While the two sweeps to begin the 2012 NBA Playoffs have been fun for the Spurs and their fans, the difficulty level is about to be raised ten notches in the Western Conference Finals. In this series, there will be intriguing matchups that could very well decide which team will survive.
Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook
This is going to be a bloodbath. Two fantastic competitors at the top of their game clashing with a ton at stake. While Parker is probably an eyelash faster, Westbrook can elevates further off the ground.
Early in his career, I thought Westbrook was overrated. Then everyone turned on him and suddenly now I think he's underrated. Westbrook is probably the best pure athlete at point guard in the NBA and he plays very hard. He can catch fire scoring the ball and he has a well-rounded enough game to beat you multiple ways.
Parker has been very good defensively for much of this season -- and has been especially good on D in the playoffs. But this could go down as the biggest challenge he has ever faced, especially once you consider the Spurs likely won't be able to send much help his way. Westbrook has freedom to do basically whatever he wants and he has the tools to explode at any given moment.
On the other hand, let's not forget how much success Parker has had going back at Westbrook. Two of Parker's better games of the season came against Westbrook, including his season-high of 42 points back on Feb. 4. For the Spurs to pull this off, they need Parker at the top of his game.
Manu Ginobili vs. James Harden
This will be billed as Manu Ginobili 1.0 going up against Manu Ginobili 2.0. When you watch James Harden, you'll notice a lot of similarities between the two players. They're both left-handed guards who come off the bench that bring shooting, ball-handling, playmaking, passing, craftiness and a high basketball IQ to the table. It's safe to say they are the two best reserves in the NBA.
Harden has been very good to begin these playoffs. He's authored big play after big play and his ability to get to the free throw line has been a game-changing attribute.
Ginobili, conversely, has had a relatively slow start to the postseason. His outside shooting is off and he's just not as crisp as we've come to expect. The good news is we've seen glimpses of his greatness.
The Spurs will need Ginobili to at least play Harden to a stand-still. It's a tall order but I believe Ginobili will rise to the occasion.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant
Although Kawhi Leonard was really good against the Clippers, there's a galactic difference between Caron Butler and Kevin Durant. If Durant isn't the best player in the NBA, he's in the conversation. In my opinion, there's no question he's the game's most potent scorer. His length, touch and courage make him virtually unstoppable.
Welcome to the NBA, rook. Your task now is to save the Spurs season by slowing this wunderkind of a basketball player. No pressure or anything.
We'll see if Leonard is up for the challenge. So far this year, we haven't seen any reason to think that Leonard won't give it his all. Will that be enough? Let's hope so. Hypothetically, the Spurs could go with Stephen Jackson or Danny Green on Leonard but the only Spur who has the length and footspeed to bother Durant with any type of consistency is the rookie.
Tim Duncan vs. OKC's Frontline
Tim Duncan has been great thus far in the postseason. But this series won't be a stroll on a St. Croix beach. The Thunder will start games with Kendrick Perkins on him, who happens to be one of the very best post defenders in the NBA. Off the bench, Oklahoma City also has Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison to throw at Duncan. Both of those guys will bang with all of their might.
And if that isn't enough, the Thunder employ the league's best weak-side shotblocker in Serge Ibaka. Even if Duncan is able to get a clean look against that trio of low post defenders, Ibaka can come flying into the picture to negate the effort.
Danny Green vs. Thabo Sefolosha
These two defensive specialists could play a large role in this series. While they won't spend much time defending each other, if one of these two players can shut down an aforementioned player, that in itself could be a series-altering turn of events.
You can bet that the Thunder will use Sefolosha on Ginobili whenever possible. Sefolosha very well could be the closest thing the NBA has to a Bruce Bowen these days. He's a tremendous one-on-one defender who cools just about everyone he faces. I also wouldn't be surprised to see OKC experiment with Sefolosha on Parker.
Green isn't as good of a defender as Sefolosha but he's better offensively so he may be able to play more minutes this series. When he's out there, Pop will probably rotate him between Harden, Westbrook and Durant. Hopefully Green is able to do a number on Harden but he's really San Antonio's only hope of slowing down the Thunder's bench ace.
Boris Bonner vs. Serge Ibaka
I'm really interested to see how this plays out. Ibaka will want to be in the paint in order to block shots. The Spurs will counter with Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner -- two players who will roam out on the perimeter. If Diaw and Bonner can thrive on the outside, that could force Ibaka out of the paint ... or force OKC's coaching staff to take him out of the game.
But that's far from a given. Even if Ibaka cheats toward the paint, the Thunder have enough long athletes who can quickly rotate to challenge shots by Diaw and Bonner. On the other end, Ibaka will have an opportunity to score against two players who can't match his athleticism or length.
This battle between shooting and shotblocking won't get as much publicity as the other matchups mentioned in this thread, however it could prove to be just as vital.
Gary Neal vs. Derek Fisher
In Derek Fisher, Gary Neal will go up against someone who is just as slow . On paper, Neal should be able to stick with the 37-year-old Fisher. Unfortunately, Fisher has a bad habit of having success against the Spurs even when paper doesn't give him much hope.
Defensively, Neal has to do anything but give Fisher open three-pointers. Fisher has been on fire from distance in these playoffs. On offense, Neal's job will be to attack Fisher and look to score early and often.
Depth vs. Stamina
The Spurs have a fivesome off the bench in Neal, Ginobili, Jackson, Bonner and Tiago Splitter that are all part of the everyday rotation. San Antonio runs a ten-man rotation and is very likely to continue doing so against the Thunder.
Oklahoma City isn't quite as deep (they play about eight and a half players) but they make up for it with stamina. Durant averages more than 40 minutes per game in the playoffs and can play the entire second half of a game without breaking a sweat. Westbrook is also more than capable of playing long stretches without rest.
Traditionally in playoff basketball, especially when two teams are evenly matched, superstar stamina wins out over depth. To buck tradition, San Antonio's bench is going to have to play at an extremely high level this series. Otherwise, the eulogy to this Spurs season will include a passage about the Thunder's young legs simply being too much to overcome.
This may very well be the most complex series the Spurs have ever had to prepare for in the Tim Duncan Era. There is so much to consider and so many important matchups. It's going to be good.