Going into the much-ballyhooed 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs are considered the favorites. While San Antonio is undoubtedly the hotter team over the last couple months, do they deserve to be the favorites over the Thunder? Yes, I believe they do.
Here are the top eight reasons why I believe:
8. Uncle Mo
While it can be argued how much momentum matters in the playoffs (if it matters at all), my opinion is simple: Momentum can't hurt. And that's especially true with how well the Spurs have been playing lately. An 18-game winning streak and winning 29 of their previous 31 games can't -- and shouldn't -- be ignored.
During that 29-2 run, the Spurs have outscored their opponents by 13.2 points per game. Over the same stretch, the Thunder are 21-10 with an average margin of a 6.6 points -- or exactly half of San Antonio's margin.
Many pundits may point to Oklahoma City's experience and success in close games, especially in the first two rounds of the playoffs. However, there's one thing better than being a team that is great in close games: Being a team that routinely blows out the competition. Winning close games always requires a certain amount of luck, while there is nothing lucky about smashing the opposition.
7. OKC's Lineup Quandary
The Thunder have a set rotation that they've utilized over most of the last two seasons. That rotation features Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup and James Harden coming off the bench -- even though Harden is clearly the better player. This alignment usually works well for Oklahoma City because it allows Sefolosha, by far the team's best perimeter defender, to lockup the other team's best offensive swingman at the outset.
But there's one glaring problem with that strategy in this series: San Antonio's best swingman, Manu Ginobili, comes off the bench. To begin games, what will Sefolosha's purpose be on defense? He'd be overkill against Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard. Perhaps the Thunder will put him on Parker ... but that cross matchup would probably just make the Spurs even deadlier in transition.
Green and Leonard, like Sefolosha, are primarily defensive players. However, they are both good enough offensively to be assets on that end on most nights. Sefolosha, on the other hand, is a much more offensively-challenged player than either Green or Leonard, to put it nicely. Thus, if Sefolosha isn't serving a purpose on defense, it'll be difficult for the Thunder to justify starting him.
A solution for OKC could be to move Sefolosha to the bench. And while that may very well happen, the alteration of a well-oiled rotation probably won't be seamless for the young squad.
6. Threes as Weaponry
No matter how you slice it, the Spurs are superior from beyond the three-point line. While the Thunder's shooting from downtown should be classified as above average, the Spurs are elite. During these playoffs, the disparity between the two teams has widened. In the Mavericks and Lakers, the Thunder went against two teams who are weak at defending against three-pointers, yet OKC is shooting less threes and shooting a lower percentage than in the regular season. Conversely, the Spurs are sizzling from deep in the playoffs -- both in terms of makes and percentage.
Three-point shooting against the Thunder is vital for one reason: OKC is far and away the best shotblocking team in the NBA. They thrive at swarming to the paint from the weakside; when not rejecting attempts, they are oftentimes altering the desired trajectory. In addition to Serge Ibaka, the league's leading shotblocker, Nazr Mohammed, Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant can also block shots at relatively high rates.
To combat that shotblocking, the Spurs will space the court with shooters. That means San Antonio will spend as much time as possible with four three-point marksmen simultaneously on the court. In theory, such an arrangement should make Ibaka (and the other shotblockers) think twice about leaving his man to hunt blocks.
In general, everything suggests the Spurs will have the advantage when it comes three-point shooting in the series. The Spurs are above average at limiting open three-point looks on defense. The Thunder, on the other hand, are in the middle of the pack when it comes to defending the three-point line.
5. The Turnover Battle
Typically, turnovers haven't really been an issue in the playoffs for the Spurs in the Tim Duncan Era. San Antonio doesn't force many turnovers but they also don't turn it over much, so it usually evens out over the course of a series. However, in the 2012 WCF, turnovers will be in focus.
