Saturday, May 26, 2012

MAMBINO's Western Conference Finals Preview

Can Kawahi contain KD?
Charles Barkley has boldly proclaimed that these two teams left are the best two teams in the NBA. It's hard to disagree.

The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder will begin the Western Conference Finals on Sunday, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. The two teams have gone 16-1 combined so far in the playoffs, with the Spurs on a 18 game winning streak and the Thunder only losing one postseason contest to a squeaker last Friday with the Lakers. No other teams are playing as well as these two squads right now, so the consesus should be, like Chuck says, that whoever wins this matchup is the presumptive NBA champion. Maybe.

We're of two minds on this at MAMBINO HQ, but we've got not only our consensus decision here, but also spicy little alternative for you out there. Check it!

SPURS in 7 games

San Antonio 2.0
The CDP: OKC is the model for rebuilding at the moment, but we should take a long look at the Spurs as well. While it’s hard to call it classical rebuilding when you retain Ginobili, Parker, and Duncan, there’s no doubt the Spurs have reinvented themselves over the last few seasons. After a title in 2007, they made it to the Conference Finals in 2008, but were manhandled by the Lakers. The Spurs had a top 3 defense, but a middling 15th rankeddefense. They filled out the roster with Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka, Oberto, Matt Bonner, Brent Barry, Kurt Thomas, and Jacque Vaughn. 2/3 next seasons, the Spurs lost in the first round and it was clear they needed a fresh infusion of talent to remain competitive.

Fast forward to 2012 and Matt Bonner is the only role player holdover. The Spurs have added talent like DeJuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter through the draft while picking up Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Patrick Mills, and Danny Green through shrewd pickups and trades. The Spurs arenow the 10th best defense, but the top-ranked offense. They haven’t lost yet in the playoffs or at home since April 11. Can you imagine the coverage that this would receive if it were the Heat? The media would even throw Tebow aside for that scoop.

The Spurs may not have had to beat the Mavericks/Lakers like OKC, but I’m not worried about a team with Popovich and Duncan being ready. In many ways, OKC is a mirror image of the Spurs, a top-heavy small market team built on three superstars and the right supporting cast. OKC has the 2nd ranked defense and #11 offense,both right behind the Spurs. They are an extremely talented young group that is growing quickly and capable of overwhelming teams with their athleticism. I just think that the Spurs still have their number this year and are playing too well. Here’s why I’ll take the Spurs in 7:
  1. All-Star Match-ups: With Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, and Kawahi Leonard in tow, the Spurs actually have the kind of long, athletic defenders that could potentially bother KD. Tony Parker is a much bigger defensive challenge than Russell Westbrook has faced thus far and has the foot speed to stay with him. Duncan looks better than he has in years. At his best, Ginobili is one of the league’s only playmakers explosive enough to counter James Harden. The Spurs are one of the only units in the league capable of keeping up with OKC's Three Musketeers.
  2. Thunder D: The Thunder lack the kind of punishing big man that has been able to hurt the Spurs in the past (think Grizzlies), which creates defensive problems for OKC. As a result, the Spurs don’t have to play as much Tiago Splitter and can play Bonner, Diaw, and Blair – who all help the offense hum. With their depth and outside shooting, OKC will not be able to double onto the Spurs stars like they did against LA. The Spurs are a very mature team that takes care of the ball and will be able exploit the Thunder’s defensive mistakes, which their dribble drive offense should be able to create plenty of. They haven’t had any trouble scoring on the Thunder in their match-ups this year.
  3. Coaching: Although I underestimated Brooks against the Lakers, he’s up against Popovich this round, who is the best in the game at making adjustments. The Spurs may not have a top-ranked defense at this point, but they still excel at team defense and should be able to give the Thunder a lot of problems with a few adjustments from Pop. The Thunder may have had a tougher road, but making such quick work of a very hot Jazz team and shutting down the league’s best PG in CP3 were beyond impressive. I see no reason to start doubting Pop at the moment.
  4. Intangibles: I might side with OKC here if they had home court, but they don’t and the Spurs were the best team at home in the league this year. I also think OKC lost the psychological edge when they failed to secure the top seed in the West, which they had all year and was theirs to lose. Ultimately, the Spurs championship experience plays a big factor here too. Although they’ve certainly been fearless so far, I see OKC’s Big 3 blinking first.
Why the Thunder could take it in 6 games
KOBEsh: Was my pathetic Lakers apologist love letter to OKC not enough the other day? Being modest and complimentary feels like a detriment to my general character flaw of selfish homerism.
For all the reasons The CDP has argued, the Spurs might be playing the best basketball in the league right now. But can't you say the same for the Thunder? Their ball movement is crisp, help defense stifling and all their role players are clicking at the same time. Individually, besides LeBron, there might not be an playing quite as well as Kevin Durant this postseason. As well as the Spurs are playing, I've been even more impressed with the Thunder for a number of reasons:
  1. Depth of quality opponents: First and foremost, the Thunder have just had a tougher first two rounds. Yes, they both ended up in sweeps (in the Lakers' case, a "Gentleman's sweep"). Yes, both Dallas and LA were at a competitive disadvantage in that OKC was their matchup nightmare (OKC = Young. Dallas and LA = Old. Pretty simple formula). However, both teams were as ready as they were going to be for the Thunder. The Mavs and Lakers were both incredibly flawed teams, but within their drawbacks had the backpocket caveat of being championship material. They were both experienced teams that knew the highs and lows of winning and losing in the playoffs, knowing that one game wasn't necessarily a death sentence for a series. The Spurs on the other hand, dismantled two "not-quite-ready for prime time" opponents in the young Utah Jazz and the hobbled playoff novices in the Clippers.
  2. Their individual brilliance: Tony Parker is playing as well, if not better, than any other guard in the league right now. We've been spouting his brilliance on MAMBINO for months now, so it comes to no surprise to us that he'll be hard to contain for even the athletic Thunder. However, after singling out Parker, you'll see that when the game slows down and brilliant passing isn't enough to get easy buckets, San Antonio's one-on-one game isn't nearly as refined as OKC's. Just like the Spurs, the Thunder have great ball movement and unselfish superstars that inevitably lead to wide open shots. However, like in the Lakers series, when the other team's defense slows down the passing and nullifies the role players, Durant, Russ Westrbook and Harden are more than able to play hero-ball.

    As hard as it is to believe, we've actually gone the other way in recent months thinking that "hero-ball" is a completely inefficient way to win games in the fourth. If you watched a minute of the OKC-Lakers series, you'll see that's not true. Sometimes when the game slows down, and both teams know exactly how to guard each other, it's going to come down to a few players making some spectacular shots over quality defenders. The way that both teams are playing, this is going to happen.
  3. Stats Don't Lie: The last 3 teams to sweep the first two rounds lost in the Conference Finals. The Spurs weren't one of those teams, but I have to put some stock into those figures. Though San Antone has had a fair number of come back games (Game 4 in Utah, Game 3 in LA), they've yet to face a team as physical and individually dominating as the Thunder. Even a team as disciplined as Popvich's is completely suspectible to the type of layoff the Spurs have gone through.
I can't say this enough - both teams are playing fantastic right now. This series is truly a crapshoot, so I think that anyone's particular prediction can't be wrong. However, all things even, and I think they are, I'll take the individual brilliance of the Thunder's three young guns over what Tony Parker and two aging stars can bring to the table.

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