(Sports Network) - The San Antonio Spurs are the closest thing we've seen to
basketball perfection in years and will enter the Western Conference finals
against the Oklahoma City Thunder riding a franchise-record 18-game winning
The young Thunder, with twin 23-year-old superstars in Kevin Durant and
Russell Westbrook, will play the bucking bronco trying to throw the Spurs when
this rodeo kicks off Sunday in the Alamo City.
The Spurs evidently aren't getting paid by the hour in these playoffs, racing
to the conference finals for the first time since 2008 with a shock-and-awe
campaign that included sweeps over Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Tim Duncan led six San Antonio players in double figures with 21 points and
nine rebounds last Sunday as Gregg Popovich's club completed its latest sweep,
taking down the Clippers 102-99.
The Spurs haven't tasted defeat in nearly six weeks, since an April 11 setback
to the Lakers.
"As far as the winning streak is concerned, it doesn't exist for us," Popovich
said. "Each game is its own and we don't talk about it, it doesn't come up and
it's not even on the radar for us."
San Antonio's experience is a tough hurdle for anyone to overcome. Duncan,
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have now played 130 playoff games as teammates,
the most among any active trio in the NBA. Meanwhile, Popovich has now amassed
116 career postseason wins, third all-time behind Phil Jackson (229) and Pat
"They know that if they just stick with each other and the system that often
times things are going to turn your way," Popovich said of his star trio.
"That experience they have gained over a long period of time and I guess they
feel comfortable with each other when they're in a tough environment."
"They have been together awhile; they have a lot of tricks to their game,"
Westbrook added. "I think myself, Kevin [Durant] and James [Harden] have to
step it up mentally to carry our team and take them to The Finals."
The Thunder, of course, are no slouch and were once in the driver's seat for
the conference's top seed until a slow start to April coupled with a resurgent
Spurs club dropped them from the West's perch.
Owners of the No. 2 seed, Oklahoma City needed just nine games to reach the
West finals for the second straight season, gaining revenge by sweeping the
defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, who beat then in last season's West
finals, before ousting Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in five games.
Westbrook scored 28 points and Durant had 25 in the clincher over the Lakers.
"It's going to be a mental challenge for us," Westbrook said when talking
about the Spurs after taking care of the Lakers. "They haven't lost in a while
and we've got to be prepared to play."
The Spurs went 2-1 against the Thunder during the lockout-shortened regular
season. Oklahoma City won the first meeting, 108-96 on Jan. 8 at Chesapeake
Energy Arena, but the Spurs came back to take the season series with a 107-96
victory Feb. 4 at the AT&T Center and a 114-105 road win March 16.
Parker was outstanding in the teams' second meeting, scoring a season-high 42
points and dishing out nine assists. Ginobili, however, did not play in any of
the games against the Thunder because he was sidelined with injuries.
POINT GUARD: Parker finished fifth in the MVP voting this season and outplayed
Chris Paul, who finished third, in the semifinals. Parker is now the
unquestioned leader of a Spurs team that used to be Duncan's. Quick as a
hiccup, the Frenchman averaged more than 18 points and a career-high seven
assists this season and his teardrop floater inside the lane is a thing of
beauty. He can beat you with his offense or decision-making as a facilitator
and is also underrated as a defender, although his lack of size could be a
problem against Westbrook. Parker is particularly dangerous when penetrating
and kicking to the Spurs' plethora of perimeter shooters, He can also create
contact and finish and is a nightmare running the pick and roll.
"[The Spurs] have become Tony Parker's team." former Spurs sharpshooter and
ex-NBA general manager Steve Kerr said. "He sets the entire table for the
Spurs. His speed leads to everything for them."
Westbrook is one of the game's rising young stars. A blur with the ball, the
UCLA product can drive at will and kick to the game's best pure scorer in
Durant at any time. A plus shooter with good size for the position, Westbrook
is always a threat to hang a triple-double on the opposition. Occasionally, he
will take some questionable shots and be a little reckless with the basketball
but that's something you have to put up with when a guy is this talented.
"My job is to first find a way to slow him down," Westbrook said when talking
about Parker. "Secondly, the best point guard is whose team wins. And my job
is to find a way to help my team win games."
SHOOTING GUARD: Danny Green was inserted into the San Antonio starting lineup
back in February, and has done a nice job as a role player that enables
Ginobili to come off the bench. Green, who was drafted by Cleveland in 2009,
has spent the last two years under the tutelage of Popovich and is a big
threat from three-point range. He's also Popovich's best one-on-one defensive
player and usually ends up guarding the opponent's best wing.
The Thunder's Thabo Sefolosha is a very good perimeter defender that will also
check the top wing player from the opposing team while on the floor. A rangy
player, Sefolosha is also an excellent rebounder from the backcourt and when
he gives the Thunder 10 or more points, you can basically guarantee an OKC win
CENTER: Boris Diaw wasn't good enough for the worst team of all-time but the
Frenchman is good enough for Popovich to take and make him the starting center
on a legitimate NBA title contender. Diaw has always had a high basketball IQ
and is an unselfish, fundamentally sound player who is undersized and lacks
conditioning. That said, his ability to move the basketball from the pivot is
something to be valued and Pop has been getting a solid 24 minutes a night
from the big man.
Kendrick Perkins bring a toughness to OKC and a presence that frees up Serge
Ibaka, who can freelance and use his shot-blocking skills as a weakside
defender. Perkins plays with a mean streak and can box out and set screens
with the best of them but has been dealing with a strained hip. He's been
called the best interior defender in the game by Kobe Bryant so he will be a
test for any of San Antonio's big men.
