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The Thunder are running into a Spurs bunch that has won 18 games in a row.
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Rolling Spurs train to be tested by youthful Thunder

By Charley Rosen, for
Posted May 21 2012 10:24PM - Updated May 22 2012 9:36AM

In the unlikely event that Miami fails to overcome the pesky Pacers, the survivor of this Western Conference final series will be a shoo-in to win the championship.

How the Thunder can win

They must simply overwhelm the Spurs with their superior speed, and quickness, as well as their considerable edge in overall talent.

Kevin Durant's high-stepping, long-armed drives hoopward should be much more productive without the Lakers tandem of seven-footers protecting the rim. Indeed, the only big who might threaten to block KD's (or any of his teammate's shots) is Tim Duncan.

Even so, San Antonio's baseline rotations are generally so faultless as to routinely induce charging fouls and turn simple layups into extremely complicated ones. Durant will also be confronted by the long-armed, surprisingly mature defense of rookie Kawhi Leonard, plus the Spurs swarming defense of high screen/rolls. Durant's long-range jumpers must be on-target, and his passwork must be quick and accurate. Moreover, there must be more movement when/if Durant settles into the pivot.

It's no secret that Russell Westbrook must also hit his jumpers while, at the same time, avoid launching too-quick shots -- especially if the Spurs succeed in imposing a grind-it-out tempo on the series. Even so, Westbrook has to constantly push the ball and turn each game into a track meet. While Westbrook is indeed a potent scorer, he provides a poor imitation of a point guard.

That's why he can't afford to make passes while airborne in the paint. A matchup of Westbrook and Tony Parker would be played at warp speed, but would place both of them in danger of piling up fouls. Accordingly, look for Westbrook to spend most of his time working against Gary Neal, Danny Green, and even Manu Ginobili.

When OKC is forced to play halfcourt offense, the free space on the nether side of their screen/rolls will be limited, so Westbrook must make quick, savvy decisions under swarming defensive pressure. Among other crucial considerations this means his having at least twice as many assists as turnovers. Even though he's playing against the smartest, best-coached team in the league, Westbrook still has to be a dynamic force.

With SA's defense focused on Durant and Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha has to bag a few treys and look to be more lively on offense. He also represents the Thunder's solitary lock-down backcourt defender. As such, he has the ability to lock down either Green, Neal, or Stephen Jackson, providing that he's perpetually mindful of this trio's propensity to take (and make) 3-balls.

His Velcro-defense will be abetted by the shot-blocking prowess of OKC's big men. Containing the tricky left-handed slants of Ginobili, however, is something else. And might Sefolosha take a few turns opposite Tony Parker? Whatever he does, and whomever he guards, it's imperative that Sefolosha avoid early foul trouble.

Kendrick Perkins can certainly out-bang Duncan in the low post, but will be vulnerable when TD turn-and-faces on the wing, and also when the Big Fundamental moves to the high post.

When operating against Tiago Splitter, Perkins can't turn his head on defense, and must also focus on boxing out. Cleaning the glass, dropping an occasional jumper, and setting stationary screens will be Perkins most significant contributions.

Serge Ibaka will undoubtedly start opposite Boris Diaw and will be lured away from the hoop to contest Diaw's perimeter offense. Unfortunately, this scenario will also reduce Ibaka's ability to protect the rim on defense. Fortunately, he covers more ground on defense than any other big in the NBA. When he inevitably is asked to defend Duncan, Ibaka has to curtail his habit of biting at every quasi-convincing fake. And, obviously, Ibaka has to convert more than half of his available mid-range jumpers.

James Harden and Ginobili have identical job descriptions: Score, play hustling defense, score, make timely passes, and score some more. Harden has to use his superior strength to overcome Ginobili's edge in quickness. Indeed, this could be the most critical (and the most fascinating) matchup of the series. Otherwise, Harden should have no trouble doing his duty when opposed by Neal, Green, or Jackson.

Nick Collison has to battle TD for every inch of position on every play, and make judicious use of all of his fouls.

Derek Fisher could easily catch a cold as Parker routinely zips past him, but he'll draw a charge or two, make at least one clutch shot, and continue to be a positive force on and off the court. However, Fisher was never quick to begin with and has lost at least a half-step. As a result, no matter whom he's guarding, he'll require inordinate help on defense.

