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Fran Blinebury

Kawhi Leonard Kevin Durant Spurs Thunder
Kawhi Leonard (left) will have his hands full against MVP Kevin Durant.

Top-seeded San Antonio tries to hold off OKC's young pups


Posted May 17, 2014 4:58 PM

Sometimes it's hyperbole to call a playoff series a battle for the ages.

Then along comes Spurs vs. Thunder and nothing could be more appropriate.

Different ages.

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have all the years. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have so many different gears.

This is the way of the world, the circle of life, how it's supposed to be in nature. One generation succeeding the next.

Trouble is, the Spurs don't think they're ready to be shoved out of the spotlight and off the stage just yet. And who's to argue? Certainly not the youthful Trail Blazers who where schooled 4-1 in the conference semifinals.

After winning a league-best 62 games and getting more than a mere workout and a slight scare from the Mavericks in a seven-game first round, the Spurs seem to have found themselves.

"That's the way it is sometimes," said coach Gregg Popovich. "Sometimes it does take a little bit of time for guys to adjust to a different atmosphere and a different feel in the playoffs. You've played the whole regular season with players accustomed to how things are in terms of minutes and rotations. Then the playoffs start and minutes often go up and you've got to adjust again. I think that's what happened in the first round."

It's only fitting that the Thunder and the reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, await in this series, presenting a clash of the teams that won the last two Western Conference championships. It was OKC that hung a reverse sweep on the rivalry, spotting the Spurs a 2-0 lead in 2012 and then coming back to win four straight to reach the NBA Finals.

When Westbrook went down with a torn knee ligament last spring, the Thunder limped as a group and it was the Spurs who came within 28 seconds in The Finals of adding another title to their collection.

The clock, indeed, is ticking and the end is near for the Spurs. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are under contract only through the end of next season. The torch will inevitably be passed.

Since their playoff clash two years ago, OKC has won 10 of the last 12 meetings. Is it a sign? A trend? Or totally irrelevant?

Nothing lasts forever. But don't tell that to the Spurs just yet. There's a battle for the ages to be engaged. It promises to be a doozy.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Is Tony Parker healthy? There was no sense of dread when the ignition switch to the Spurs' offense limped off the floor and into the locker room with tightness in his left hamstring. But if Parker is at all slowed, it will make keeping up with the explosive Westbrook more difficult.

2. Whose da bomb? When you think of the Thunder, many first images are of Kevin Durant and Westbrook letting fly from behind the 3-point line. They're not shy by any means. But it's the Spurs who are the NBA's No. 1 behind the arc. They have far more shooters.

3. How much can you bench press? The key to the success of the Spurs' run to the best record in the league has been the play off the bench of Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph. The Spurs have the best depth in the league. And they'll need to against so many young Thunder legs.

4. Can Manu be Manu? With the exception of one big game in the Dallas series, Manu Ginobili has struggled badly with his shot in the playoffs and has not generated the fire or offense the Spurs will need as they step up in class.

5. Will Russell be Russell? Of course. He'll be unpredictable and unstoppable. He'll be frustrating both to the Spurs' defense and to his own fans in OKC. He'll be wild and crazy and the single player you can never afford to take your eyes off in the series, because he could decide it, one way or another.

When the Spurs have the ball ...

Parker will push the ball in transition and go all the way to the hoop or hit one of his spot-up teammates for a 3-pointer on the wing. When they can't score early, the Spurs will work the ball patiently, forcing the Thunder to defend for the full 24 seconds and usually ending up with a wide open shot.

The Thunder have to cut off Parker's early penetration and not let him control the game. In 2012, after the two opening losses, they ran at Parker from all sides and forced him to give up the ball.

When the Thunder have the ball ...

No matter how many times it's said that the goal is to run a balanced attack that spreads the ball around the floor, it usually comes down to Durant or Westbrook making a play. More often than not, they can.

Tiago Splitter is coming off a sensational defensive job against Portland's biggest gun, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, throwing him completely off his game. With Durant much farther out on the floor, it will be mostly Kawhi Leonard who chases the 2014 MVP.

In the clutch

The Spurs will put the ball in Parker's hands and let him break down the defense to get a shot for himself or one of the many, many shooters at his disposal.

Durant or Westbrook? Westbrook or Durant? When the clock runs down and the game is in the balance, one of them is going to fire up a long jumper.

Wild cards

If Ginobili can manage to find his shooting stroke and get back his offensive rhythm, he is the unpredictable definition of a wild card.

The loss of Serge Ibaka hurts OKC's defense keeping Parker out of the paint. Can big Steven Adams play bigger minutes and keep that middle clogged?

Prediction

There was widespread belief that the younger, more athletic Thunder had the upper hand. But poise still lacking and the loss of Ibaka simply too much. Spurs in 6.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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