Tonight the San Antonio Spurs look to start their quest for back-to-back Western Conference titles as they host the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Oklahoma City has ruled out defensive force Serge Ibaka for the playoffs, giving the Spurs a slight advantage in the post. While San Antonio is skeptical on if Ibaka is truly out, the Thunder have a reputation for holding out star players even if cleared to play.
Match-ups to watch:
Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard
The reigning NBA MVP will need to average 31 points per game while shooting 50% from the field to give his team a chance to win this series considering their lack of depth (even more without Ibaka). Leonard does a fantastic job on Durant, probably better than any one in the league besides Tony Allen. Leonard will need to use his freakish athleticism and strength to force Durant to feel uncomfortable and keep him off balance. On the other hand, Durant will need to be patient and rely on pick and rolls along with great ball movement to get the shot he wants. The four-time scoring champ can’t fall into those scoring droughts like he did in the first two series, or this will end quickly for his squad.
Tony Parker’s hamstring vs. Russell Westbrook’s decision making
This may come across as amusing at first glance, but health and great decision making can be the difference between a series win or loss. Before re-injuring his hamstring, Parker was averaging 23 points per game and 6.5 assists. His health will be key now that he has to carry more of the scoring load, also not having Ibaka in the paint will help Parker to create for the Spurs and keep the Thunder honest defensively. If the Thunder are to win this series, Westbrook will have to play smart and efficient not allowing himself to try and do too much. He will need to score around 21 points and dish out close to 10 assists per game to insure his guys are involved and forcing the Spurs defense to rotate. He will also need to shot six to eight shots less than Durant, remembering he is the point guard and needs to set up the best player on the court.
Manu Ginóbili vs. Thunder bench
It is clear that Manu isn’t the same player he was 10 years ago, but his impact is still just as important. He will need to get to the basket in this series and take some of the scoring load off of Parker. With Oklahoma City not having James Harden anymore, the pressure on the Thunder bench to produce offensively is at an all-time high, and they don’t have the talent to match San Antonio.
I’m on the Kevin Durant bandwagon following his heartfelt MVP speech like most people, but I am rolling with the Spurs in this series. San Antonio is just too deep and they are on a mission to make up for last years NBA Finals collapse. Not to mention without Ibaka it will force Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks to make an adjustment, something I would not hold my breath on. His inability to draw up plays out of timeouts and relying on Durant and Westbrook taking turns going one on five may be ok to beat most teams, but the Spurs aren’t most teams.
Prediction: Spurs 4 Thunder 3