During the regular season, the Thunder turned it over more than any team in the NBA. But against the Lakers in the second round, OKC's turnovers were way, way down. They went from a regular season average of 16.3 turnovers per game to only 9.0 per game against L.A. -- a microscopic amount.
However, that feat by the Thunder should come with a bolded footnote. It's not sufficient to say the Lakers were poor at forcing turnovers. In fact, since turnovers became an official statistic in the NBA, no team has ever forced turnovers at a lower rate than the 2011-12 Lakers.
Although the Spurs were the sixth worst team in the NBA at forcing turnovers this season, they were able to force in excess of 20% more turnovers than the Lakers. If San Antonio could force Oklahoma City to turn the ball over at their regular season rate, that could be a series-changing accomplishment.
On the other end, the Spurs were the third least turnover-prone in the NBA this season. Add in the fact that the Thunder forced turnovers at the eighth lowest rate in the league and, on paper at least, the Spurs don't appear destined to turn the ball over much in this series.
4. Run, I Dare You
In the lead up to this series, we'll hear a lot about how the Thunder want to take advantage of their young legs and get out and push the tempo. The truth, however, is the Thunder would be foolish to think that strategy would work against the Spurs. San Antonio is the most efficient transition team in the NBA and they become virtually unbeatable in fast paced games.
Consider this: In games in which there have been at least 94 possessions, the Spurs have won 21 straight games. Over the same time frame, the Thunder are 11-7 at games played at that pace. In other words, if the Thunder think they can run the Spurs out of the building, they'll be in for a rude awakening.
If the pace becomes elevated, the key for the Spurs will be to avoid giving up easy transition buckets. The Thunder have the athletes to finish two-on-one and three-on-two fast breaks nearly every time. But if the Spurs can get back on defense and contest shots, San Antonio is more than happy to allow OKC to run until they get a bluish tint.
3. Lineup Versatility
Though Oklahoma City's starting lineup features a tradition quintet, one of their team's deadliest qualities is their versatility. They are able to switch from traditional to big to small and back again without skipping a beat.
The man most responsible for their lineup versatility is Kevin Durant. He's about an inch and a half taller than his listed height of 6-foot-9 and has an enormous wingspan of nearly 7-foot-5. He's extremely mobile and has added enough strength to thrive at shooting guard, small forward and power forward.
The good news for the Spurs is their lineups are nearly as versatile, largely due to the emergence of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Green can defend three positions, while Leonard can actually guard four positions. Both players are also really good rebounders for their size who aren't afraid to bang in the painted area. As a result, there's a good chance that OKC's lineup versatility can be mostly neutralized by San Antonio's young duo.
If Durant is at power forward, the Spurs can just move Leonard to power forward. As long as Green is in the game along with Manu Ginobili or Stephen Jackson for added tenacity and toughness, the Spurs should be able to go right back at the Thunder with a quality small ball lineup of their own.
If the Thunder try to go big, the Spurs have a number of big lineup options including the usage of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together, or playing Leonard at shooting guard. Sometimes Pop gets criticized for mixing and matching so much during the regular season, but this is an example of how his experiments could pay notable dividends.
2. Where No Star Point Guard Has Gone Before
This era of Thunder has played a total of six series in the playoffs. Here are the starting point guards they've gone against: Jason Kidd twice, Ramon Sessions, Derek Fisher, Mike Conley and Ty Lawson. While solid point guards, there is no star on that list or anyone close to the level of Tony Parker. In this upcoming series, going against a point guard of Parker's quality is going to be a new experience for Oklahoma City in the postseason.
Coming out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook had the reputation of a defensive stopper. And while he has far surpassed his offensive expectations, his defense thus far in his career can best be described as inconsistent. Opponents had a PER of 16.1 against him this season. While not an astronomically high number, it's higher than any of the other perimeter players on the Thunder.
In the last two seasons, Parker and Westbrook have gone at each other for a total of 178 minutes. Per 40 minutes against Westbrook, Parker averaged 26.3 points and 7.4 assists on 50.6% shooting from the field. On the other side, per 40 minutes against Parker, Westbrook averaged 21.9 points and 7.2 assists on 39.9% shooting.
