Posted May 22 2012 9:16PM
The undercard is over. Now it's time for the heavyweight title in the West between the heavy hitters who have played a combined 17 games in this postseason and lost only once.
The cliché will say that the Thunder are the young team that has finally arrived in the spotlight and the Spurs are the old men who don't know when it's time to leave.
That is an overly-simplistic -- and wholly inaccurate -- portrayal. Even though Tim Duncan is 36, Manu Ginobili 34 and Tony Parker just turned 30, the Spurs are hardly doddering. They are a bunch that has transformed themselves back into championship contenders with an infusion of fresh legs and palpable hunger.
"After we won our last championship in 2007 and over the next couple of seasons, it pretty much became apparent that we weren't going to be able to continue to play our same style," said coach Gregg Popovich. "We were not nearly as good a defensive team anymore, at least not for the full 48 minutes. Now we play it in spurts.
"What it meant was that we were going to have to get younger and get more athletic, to have the kind of players around Tim and Manu who could support them by making plays and also continue to move us forward by enhancing what they do. We didn't know how fast that could happen or how effectively it could happen, but we're here and enjoying it."
The Spurs have not lost a game since April 11, riding a a string of 18 consecutive victories into the series, a streak that ranks among the 10 longest in NBA history. They are also trying to become the first team since the 2001 Lakers to sweep the first two rounds of the playoffs and go on to win a championship.
The Thunder are hardly the blushing ingénues who were just happy to be in the playoffs two seasons ago and were unready at crunch time in the conference finals against Dallas a year ago. At one point less than 3 1/2 season ago, OKC was 3-29, but the Thunder now are a championship-caliber team.
"I've been here through the tough times," said Kevin Durant, the three-time NBA leading scorer. "We all got better as individuals. The organization is first class. It feels good to advance, but we've got to keep going.
"It looks like (the Spurs) never make mistakes. They're well coached and they have a lot of veteran guys, so it's going to be a tough, tough series. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Who wins the Russell Westbrook-Tony Parker showdown?
If Parker can goad Westbrook into making it a mano y mano thing, the battle will be half won. Look for Parker's offensive output to increase in this one.
Where's the beef?
Right there smack in the middle of the lineups where the zaftig body and the varied talents of Boris Diaw will lock up with the tough and tumble, ornerier-than-a-goat Kendrick Perkins. Diaw has more skills, but Perkins has more attitude. Whichever one is able to establish himself in the paint will give his team a big leg up.
Who can be a difference-maker for the Thunder?
If Serge Ibaka can give weak-side help blocking shots and rebounding, Tim Duncan's free ride around the basket could get a lot bumpier.
Who's ready to explode for the Spurs?
Through the first two rounds, Manu Ginobili has been the guy at the beach just sticking his toe into the water. If he's ready to jump in and make a splash, OKC will have more than its hands full.
What is the biggest mismatch of the series?
For all the nice work he's done as caretaker of the young Thunder, Scott Brooks is moving way up class against Popovich and could be more frantic than a one-armed juggler trying to keep up with the Jedi master.
They will now want Parker to push the ball in transition and break down the defense even more than in the first two rounds. When the teams played in January, Popovich insisted that Parker try to put up 30 shots. He finished with 42 points. It's a way of neutralizing Westbrook. Once they're in the half-court game, it's all about the pick-and-roll. Parker is becoming a maestro at getting to the rim for layups or dropping off passes to his bigs. The complete transformation of the Spurs' offense from pound-it-into-the-low-post-to-Duncan to spacing the floor and moving the ball so fast that you'd think it was ticking is virtually unprecedented and has made them a thing of beauty to behold. They shoot, they drive, kick it out, they share and they get so many open looks that the game looks quite easy.
The Thunder will try to cut off penetration to the hoop with the shot-blocker Ibaka and the hulking, surly Perkins. But the Jazz and Clippers couldn't make that plan work in the first two rounds. It will be up to the younger legs of the Thunder to close out on San Antonio's deadly 3-point shooters.
The younger, quicker, more athletic Thunder will be looking to hit the fast-forward button to try to play the series at warp speed. Durant will be looking to use those giant strides and those long arms to get to the rim now that the pair of Lakers 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is not lying in wait. KD also has to hit at a high clip on his long-range jumpers and be accurate and decisive passing off to his teammates. There is no more freakishly explosive athlete in the series than Russell Westbrook. Any time the Thunder can get him in the open court or thinking about driving to the hoop, it will be to their benefit. Westbrook can also be a turnover machine and has to avoid getting caught up in the air and making bad decisions.
The Spurs will likely start out with the rookie Kawhi Leonard getting the difficult defensive matchup against Durant. With long arms and a head for doing the right things, he might be more up to the task than most expect. However, Leonard will not be left out on an island. Popovich will run many different people and looks at Durant, just the way he did with Clippers point guard Chris Paul in the previous series. The same holds true for defending Westbrook. He'll see Parker at the start, but also be confronted by Danny Green, Gary Neal and Stephen Jackson.
Not that the Spurs have played many close games. But in a playoff season when one of the biggest questions has been trying to identify a closer on each team, they are thriving because they have so many. One night it's Duncan, another Parker or Ginobili or even Green or Neal.
Kevin Durant, Kevin Durant and Kevin Durant. Because he can get off a shot from virtually anywhere on the floor and make it look easy, it's only natural that the Thunder want the ball in his hands. The improvement of late is letting James Harden handle it at crunch time to try to dish to Durant making a play toward the basket instead of settling for step-back 3-pointers as the clock runs down.
On a team so deep with contributors, Spurs rookie Leonard has stepped in front of the pack. At 6-foot-7 with long arms and huge hands that could practically palm a watermelon, he's an excellent defender who even took his turn smothering Clippers point guard Paul in the semifinals. Leonard rebounds, he plays the passing lanes, he gets to loose balls. And this guy who came into the league with everyone questioning his shot is now shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line.
While Durant and Westbrook are always going to be getting their shots and their points, Harden picks his spots and does more quick damage than a bolt of lightning in a dry forest. It's the games when he takes the ball and offensive opportunities into his hands that the Thunder go from very good to almost unbeatable.
Fill up the tank, fasten the seatbelts and stomp down on the gas pedal. This one's going to have all the high-speed fun -- and maybe a few of the crashes -- of a NASCAR race. OKC has taken great strides from a year ago. But San Antonio is deeper, smarter, almost as athletic and has Gregg Popovich as the great decider. Make it the Spurs in a wildly-entertaining 7.
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