange game is probably gonna have to work for the Thunder, and Russell would certainly be up to that challenge. In the regular season, he took 5 shots per game from 16-23 feet, and shot 43% from that distance, which is above the league average of 38%. San Antonio didn't fare defensively in this area, as they allowed the second highest opponent FG% in the league while allowing teams to take the fourth highest attempts per game. In general, deep twos aren't the best shots to take, but I would think the Thunder will do well in this area.

Advantage: Even

Shooting Guard: Danny Green vs. Thabo Sefolosaha

One of the reasons why the Spurs lead the league in three point shooting is Danny Green's excellence from downtown. He gets a lot of good looks due to the slashing abilities of Parker and Manu, and he converts his three pointers at a 44% clip, which was one of the best regular season marks in the league. He's maintained that excellence in the playoff, as he's been shooting 46% from downtown. With Oklahoma placing a lot of focus on Parker, look for Green to get some good looks.

7-18, 9-25, 9-25, 12-28, and 15-33. Not sure what these numbers represent? Those were the shooting numbers of Kobe Bryant vs. the Thunder in Round 2, and the majority of those shots were well defended deep two pointers. And who was the primary defender on Kobe for the Thunder? Yup, Thabo. He's a ferocious defender, and the numbers bare it out. According to 82 games, opposing shooting guards had a PER of 8.6 against him. He comes out looking even better on defense when you take into account that the Thunder were 10 points better on defense with him on the court than without. He focuses almost exclusively on defense, but he can hit his threes (43% in the regular season) if you leave him open.

Advantage: Oklahoma City

Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant

The rookie is gonna have his hands full here. He's had a solid season thus far, as he was one of the better rookies in the league this season. He's a solid finisher, OK defender, and great rebounder for his position. His rebounding helped the Spurs to become the best defensive rebounding team in the league this year. The teams were essentially equal on the glass, so Leonard is gonna have to make a major contribution on the glass for the Spurs to win this series.

The scariest thing about Durant is that he's this good, and he's only 23 years old. He can practically do it all on the court. He's a deadly shooter from anywhere on the court, he's super efficient, he's a good rebounder, capable passer, and improving as a defender. Much like Westbrook, look for KD to attack the Spurs in the midrange. I'm certain Popovich and the Spurs will scheme to get the ball out of his hands, but Durant's one of the best players in the league so expect him to perform well in this series.

Advantage: Oklahoma City

Power Forward: Boris Diaw vs. Serge Ibaka

Yes, Boris is still a classical human being. Diaw has experienced a renaissance since he joined San Antonio in late March. And while he's not playing at the level he was in 2005-2006, he's been shooting the ball well, doing a respectable job on the glass, and is still a great passing big man. In addition to all that, the "Boris Diaw is fat" jokes have died down, at least for the rest of this season.

ibaka is on a steady rise. He's gotten better as a jump shooter in each of his three seasons, he's durable, can finish at the rim with the best big men around, and is a fantastic defender. We all know about his shot blocking prowess, but he's a great individual defender as well. He can guard any big man in the league, and can do an adequate job covering small forwards when necessary. He's a keeper.

Advantage: Oklahoma City

Center: Tim Duncan vs. Kendrick Perkins

I love TIm Duncan. He's been outstanding ever since he entered the NBA all the way back in 1997. You can make a very strong case that he was the best player in the league after Jordan left in 1998 and before LeBron James rose to power in the mid 2000s. He's slowed down some from his glory days, but he's still one of the best big men in the league. His midrange jumper is still solid (you'd kill for your perimeter player to shoot 47% from 16-23 feet) and he's a stalwart in the paint. When speaking about the excellence of Duncan, John Raffo of Clips Nation had this to say:

The beauty of Duncan's game is that he really is gifted enough to play any of the three front court positions. You can't say that about Bynum or Howard.

We all remember what he did in the 2003 Finals (you suck Kenyon Martin), but he's a joy to watch. He's gonna have a fight on his hands, as Kendrick Perkins and the Thunder were one of the better interior defensive teams in the NBA.

Every time I see a picture of Perkins, he always looks pissed off. Despite that, he's back to full strength after being limited last season as he returned from a torn knee he suffered in the 2010 NBA Finals vs. the Lakers. Earlier this postseason, he suffered a hip injury, but because the Thunder swept Dallas and the Lakers played seven vs. Denver, Perk had enough time to heal up.

Advantage: San Antonio

Bench:

San Antonio: Manu Ginobli, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal

Oklahoma City: James Harden, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed, Daequan Cook

Advantage: San Antonio

Any relation to the Nets: Forgive me everybody...

Series Prediction: San Antonio in 7

As much as I like the Thunder going forward, the Spurs are just on a special run right now. Their offense is still excellent and their defense is peaking at the absolute right time. The major edge in San Antonio's favor in my opinion is their bench. When their starters exit their game, they can plug in guys who can perform at a high level. Outside of James Harden, I can't say the same for Oklahoma City. I think every game is gonna be competitive and come down to the final possession. The coaching advantage Pop has over Scott Brooks will play a role in end of game situations, as Brooks has received criticism in the mainstream media as well as the basketball blogosphere for his late game playcalls.

My pick for Series MVP: Tim Duncan.

They get to have the fun:

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