The NBA Playoffs: 2012 Western Finals Preview

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
Season Series: Spurs 2-1 

How the SPURS got here: The San Antonio Spurs have dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs with sweeps against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs have won 6 of their 8 games in double digits and they lead the playoffs in average winning margin (+13.7). In short, the Spurs have not been tested and they have won 18 straight games including the regular season. They are the best team in the NBA, they had the best record in the regular season and they are the only undefeated team in the playoffs. Their Big 3 are healthy, rested and clicking plus they have the deepest bench of the remaining teams. In addition, they have the best coach in the league and current Coach of the Year.  

Their Strengths: The Spurs are an offensive juggernaut. They were second in scoring in the regular season and first in the playoffs. They score in many different ways from Parker's use of the pick and roll to Duncan's low post play to Ginobili's dribble penetrations and finally to their three-point shooters (Bonner, Green, Neal and more). They play excellent team basketball and their ball movement is tops in the playoffs (24 assists per game). The unselfish play leads to a lot of easy and uncontested shots which have resulted in being the best in shooting percentage (49%) and tops in threes (42%). Their bench is the deepest in the league with Ginobili, Bonner, Jackson and Splitter good enough to become starters for other teams. The bench play have eased the minutes for the Big 3 with Parker only averaging 35 mpg, Duncan 32 mpg and Manu at 26 mpg. Tim Duncan has played amazing in the playoffs, flashing his vintage form with 18 ppg and 9 rpg. He has not played that good in years. 

Their Weaknesses: The Spurs in recent years have been known for their defense but not this season. They have been decent in the playoffs but that can be attributed to their lack of competition (no disrespect to the Jazz and Clips). The Jazz were just happy to be in the playoffs and were overwhelmed while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were hobbled for the Clippers. Their unselfishness and ball movement are great most of the time but the extra passing could lead to deflections and steals. They are not very good on transition defense and the Spurs dont have elite athletes. Spurs are an average team when it comes to turnovers (13.1 tpg) in the playoffs and their opponents average just about the same (13.8) compared to the Spurs.     

X-Factor: Manu Ginobili has not shot well in the first two rounds (40% in 2s, 26% in 3s). He's only averaging 11 ppg with 2.4 turnovers. Ginobili needs to contribute more to be able to negate the playmaking capabilities of James Harden.

How the THUNDER got here: The 2nd-best team in the playoffs are 8-1 with the lone loss coming from a close game against the Lakers. The Thunder dispatched of the ex-champs Mavericks in quick four games while the Lakers gave more of a fight in 5 games. Unlike the Spurs, the Thunder have played in close games with half of their wins within 3 points or less. Even their one loss came at just 2 points. Kevin Durant has made two game-winning shots and is money in the clutch. The Thunder are battle-tested and they are in their second straight Western Finals. Coach Scott Brooks was a previous winner of Coach of the Year so he aint no slouch. 

Their Strengths: The Thunder Big 3 can score in bunches. They are the highest scoring trio in the regular season and the playoffs averaging about 68 points a game. The Thunder are second in scoring in the playoffs and they can certainly hang with the Spurs on offense. Their transition offense is superb, arguably the best (could be the Heat) and they have four elite athletes (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka) who can run the floor hard and create mismatches. The Thunder shoot free-throws at 84% (best) and they are a decent three-point shooting (35%) team. They have dribble penetrators in Westbrook and Harden who are adept at getting fouls and making their foul shots. Kevin Durant can get any shot he wants and when he's hot, the Thunder look unbeatable. 

Their Weaknesses: The Thunder have been pretty good with taking care of the ball in the playoffs but during the regular season, they led the NBA in turnovers. They are a young and fast team and sometimes mistakes are unavoidable. They are an isolation-heavy team with Westbrook taking more shots than Durant and they have no low-post presence. Ibaka gets most of his opportunities from the mid-range and Perkins would rather defend and rebound than score. Most of their offense comes from fast break points and isolation plays. But if James Harden assumes the playmaking chores, the Thunder are better with their ball movement and pick and rolls.

X-Factor: Serge Ibaka will defend Tim Duncan more often than Perkins and he needs to limit TD from getting his numbers. Ibaka will also need to improve his defensive switches and rotations when the Spurs use their pick and rolls with Tony Parker.

Key Match-up: Parker vs. Westbrook. The point guard battle will dictate the pace of the series. Westbrook has not been challenged defensively in the previous rounds and he was able to focus all his energy and efforts into scoring. Parker is a terrific pick and roll player and he could create havoc on switches. 

What will probably happen: The two best teams in the NBA will battle in the Western Finals and most think that the winner will be the eventual NBA champion (I somewhat agree). Both teams are evenly matched and they can both score in bunches. The big advantage for the Spurs is their low-post play where they can slow the game down to limit transition opportunities for the Thunder. If the Spurs can get Ibaka in foul trouble, the Spurs will dominate inside. The Spurs need to take care of the ball and here's where the Thunder can pounce on if they get deflections and have their defensive rotations perfect. The Thunder have superstar scorers in Durant and Westbrook and if they get hot, the Spurs are in trouble. If Harden outplays Manu consistently, the Thunder can easily play their Big 3 more often than the Spurs which could result in more transition offense points. This is a very hard series to pick. Either team can win. I'll go to the team with more championship experience, a better coach and the home court advantage. 

Prediction: Spurs in 7. 
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