All that said, Westbrook is playing great basketball right now. He seems to be excelling on both sides of the court and he has been one of the best players in the NBA so far in the 2012 playoffs. He very well may be up to the challenge of slowing Parker. But, the point is, nobody knows for sure. At the very least, I assume it will be a little bit of an adjustment for Westbrook in that he'll be forced to play both ends of the court. Against the Mavs and Lakers, that was rarely, if ever, the case.
If you've been locked away in a dungeon since 2007, you wouldn't be surprised that defense is the leading reason why the Spurs should be considered the favorite in a series. However, defense looked like anything but a strength to begin this season. As the season progressed, San Antonio's defense went from poor to pretty bad to average to where it is now. Where is that, exactly? I'd say somewhere north of Above Average Avenue and south of Best Boulevard.
Over the last third of the regular season, the Spurs were in the top five or six in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency. During the playoffs, the defensive stats have gotten even better: San Antonio has allowed only 97 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, that's 6.3 points better than their defensive efficiency in the regular season. In fact, you can make a good case that the Spurs have played the best defense of any team in the playoffs.
(To make that case, I will simply take each playoff team's actual defensive efficiency thus far in the postseason and compare it to their expected defensive efficiency -- a number equal to the average offensive efficiency of their playoff opponents during the regular season.)
Best Defenses as Percentage Better than Expectation
Yes, the Jazz were green. Yes, the Clippers were hobbled. But so far, the San Antonio defense has been sturdy in the postseason. The Thunder, on the other hand, statistically have the worst defense of any team still alive in the playoffs. Yes, they had a relatively difficult road in the first two rounds but it's undeniable that the Thunder have been winning mostly with their offense.
Against OKC, the Spurs will have their hands full defensively. Durant, Westbrook and Harden are all amazing offensive players. If you are San Antonio, four aspects give you hope:
A) Outside of Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the only other halfway decent offensive threat is Ibaka. Everyone else is well below average offensively. OKC has some good spot-up shooters and a couple players that can score around the rim if ignored -- but it's basically their Big 3 with a sprinkling of Ibaka.
B) If you need a coach to figure out a scheme to stop a high-powered offense, there's probably nobody on the planet you'd want before Gregg Popovich. This is where the coaching advantage should work in San Antonio's favor. Pop has figured out genius ways to stop high-powered offenses before; let us hope he can do it again.
C) The Spurs might be able to limit their possessions. I mentioned turnovers above but rebounding is another area where the Thunder shouldn't cause too many problems. Oklahoma City is worse than the Clippers and Jazz at rebounding -- both on the offensive end and defensive end. When it comes to defensive rebounding, OKC is actually quite poor. If the Spurs can keep the Thunder off the offensive glass and gobble up a few more offensive boards of their own, the result could help tip the scale in San Antonio's favor -- especially when you add in the potential added possessions from the turnover differential.
D) The Big 3 of the Spurs has been together for a thousand years and their chemistry is impeccable. Meanwhile, the chemistry of the Thunder's Big 3 appears to be a work in progress. Grumblings can often be heard about Westbrook not giving the ball to Durant enough. Now with Harden needing more and more touches as he blossoms into a star, does OKC really know their own pecking order? Personally, it looks like they may need more time to figure it out. Don't get me wrong, they are already great offensively ... but I'm not 100% sure they have championship-caliber chemistry right this second. What will happen if the Spurs are having success and the chips are down? The Spurs can hope that the Thunder need another full season to reach their peak effectiveness.
Overall, I'm optimistic of San Antonio's chances. It's not going to be easy regardless of what Spurs fans who are blinded by the glare of the 18-game winning streak will tell you. It will require a number of players being at the top of their game. I haven't yet decided on my final prediction but I really do believe the Spurs can do this.