By: Martin Sumners
Back in 1999, while Prince was partying, the NBA played a 50 game strike-shortened season that ended with the San Antonio Spurs being crowned champions. That first title for the Spurs began their odd dynasty as they would win the NBA Finals in only odd number years (2003, ‘05, and ’07). The only two figures who have been there from the beginning is power forward Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. Although Duncan at 36 years old is still looking spry and rejuvenated enough to play a few more years, this may his and his more aged cohorts Tony Parker (30) and Manu Ginobli (34), who both have won three titles, best last chance to win another ring.
The last time the Spurs won the title in 2007 after sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James, the Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t even exist. The franchise known as the Seattle Supersonics two weeks after the 2007 Finals would draft Kevin Durant. After playing one more year in the Pacific Northwest, the team moved to the Southwest and, boom, the Sonics became the Thunder. That same year, the Sonics/Thunder drafted Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The history of these franchises may play a larger part in the outcome of this series than the recent three game regular season series won by the Spurs 2-1. The Spurs will rely on their reservoir of past championship experiences that got deeper with the mid-season return of swingman Stephen Jackson, who left via free agency after winning a ring in 2003. The Thunder will rely on its recent draft history that includes Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and James Harden, who was drafted in 2009.
Set up like a Hollywood showdown, this series pits the Old West versus the New West. Although it’s not an odd year, an omen for the Spurs is that it’s a labor-shortened season similar to when the team won their first title. Omen spelled backwards is Nemo, as in Finding Nemo, and the Thunder is ready to show the world that they’re young but ready like the movie titular’s clownfish character.
Home Court: The Spurs as the No. 1 seed have the home court advantage over the No. 2 Thunder and, as so often in a series between closely matched teams, it could come down to that extra home game. In a Game 7, the home team wins 80% of the time. The Spurs have not lost since a regular season game against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 11. That is 18 consecutive games including the playoffs sweeps over the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. Like Newton’s first law of motion states that things in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, the Spurs are playing with a confidence that the force of the Thunder is not enough to stop its winning ways.
Three-Point Shooting: During the regular season, the Spurs were second in the league for three-points made per game (8.4) and led in three-point shooting percentage (.393). Along with Manu Ginobli, rookie small forward Kawhi Leonard, shooting guard Danny Green and power forward Matt Bonner, and reserve guard Gary Neal, the Spurs have a lethal deep shooting team. This lethal weapon has only become deadlier in the playoffs with increases in made threes to 8.9 and shooting percentage spiking at .423. However, the Thunder three-point shooting in the playoffs has become less dependable. Their three-points made has dropped from 7.2 to 6.4 per game and shooting percentage has dipped from .358 to .354.
Coaching: This is no disrespect to Thunder head coach Scotty Brooks, but Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is playing chess while Brooks is playing checkers. Although, Brooks has to be given credit for quickly turning around the Thunder after taking over early on in the 2008 season as the team labored under former coach P.J. Carlesimo. Also, Brooks engineered perhaps the turning point of the Lakers’ series in Game 2 by springing Durant on Kobe Bryant late in that game, which forced the turnover that got the Thunder rolling to the victory. However, Popovich brings the steel nerves earned through Air Force intelligence training. He never is afraid to do the unorthodox that could create advantages like in the Clippers’ series fouling Reggie Evans, a poor free throw shooter, to thwart a comeback. Beyond that, he has created a system that, although anchored by self-less superstar Duncan, gets the best out of each individual player.
X-Factor: Contain Russell Westbrook. The prevailing thought is that the Spurs have no one to defend 6’-10” Durant on the wing, but may try with 6’-7” rookie Kawhi Leonard. But Westbrook sets the agenda and if he gets off early, the Thunder is primed for victory. Specifically, the Spurs must make Westbrook drive rather than give him the opportunity to make his mid-range jumper. He has become proficient in this area of the court, whereas drives to the basket increases chances of a turnover or passing to an interior player like Serge Ibaka or center Kendrick Perkins, who are not offensive threats. That means Tony Parker may be relied on more for his defense than his offense.
Transition Offense: The Thunder offense is based on its three perimeter players Durant, Westbrook and Harden making outside shots or driving to the basket. But the Thunder becomes explosive and almost unbeatable if they are running in transition. This not only get its big offensive weapons quick points, but allows the role players like Ibaka or three-point shooter reserve Daequan Cook to contribute offensively. The best way to achieve this is to force its opponent to take and miss perimeter shots. With its big three hovering on the perimeter defending, any long rebound from an outside shot will ignite the break. Missed threes by the Spurs will be like lighting fluid to the Thunder offensive firepower.
Tuned-Up: While the Spurs have had an easy time battling an overachieving Jazz and less experienced and run-down injured Clippers, the Thunder faced more formidable challengers from defending champions Dallas Mavericks and Lakers. The Thunder showed mettle squeaking out two early wins at home versus the Mavs bolstering its confidence that it could win close games. Just as Durant made a game-winning shot versus the Mavs, he did that and more against the Lakers with his late defensive actions guarding Bryant and steals that played a big role in two wins.
Interior Defense: The defense of Perkins, Ibaka and Nick Collison off the bench was key in controlling the Lakers frontcourt of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. They will not be charged with as challenging of a task in this series with priority given to just Duncan and can almost ignore the other inside players in Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. With so little concern for the Spurs’ post play, the Thunder’s back-up center Nazr Mohammed may not even play much. Nonetheless, the presence of these interior defenders on Duncan can help the Thunder primary perimeter defenders like Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher remain snug with the Spurs’ three-point shooters.
X-Factor: The Thunder must find a way to keep in check the Spurs’ wildcard Manu Ginobli. He will fill whatever role is necessary to win: three-point shooter, distributor, perimeter defender or just overall menace. However, the Thunder have yet to see him in action all year as he missed all three regular season games between the two teams due to injuries.