The story of the Western Conference this season — and the NBA for that matter — has been the historic run of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. With a recent wave of key injuries that has ravaged both the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, though, the focus of the conference’s remaining playoff slate shifts to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The championship window for both of those teams has been opened much wider with injuries to their conference rivals. Luckily for us, the two are set to meet in a conference semifinal series loaded with intrigue. Over recent seasons, the Thunder and Spurs have become more than familiar with one another in the postseason, as they have met twice in the conference finals since 2012 (with each side winning once).
This season, while they won’t play for a direct trip to the NBA Finals, the winner of this second-round tilt might have the edge in the Western Conference Finals thanks to injuries to the other contenders out West. Therefore, to say this series will be intense and competitive is an understatement. With a tight battle expected, is it the more experienced Spurs or the more explosive Thunder that hold the advantage? To answer, we break down reasons to like each side and predicted a winner.
The case for the Thunder
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo is clicking, they provide the most lethal tandem in the league, giving the Thunder a strong chance to beat anybody. In four matchups against a Spurs team that lost just 15 games this season, that duo led the team to two victories.
Durant and Westbrook combined for 55 and 60 points, respectively, in those wins, which both came on the Thunder’s home floor. When they traveled to San Antonio, the duo didn’t play in one game — because it didn’t hold any meaning — and they were held to just 47 combined points in the other. That proves that if OKC is to win this series, their stars will have to be as brilliant as they usually are.
Another key for the Thunder will be their work on the glass. They out-rebounded the Spurs in every meeting and will need to do so in this series if they want to control the pace of the games. That means guys like Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, and even Durant and Westbrook will have to come up big on the boards. Their rebounding ability gave them an edge during the regular season and could cause a lot of trouble for the Spurs over the course of a long series.
If the Thunder rebound and get max production out of Durant and Westbrook, they’ll be a real challenge to knock out of the playoffs. Of course, the defensive-minded Spurs will make their ability to achieve those things quite difficult.
The case for the Spurs
When San Antonio experiences success (which is a majority of the time), they play great defense, shoot well from downtown, and get All-Star production out of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Their defense was ranked first in points allowed, they shot the second highest three-point field goal percentage as a team, and Leonard and Aldridge were great all season long — a big reason why the Spurs won 67 regular-season games.
Against the Thunder, though, things didn’t always go so well. A team that gave up around 91 points per game on average, San Antonio allowed 112 and 111 points to Oklahoma City in their two losses against the Thunder. On the flip side, they held OKC in check in their two wins.
From downtown, the Spurs shot 26.7 and 33.3% in their two losses against the Thunder this season, and while they weren’t any better in their two wins, the three is a critical weapon that the Spurs need to continue their championship push.
Leonard, who averaged 21.2 points per game during the regular season, played great against Oklahoma City over the course of four games, averaging 28 points per contest for his highest average against any team this season.
Aldridge didn’t play nearly that well against the Thunder in the regular campaign, but he will need to be a key factor on both ends of the floor if San Antonio wants to advance. In essence, if the Spurs are on their game, they are such a well-oiled machine that they will be tough to defeat four times in seven games.
Based on the fact that they went 2-2 against each other during the regular season, the Spurs versus the Thunder will be one of the best series of the entire postseason. The strengths of each team could lead to a full-length, seven-game series that will come down to a handful of key plays when all is said and done.
With that, one would think the experience and poise of San Antonio would allow them to prevail. While that’s a good reason to like the Spurs’ case, the Thunder are hungry. We think their dynamic duo will be on their A-game, leading them to a slight upset to advance to the conference finals.
Prediction: Thunder in six games