While sports prognosticators forecast an Eastern Conference Finals full of egos, technical fouls and flops, the Western Conference has provided basketball fans everywhere with the prospect of a seven-game series worth salivating over. San Antonio and Oklahoma City are both incredibly likable, immensely talented teams led by low-key superstars and superb supporting casts. And, while it’s incredibly difficult to sit here and pick the better of the two teams with much confidence, we here at TSS will do our best to provide you with some storylines to consider before tonight’s Game 1 tips off at 8:30 p.m. ET on TNT.
1. OKC could very well have the two best players in the series. With all due respect to Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook has the potential to play at a higher level. When his jump shot is going – as it was against L.A. – there are few tougher covers in basketball. Point guard? Shooting guard? Doesn’t matter. As long as he keeps making buckets and keeping defenses honest, OKC boasts a two-headed monster that will keep Coach Pop up at night.
2. San Antonio has better depth, though. Even with Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, Oklahoma City can’t match San Antonio depth-wise. Manu Ginobili is still Manu Ginobili and that bench is chock-full of young impact players. Kawhi Leonard, Dejuan Blair and Tiago Splitter represent the future in San Antonio but they’re finding ways to contribute right now. Derrick Fisher and Daquan Cook don’t inspire as much confidence.
3. Ibaka vs. Duncan will be the matchup to watch. Timmy D’s postseason success has been heart-warming but he hasn’t gone toe-to-toe with any particularly good defenders. Enter Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s most physically imposing big men guarding the paint. Does Tim still have what it takes to outmaneuver such an athletic big?
4. Tim Duncan can stand to gain a lot here. Especially with Kobe pacing back and forth in some exotic hotel room somewhere, muttering curses at the Thunder, Tim Duncan can really spark a “greatest player” debate if he wins another ring.
5. Should James Harden really be staying on the bench right now? It’s open for debate, but shouldn’t the Thunder want all of their aces on the court as often as possible? Harden is an All-Star talent and should be playing at least 30 minutes a game. Putting him out there from the tip-off could yield some early momentum swings.
6. Scotty Brooks will have his hands full. Greg Popovich has been his typical, masterful self thus far: deftly blending young and old to create the most effective offensive unit of his time in San Antonio. Brooks is a good young coach but the prospect of him knuckling up against Pop shouldn’t sit well with Thunder fans. Games can be won and lost on inconspicuous coaching decisions and Brooks hasn’t proven himself immune yet.
7. The series could very well go the full seven games. It’s damn-near impossible to pick this series with too much confidence, but right now, San Antonio is playing at a level you shouldn’t bet against. Depth, coaching and good team defense will catapult the Spurs into the Finals. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if Kevin Durant makes me eat those words.
8. Whoever wins the series will win the league championship. Heat, Celtics… sorry. Once again, the West will claim top dog. And it isn’t even that close this time around. Scanning the rosters of this year’s final four shows a heavily-stacked Western Conference. Both squads are draft-built teams and its obvious that the best, most stable teams are the ones capable of finding impact players in any round.
Let’s hope the Heat make it past the Celts, though. Another failure on the league’s biggest stage is exactly what America wants.