SMALL FORWARD: With all of the talk about San Antonio's age, rookie Kawhi
Leonard has brought some much-needed youth and athleticism back into the
equation. Like most rookies, Leonard is streaky offensively from night-to-
night but the team's imposing depth offers a safety valve if he isn't
producing. He's best shooting from the corners with his feet set. As a
defender, Leonard is a hustle player that crashes the boards.
"He could not have landed in a better place," Kerr said of Leonard. "The Spurs
saw something in him in terms of his ability to improve his shot, which hes
done dramatically. He can play multiple positions, he is a tremendous defender
and rebounder. He has a way about him; he's very calm and collected on the
Durant, meanwhile, is a nightmare for any defender. Perhaps the most talented
and skilled 6-foot-10 player ever, Durant can beat you off the dribble or over
the top. The former Texas star and No. 2 pick in the draft won his third
straight scoring title this season. Defenses must protect the perimeter but if
they crowd the lengthy forward, he can turn the corner and finish. Durant also
led the Thunder with eight rebounds per game and is an underrated defender, so
he's a major contributor in all aspects.
"Durant will be and is on the verge to be the best basketball player in the
world," TNT analyst Kenny Smith recently said. "All he has to do now is
change his game defensively and get to the rim just a little bit more
POWER FORWARD: Duncan may be the best power forward to ever play the
game. A slick shooter from the elbow and one of very few to use the glass,
"The Big Fundamental" brings a plethora of postseason experience into this
series. While on the downside of his brilliant career he is still as
consistent as they come.
Ibaka is an extraordinary athlete whose strength lies in his athleticism and
natural shot blocking ability. The lengthy big man is Oklahoma City's best
defender and an athletic marvel with the wingspan of a Learjet. In fact, Ibaka
finished second behind Tyson Chandler in the NBA's Defensive Player of the
BENCH: San Antonio's bench is arguably the best in the NBA with Ginobili
leading the way. An All-Star level player if he was getting 40 minutes a
night, the left-handed playmaker tempers his ego to fit in with Popovich's
system. He moves without the ball better than just about anyone and craves the
Veteran swingman Stephen Jackson, a tough, well-rounded former All-
Star, has also been reborn in San Antonio. He gives Popovich another tough
defender on the wing, one that's more physical and will also not shy away from
taking a big shot.
"Jackson is a pretty tough hombre. When he gets up on you and wants to guard
you, he's tough to go around," former NBA coach Mike Fratello said.
Popovich also uses three-point specialists Matt Bonner and Gary Neal as well
as gifted big man Tiago Splitter and rebounding machine DeJuan Blair. All in
all this is a ridiculously strong group and it's what sets the Spurs apart
from most teams.
"Our second unit can be as good as a lot of the starting fives in the league,"
Parker said. "Our second unit is playing very well and they have been playing
great all season."
On the other side, Harden was the runaway winner for the NBA's Sixth Man of
the Year award and is an excellent two-way player. OKC usually closes with a
group that includes "The Beard," who is as crafty as they come.
"His pick and roll game is unreal," Durant said of Harden. "It's fun to watch,
fun to be a part of. The best part about our team is that we have a lot of
guys who can play off each other, and we complement each other well."
Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed are Scott Brooks' options up front off the
bench while veteran Derek Fisher and three-point specialist Daequan Cook will
get minutes in the backcourt.
Collison will bang down low while Mohammed is another defensive stalwart who
can mix it up with opposing big men. Fisher, meanwhile, has the experience to
be effective in limited doses.
"[Nick] Collison gives you the energy," Fratello said. "Good enough to hit the
17-foot jump shot, he will take a charge, anytime a guy drives the line he's a
shot blocker, he's an offensive rebounder -- all the small things that you
require from certain guys on your team."
COACHING: The fact that Diaw and Jackson have both been big-time contributors
in San Antonio tells you all you need to know about Popovich as a coach. He
simply gets more out of players than others and while he often downplays "The
San Antonio way," it's obvious he's able to connect with players while others
can't. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year is simply the top mentor in the
"There's great camaraderie on this team, something that is hard to duplicate,"
Fratello said. "They have the same work ethic and common goals. The older,
more experienced players have passed along what this program is all about."
Brooks, the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, is one of the game's top young
mentors and has melded defensive-minded players like Perkins, Ibaka and
Sefolosha in with Durant, Westbrook and Harden to turn Oklahoma City into a
solid title contender.
PREDICTION: This series could be for the NBA championship since these two
clubs look like the best in basketball. On paper, San Antonio has one
weakness, the lack of a lockdown perimeter defender that can shadow Durant or
Westbrook on a consistent basis. That said, Popovich has a wide array of plus-
defenders and different looks to throw at each.
"The Spurs must make Kevin Durant play defense," Smith said. "The second part
is to make Russell Westbrook a driver and not a jump shooter because his pull-
up jump shot is better than his drives to the rim."
Focusing on the Spurs' lone weakness, however, ignores all the headaches a
deep, balanced team like San Antonio will give OKC, a club that's not quite as
deep and certainly doesn't have the mettle-tested veteran leadership that a
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will provide.
In the end, the Thunder will live to regret their April slipup and lose a Game
7 in the Alamo City.
"The Spurs run almost every play to perfection," former NBA star Shaquille
O'Neal said. "The pick is set correctly, they cut hard and they make the right
pass. They're not going to be beat. I think the series will go six or seven
games. The team that values each possession that has the fewest turnovers and
that gets the easiest baskets is going to win; but I'm still going with the
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: SPURS in 7
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