Nazr Mohammed can hit mid-range jumpers. Period. His sub-par defense won't matter much only when he goes against Splitter.

Because of SA's continuous movement on offense, and especially the constant threat of backdoor cuts, the Thunder have to maintain an intense focus on playing defense even as the shot-clock approaches zero. Both Westbrook and Ibaka have to avoid making risky gambles in hopes of coming up with steals that lead to run-outs.

Given that the Spurs are most proficient 3-point shooters in the NBA (compared to the defeated Lakers who were among the worst), OKC has to expand its defense and be quick in reacting to reversal passes.

In order to fuel their devastating running game, the Thunder must control their defensive glass, successfully poach the passing lanes, and turn blocked shots into fast breaks. It's also axiomatic that running teams are often lax in defensive transitions, and with runners like Neal, Green, Leonard, and Parker, the Thunder will pay dearly if they are tardy in these situations.

The bigs must provide more help on pin-down screens that result in curls to the open middle.

OKC cannot play with the same wild abandon that was so successful against the Lakers. Patience and execution are absolute musts to dull the Spurs.

How the Spurs can win

In general, the most significant advantages possessed by the Spurs include discipline, unmitigated unselfishness, accurate passing, championship experience, and a deeper, more high-powered bench.

Duncan must continue the reprisal of his youthful impact on every aspect of the game from interior to exterior scoring, from rebounding to shot-blocking, to astute passing to timely defensive rotations. Bet on TD to dominate his sphere of influence.

Parker has to find/create airspace in the shadow of the rim to either score or drop dimes on his bigs. Since Perkins and Ibaka are accomplished shot-swatters, this will not be an easy task. The middle will open up, though, if Parker can hit his jumpers. At the other end of the court, matching Westbrook's speed will be another challenge that Parker must surmount. Bet on TP to rise to the occasion.

Leonard has an even more difficult job -- preventing Durant from taking over the series. There's no way the rookie can contain the NBA's best point-maker, but he must hit his treys and run himself into easy scores in order to minimize the damage this matchup can create. Fortunately for the Spurs, the rookie plays like a veteran.

Diaw has to move his body and the ball, as well as net a few jumpers. Plus, it's absolutely essential that he block Obaka off the defensive glass.

Ginobili must knock down 3-balls to set up his twisting, flopping layups. His ball-sniping defense has to create enough tips, steals and run-outs to compensate for his slightly below-average man-to-man defense.

Bonner, Neal, and Jackson must also shoot the lights out. Look for the veteran play of Jackson to have a significant impact.

Splitter will see plentiful daylight against Perkins, Ibaka, and Mohammed. His role necessitates making appropriate rotations on defense, being a shot-blocking threat, rebounding, and forcefully rolling to the rim after setting high screens.

The Spurs have to make OKC play defense for as long as possible on every possession to take full advantage of the Thunders youthful impatience.

Because OKC has no dangerous post-up threat besides Durant, SA's bigs can afford to rotate to wherever the action is.

Since Durant is routinely incapable of making accurate passes on the move, his every drive must attract a crowd in the lane as well as passing-lane ambushers.

When OKC's bigs help on high screen/rolls, the screener is left undefended if he either stays put or fans. Look for Duncan to wind up with several uncontested jays here.

Because Westbrook is a turnover machine when he over-penetrates, expect the Spurs to clog the middle when he drives and play the strong-side passing lanes.

The Spurs are adept at overplaying high screens and forcing the ball sideline and baseline while simultaneously lurking in the available passing lanes. This strategy represents their best chance of containing Westbrook.

The Spurs will cruise if they can control the glass, the tempo, and the paint. Their execution, poise, and resourcefulness are constants.

Five things to watch for

1) The Thunder's running game will run up a higher total of points in the paint, but notice how many layups (contested and otherwise) the Spurs will tally in their halfcourt sets.

2) Can Scott Brooks hope to match Gregg Popovich's masterful in-game and between-game adjustments?

3) Will the shots blocked by Ibaka and Perkins result in changes of possession, or merely side-outs for the Spurs?

4) Who will shoot more free throws, Harden or Ginobili?

5) Most importantly, which team will impose its tempo on the series?

Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.

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