Stretching the Field: Thunder facing stiff test
By Shawn Clarke, NBA Contributing Editor
(Sports Network) - They breezed through the Western Conference quarterfinals more smoothly than Marilyn Monroe's dress over an air vent.
They did the same in the semifinals, too.
But now the Oklahoma City Thunder will face an obstacle more daunting than what they have seen in recent weeks when the Western Conference Finals commence this weekend in the Alamo City. There are three reasons to consider when giving the San Antonio Spurs the upper hand in this matchup: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Actually, there are four if you count head coach Gregg Popovich.
Do three players and one wise coach really make that much of a difference? In some cases, yes. It's been working in Boston, Miami and San Antonio; it has yet to work in New York. In Los Angeles, both the Lakers and Clippers have more than one component and were bounced from the playoffs by the two remaining teams in the Western Conference.
Wet behind the ears is not a description used to epitomize the Spurs. However, their game plan to dispatch the Thunder could be because Oklahoma City is a team unlike any other. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O'Neal and Larry Bird enjoyed success alongside Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the premier stars the NBA will have the luxury of advertising for years to come.
Projected by many to win it all even before the lockout-shortened season began, the Thunder made quick work of the defending champion Dallas Mavericks by winning the first-round series in the minimal amount of games (four). Led by rising stars Durant and Westbrook, Oklahoma City needed five games to dispose of the Bryant-led Lakers in the semifinals.
The Thunder now have the building blocks to work with for the veteran-laden Spurs. Or don't they?
Westbrook gave credit to the Lakers after Monday's series-clinching Game 5 triumph. The Thunder are hoping his perspective has some true meaning.
"That was a tough team," said Westbrook, who averaged 25.6 points per game during the series. "They (the Lakers) were not laying down. We had to come together as better teammates and we did that tonight. From the middle of the third quarter till the end of the game, we all did our jobs."
Coming together as better teammates is a phrase many felt Westbrook wouldn't have uttered a few months ago. Pegged to be a selfish player at times and one who allegedly couldn't co-exist with Durant, Westbrook has put that to the wayside, becoming a more reliable team player as each game goes by. If he really believed the Lakers brought out the comradery of the Thunder, imagine what the four-time NBA champion Spurs will do for their psyche.
For one thing, it should raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to defending. Bryant was able to score at will in the conference semifinals, averaging 31.2 ppg and exposed holes in Oklahoma City's defense. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins is as nasty as they come inside and power forward Serge Ibaka could have a career in powerlifting when his NBA tenure comes to a close. However, brute force is not the way to attack San Antonio's bigs in the post.
OKC must finesse its way past the Spurs, who will blitz from the outside with Parker and Ginobili if the paint is clogged. Speaking of obstructing the middle, Westbrook must be on Parker like flies on you know what to even give his team a chance. With cat-like speed, Parker will make you look foolish no matter how many All-Star nods are under the opposing player's belt.
There is no question the Thunder have taken all of this into consideration; they're playing a team that hasn't lost since April and is riding a franchise- record 18-game winning streak. San Antonio appears headed for another trip to the NBA Finals and only unselfish play from its next opponent can prevent that from occurring.
The Spurs, of course, rubbed out the Thunder as the conference's best team when the latter stumbled to begin the month of April. The Thunder had trouble finding an open man on offense and struggled even more on the other end in losing out on the No. 1 seed. Head coach Scott Brooks said he liked what he saw against the Mavericks and Lakers, and noted how that type of basketball must continue.
"We've done a good job with spacing. We really did a good job of moving the basketball, not playing in a crowd," Brooks said. "When we saw two guys in front of us, we passed the ball quickly. We trusted our teammates to make the next pass. And that sounds very easy, but a lot of times it's not. We have trouble doing that, but I think the last part of the season and throughout the playoffs we've done a better job with that and we have to continue to do that because San Antonio is one of the best defensive teams and one of the best offensive teams. They're a great basketball team led by an amazing coach and so we have to really do a better job even in this series to take care of the basketball."
San Antonio is averaging more than 100 points during the NBA playoffs even though it has played only eight games in back-to-back sweeps of Utah and the Clippers. Oklahoma City is right on San Antonio's tail in scoring, but its defense will be put to the test against the seasoned trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, and one of the best benches and coaches in the NBA.
It's nice to have a 1-2 punch in Durant and Westbrook, but sometimes the results aren't as satisfying. Come Sunday, the Thunder will find out firsthand what it's like to be the underdog for once in these playoffs.
05/23 15:23:47 ET