Monday, May 28, 2012

The Main Event

By Ross Lancaster

Let's be honest. This year's NBA playoffs haven't been anything special. While the game often slows down and scoring drops once the second season starts, this year has had a litany of ugly rock-fights played in the '70s. This is especially the case in the East, where the Sixers and Celtics played the most unwatchable, non-compelling seven-game series I can ever remember. The fact that the sputtering Celtics are now just four wins from the grandest stage speaks volumes about the level of play on that side of the league.

For at least four games, we will have a reprieve from the subpar basketball that has blighted May when the Spurs and Thunder play for the Western Conference crown and, probably, the de facto NBA title.

After the first day of the playoffs, when Derrick Rose was lost for the Bulls, the Thunder and Spurs appeared to be the two hottest teams with the least glaring weaknesses. With each bit of bad news about Chris Bosh's abdominal injury, the superiority of San Antonio and Oklahoma City versus the two remaining Eastern Conference teams is clarified further.

The last time it was this clear that the two best teams remaining in the playoffs were in the same conference was 2002, when the Lakers faced the Kings in a seven-game classic that is remembered as much for the crooked officiating in Game 6 as for a supremely dramatic Game 7 or a Robert Horry buzzer-beating three-pointer in Game 4. The Lakers went on to sweep the Nets in the Finals.

The Spurs are the favorite, and look nearly unbeatable over a seven-game series. San Antonio has not lost a single game since falling to the Lakers on April 11. More remarkably, several of the games late in the regular season came with one of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker resting. Since the middle of March, the Spurs have gone 30-2.

If those numbers don't strike you, consider this: Manu Ginobili missed 10 of the Spurs' 16 losses with various injuries, mostly in January and February. If he was healthy and San Antonio had won eight of those 10 games (totally realistic considering its current run), the Spurs would have finished with a higher winning percentage than the 1996 Bulls.

What makes San Antonio's fantastic run almost unbelievable is the style they are playing. Before these playoffs, the casual fan probably still had the image of the great defense, good-enough offense, and great rebounding Spurs. The fantastic rebounding is still there, but the Spurs now have an offense that is fast, perimeter-oriented, and features some of the most beautiful passing you're likely to ever see on a basketball court. The Spurs have several three-point threats, and every player knows his role by heart. Defensively, the Spurs ranked 10th during the regular season in defensive efficiency, still solid, but a bit removed from their previous identity. In the playoffs, San Antonio is second among all teams in that category. In Game 1 against Oklahoma City, the Spurs had some lapses early, but made big stop after big stop in the fourth quarter to overtake the Thunder.

I don't think enough as been made about the season Parker has had. While he finished fifth in MVP voting, one could make the argument that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant were more important to their teams in the regular season, especially as Ginobili missed over 30 games and Duncan was often relegated to limited minutes. Parker's scoring was not a career-high, but his assists were, and it's clear that the offense runs through him. The Frenchman's defense doesn't get talked about in the same esteem as his offensive game, but he was stellar on that end of the floor against the Clippers and Chris Paul.

So where does that leave the Thunder at the beginning of the late spring's biggest series? If we're to continue the comparisons from the most recent generation, are the Thunder more like the 1996 Magic, or the 2006 Heat? The answer probably lies somewhere in between, as it still seems unlikely that the Spurs will sweep the Thunder.

Like San Antonio, Oklahoma City has been an offensive juggernaut in the playoffs and through the regular season. However, the Thunder look more vulnerable through this point in the playoffs, and have played many more close games than the Spurs. It's a testament to Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden that Oklahoma City has persevered in every close game except for Game 3 in Los Angeles, but the Thunder haven't shown the ability to regularly blowout teams like the Spurs. At this stage last year, Oklahoma City couldn't close the deal or hold leads late against a Dallas team that had much less experience at the top than San Antonio's nucleus.

For the last couple years, there's been a year-ahead-of-schedule vibe about the Thunder. In 2010, they weren't supposed to be competitive with the eventual champion Lakers. Last year, they weren't supposed to get to the Conference Finals. This year, the NBA Finals would be the next step in the linear progression for Oklahoma City. But, San Antonio has shown that it can be outstanding in transition defense in the playoffs, which would possibly take out Oklahoma City's single biggest strength.

Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith have consistently made excellent points throughout the playoffs on TNT (we don't need to discuss Shaq's contributions or lack thereof), but none have stuck with me as much as what they said after Game 1 of the Spurs-Clippers series. In that game, the Spurs completely emasculated the pick-and-roll game of LA, leading Barkley and Smith to comment on how Gregg Popovich is one of the greats at identifying a team's strength and eliminating it. With his best team ever, it's hard to see the Thunder's massive talent and youthful exuberance overcoming the Spurs' wisdom.

On Sunday, the Spurs played the first three quarters about as poorly as any three quarters they had in the playoffs to this point. San Antonio had 14 first-half turnovers and Duncan and Parker were struggling from the floor. Then, the Spurs went into attack mode on offense, found open three-point shooters like Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal, and delivered precision passes to Duncan cutting to the basket. In a few possessions, you knew the Spurs had taken control of the game and weren't letting go. Oklahoma City is the second best team in the NBA, but it's going to take a Herculean effort to topple the Spurs.

For some reason, the Spurs still don't seem to be getting their total due as the league's best, and possibly a historically great team. If San Antonio is to pull off another dominating series win, the evidence may be too hard to overlook.

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