To say that the San Antonio Spurs are playing well right now is an understatement. The Spurs have won 18 consecutive games, including back-to-back four-game sweeps in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They haven't lost in a month and a half. They've won 29 of their last 31 games, and one of those losses was while they were resting the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. And this invincible streak happens to coincide almost exactly with when Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw joined the Spurs. In other words, this Spurs team -- the healthy one that opens the Western Conference Finals on Sunday, has a winning percentage in the upper-nineties over the last two months.
San Antonio's opponent in the Conference Finals will be the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have been impressive in their own right. The Thunder are 8-1 in the playoffs, beating the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and the 2009 and 2010 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. Their reward for running that gauntlet is the red-hot Spurs, the 2007 champs. If the Thunder get past the Spurs and end up facing the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, they will have played the last five NBA champions during their playoff run.
Still, Oklahoma City's run pales in comparison to San Antonio's. For one thing, the Thunder had a four-game lead in the standings in mid-March when the Spurs got hot, but ended up losing home court advantage for this series. And while the Spurs have had only one close game during the postseason, the Thunder have had mulitple nailbiters against the Mavs and Lakers. Based on the way they're playing right now, the Spurs have to be considered the favorites to win the West and maybe eventually win their fifth championship.
That is not to say the Thunder have no chance. They go into the Conference Finals with the two most talented players in the series in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the NBA is still a league that runs on talent. Any time you have the best individual players, you've got a chance. So what do the Thunder need to do to cool off the Spurs and book their first trip to the NBA Finals since Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were playing in Seattle?
The stars have to shine. More than any other team, Oklahoma City's offensive load is carried by its stars. Durant and Westbrook accounted for more than 50 percent of the Thunder's points this season, and when you add in sixth man James Harden, the three accounted for more than 65 percent. The Thunder are more dependent on their top scorers than any other team in the league, including Miami or the Lakers. Just look at the Thunder starting lineup -- they surround Durant and Westbrook with not one, not two, but three defensive specialists. The stars have to score for the Thunder to win.
And while that's true in any game or series, it will be especially true against the Spurs. The incandescent individual talent of Durant and Westbrook (and yes, Harden as well) are one of the advantages the Thunder have in this series. They'll need to get huge production from their stars over the course of the series to have a chance of moving forward.
The Spurs have good defenders to throw at OKC's dynamic duo, as Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson will each take their turns on Durant, and Danny Green will take the lion's share of the reps against Westbrook. But none of these guys is Metta World Peace. Durant is a match-up nightmare no matter who defends him, and he'll have a size advantage over Leonard or Jackson. Meanwhile Westbrook is too explosive for Green to contain. For the Thunder to win, Durant and Westbrook must dominate, and there's a distinct possibility that they will.
Run, run, run. Since Parker's birthday last week, all of San Antonio's Big Three are now over 30 and the Spurs' bigs (Duncan, Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner) are not a particularly athletic group. Oklahoma City needs to push the pace at every opportunity and look for easy scoring chances in transition.
Even if it doesn't result in a layup, the Thunder will benefit from initiating early offense before the Spurs set their defense. High ball screens early in the shot clock can give Durant, Westbrook and Harden the space they need to operate.
The Clippers had limited success in the second round when they ran, but Chris Paul actually prefers to operate in the half court and the Clippers played at the fifth slowest pace in the league this season. The Thunder on the other hand played at the sixth fastest pace and are more comfortable running. If they can rebound well, force some turnovers and run at every opportunity, they'll be able to give the Spurs some trouble.
Pick and roll. The numbers say that San Antonio had the worst defense in the league against the pick and roll this season. Paul and the Clippers would tell you that the numbers lie. It's worth noting that DeJuan Blair started 62 of 66 regular season games for the Spurs but has fallen completely out of the rotation since the arrival of Diaw and the beginning of the playoffs. In other words, take the regular season pick and roll stats with a grain of salt, because this is a different, better Spurs team on defense. Still, the San Antonio bigs are as a group relatively slow of foot, and by forcing them to defend the pick and roll the Thunder can create some mismatches.
Stay home on defense. The simple fact of the matter is that the Thunder might do all of the above very well, operate at a high level on offense, and still lose every game. That's because San Antonio's offense is the best in the league, and has been off the charts in the playoffs. The beauty of the Spurs' offense is that it will take whatever the defense gives. The addition of Diaw in particular is almost unfair -- San Antonio has playmakers all over the floor at this point, and whoever has the ball is able and willing to find the open man. The spacing and ball movement are surgically precise, and with shooters everywhere, the Spurs make defenses pay extra for any mistake -- they were the best three point shooting team in the NBA in the regular season and have been even better in the playoffs.
The Spurs pick rotating defenses clean. The floor is always spaced, their passers are skilled, and there's just no way to catch up to the ball the way they move it. This means that you can't gamble or play gimmick defenses against San Antonio. To the extent possible, you have to eschew the double team and fight through or over picks. It's easier said than done, but it's better than the alternative.
Oklahoma City has a distinct advantage here, compared to a team like the Clippers, in that Kendrick Perkins is one of the best one-on-one post defenders in the league and will readily accept the challenge of facing Duncan without help. Indeed, during three regular season meetings, the Thunder held Duncan under 36 percent from the field -- his worst shooting against any Western Conference opponent this season. Of course, the Spurs have many, many weapons beyond Duncan, and fighting through screens means Parker may be wreaking havoc in the lane. But defending the Spurs is truly a pick-your-poison proposition. If you overplay and deny entry passes, they'll beat you back door. If you trap the pick and roll, they'll find the open man. If you double team, they'll kick to shooters. And they'll always make the extra pass. In the end, it's better to do your best to stay in front of your man than to start chasing in a game of keep away that you're destined to lose.
Can Thabo Sefolosha or Westbrook do a reasonable job of keeping Parker out of the lane? Can Harden handle his Argentine doppelganger Ginobili? Defensive gimmicks aren't going to stop the Spurs, but outstanding individual defense might.
The Spurs are on a historic roll and it may not be possible to derail them. But the Thunder have as much talent as any team in the NBA, and if they can unleash that talent, they might find themselves in the NBA Finals.