The Miami Heat might be the reigning NBA champions, but for one thing, they’re in big trouble. Moreover, the winner of the Western Conference Finals is likely to be favored to win this season’s NBA title. Once again, TNT gets the better conference final series, which should make basketball viewers happy. What should one look for when the Oklahoma City Thunder clash with the San Antonio Spurs? Let’s get right down to business.
NOTE: A great primer on this series — one that stands on its own, apart from the five keys mentioned below — can be found here.
5 – MANU, MILLS, AND MEANINGFUL MINUTES
The Oklahoma City Thunder are here in the West Finals instead of the Los Angeles Clippers for a number of reasons, one of them being that when Chris Paul sat in the West semifinals, the Thunder destroyed the Clippers. Chris Paul deserves a strong dose of criticism for failing to win that series (chiefly, his gack attack at the end of Game 5), but the one thing that not only can, but should, be offered in his defense is that Darren Collison did not back him up very well.
Tony Parker might be physically fine for this series, as he has claimed. However, a tweak could occur at any moment, reshaping the balance of power in this series. San Antonio has spent much of the past two regular seasons learning how to pace itself and play with all sorts of different lineup combinations. The Spurs’ depth and versatility are two of their core strengths. San Antonio doesn’t have to outscore Oklahoma City when Parker sits. If the Spurs can merely draw even when Manu Ginobili and/or Patty Mills fill in at the point, San Antonio’s odds of winning this series will go way up.
4 – OKC’S THIRD SHOOTER AND THE NEED FOR MORE OFFENSE
The Thunder’s loss of Serge Ibaka is going to affect this series in a number of ways. In all likelihood, the newfound absence of a key interior defender means that OKC will probably need to rely on its ability to score. The Thunder have to devote more of their energies to maxing out on offense rather than trying to be great on defense, because without Ibaka, high-level defensive performances aren’t achievable against the Spurs, provided that Parker is physically fit for the entirety of the series.
Oklahoma City has to win games 130-125 instead of 102-97. To this end, the Thunder will need a third shooter to announce his presence in Game 1 or 2 (enough to get a road split in the Alamo City) and then remain locked in for each of the Thunder’s three home games in the series. Caron Butler is the player most likely to become that third shooter, accompanying Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If Butler or perhaps Thabo Sefolosha can consistently hit threes, OKC can play games in the 120s and simply outrace the Spurs to the finish line, even with minimal defense.
In an Ibaka-free context, a pure shootout is probably the kind of game the Thunder would prefer to play. Escaping the clutches of the Spurs’ defense seems more realistic than thwarting the rhythms of the Spurs’ offense.
3 – GREEN AND BELINELLI: GROWTH AND CHANGE, OR STAGNATION AND REPEATED AGONY?
When the Spurs lost a 2-0 series lead to OKC in the 2012 West Finals, no player stood at the heart of San Antonio’s failure more than Danny Green. Head coach Gregg Popovich lost faith in Green during that series, and understandably so. Green was rattled in the minutes he played from Games 3 through 6, when the Thunder reeled off four straight wins to make their first NBA Finals appearance. Green grew from that series, becoming an essential part of San Antonio’s 2013 run and the team’s best player in the NBA Finals against Miami. Now, though, Green has to stare down the demon in the state of Oklahoma… and in his own mind. San Antonio has the advantage in this series with Ibaka on the sideline, but a no-show from Green would do a lot to balance out the scales.
Green is familiar with Popovich’s system. Marco Belinelli is in his first season with the Spurs. The arrival from the Chicago Bulls fit in with the Spurs during the regular season. He vanished in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, but he came alive in the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers. If Belinelli, the newcomer to the Spurs, and Green — the player who has come of age within the organization — can both make significant contributions, it’s hard to see how the Spurs, already blessed with Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and Tim Duncan, are going to lose this series.
2 – NICK COLLISON GETS HIS MOMENT
The quiet, steady, productive backup seems to do good things when he takes the court. More to the point, Collison probably should have received a lot more playing time from coach Scott Brooks during the 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. Yet, Collison was held back, while Brooks continued to show (too much) faith in Kendrick Perkins. You don’t need to be told what happened in that Finals series.
With Serge Ibaka sidelined for the second half of Game 6 of the West semifinal series against the L.A. Clippers last Thursday night, Collison stepped in — not because Brooks gained a moment of insight, but because he had few other options to replace Ibaka. Collison calmly hit a few shots and gave OKC terrific energy in the paint. He substantially helped the Thunder’s cause, pushing his teammates into the West Finals.
Collison should now see extended minutes against San Antonio. Will his savvy be the perfect antidote for the Spurs’ experience? Will his attention to detail give OKC an alert presence near the rim that will cut into San Antonio’s offensive production? The superstars on both teams will get plenty of attention from TNT and everyone else. Yet, the men who will fill in for Ibaka are going to have a lot to say about how this series develops. Collison’s at the forefront of that particular group.
1 – RUSSELL WESTBROOK MUST BECOME “BESTBROOK”
The Spurs hold more cards, more weapons, as long as Tony Parker is healthy. If Parker plays the series at or near full speed (close enough to it, at any rate, that San Antonio’s execution and performance are not substantially affected), Oklahoma City will need special performances from its stars to win. Durant might be the reigning MVP of the league, the face of the franchise, but the heartbeat of the Thunder is Westbrook. His energy sets the tone on good nights, and his lack of energy (when evident) coincides with a more body-snatched version of the Thunder. For those reasons alone, Westbrook is a central figure in this series.
However, beyond the realm of energy, Westbrook has a window of opportunity in this series: He’s the quickest player on the court. If he can get to the rim at will and beat doubleteams or hedges, and then — on other possessions — knock down threes that will subsequently draw more attention, the Thunder can create endless opportunities at the offensive end. They can put Durant and the aforementioned Caron Butler in position to shoot a lot of open triples. They can make it rain against the Spurs and return to the NBA Finals.