By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
San Antonio Spurs: 1st Seed, West (62-20)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 2nd Seed, West (59-23)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder will meet in the Western Conference finals for the second time in three years, starting with Game 1 Monday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
In 2012, the Thunder prevailed in six games to advance to the NBA Finals. They lost to the Miami Heat, but the Spurs can relate, falling to LeBron James and company last year.
Despite the success two years ago, and sweep (4-0) of the series during this past regular season, the Thunder are 10-12 against the Spurs in 22 regular- season meetings since the team moved to Oklahoma City.
The teams were Nos. 1 and 2 throughout most of the 2013-14 season.
"We're very familiar with what they do," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They're a very good basketball team. They're well coached. They have good players, good role players, good bench players and they have a style of play that demands that you play with great effort for the entire shot clock."
The Spurs needed seven games to get past the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round, then took five games to best the Portland Trail Blazers. Oklahoma City survived a physical seven-game set with the Memphis Grizzlies, then knocked off the Los Angeles Clippers in six.
Injuries will play a role in this series, starting with Tony Parker. The Spurs' All-Star point guard suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain in Game 5 against Portland, but should be good to go by Monday.
The same can't be said for Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City's premier defensive big man. A calf injury will keep him out for the remainder of the postseason, which is a huge blow for the Thunder. Ibaka would probably be tasked with covering future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan.
As for who replaces him in the starting lineup, Brooks has options. Nick Collison might make the most sense as a veteran and a strong defensive presence. Steven Adams could help combat the size of the Spurs.
San Antonio's biggest challenge will be stopping OKC's two-headed monster of league MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They've been sensational in the postseason and will represent a huge task for Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
But the Thunder will have their hands full, too. The Spurs are scoring 105.5 points per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from 3-point range. Those two percentages rank first in the postseason.
Oklahoma City leads the league in postseason fast-break points, but the Spurs aren't far behind.
"We have to get back in transition," Durant said. "They've been pushing it a lot. We have to control the 3-point line and just man-up on defense. One-on- one defense is going to be key."
Defense is not what one first associates with the Spurs and Thunder, but they've both played it adequately thus far in the playoffs. San Antonio is eighth and OKC is ninth in points allowed.
Basically, these are two evenly matched teams who know each other well.
"Players step up and play well," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "There aren't really surprises."
BACKCOURT: Parker is averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists. He is still explosive and his ability to get to the basket is unprecedented. Parker's mid- range game is decent, but he will really have to step up on the defensive end to halt Westbrook. Is the hamstring injury healed enough to be able to play at his speed? The Spurs wouldn't play him if it wasn't. Danny Green is scoring 7.8 points per game and shooting 43 percent from long range. He can get hot at a moment's notice
Westbrook has been amazing in the postseason, averaging 26.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists. He has registered three triple-doubles during these playoffs and that's three more than the rest of the NBA combined. He'll have to check Parker, which won't be easy, but every time Westbrook is accused of being too selfish, he responds with great assist numbers. Thabo Sefolosha is out there for defense and occasional 3-point shooting.
FRONTCOURT: Duncan has been gigantic once again this postseason. At 38, he is leading the Spurs in minutes, while scoring 15.8 points with 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He has anchored the defensive interior for San Antonio, and with Ibaka shelved, there isn't going to be much to worry about from the Thunder on the low block. Leonard will have the Durant assignment, but he's also a huge part of the Spurs' offense. He is averaging 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 53 percent from the field. It was during the postseason last year where he really blossomed and that's continuing during these playoffs. Tiago Splitter is an underrated piece of the Spurs' success. He is scoring 9.1 points per game and grabbing 7.7 rebounds.
Durant was named MVP for the first time and has continued his amazing play in the postseason. He is averaging 31.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, but his shooting numbers are down from the regular season. Durant is playing almost 45 minutes a game and that may take its toll. He'll have to defend Leonard, who has turned into a viable offensive threat. So far in the postseason, Durant's main responsibilities defensively have been Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen and Matt Barnes. He'll need to do more this time around. Kendrick Perkins is still an active body and defensive banger. With Ibaka down, Perkins may start out against Duncan. He has to avoid foul trouble. Let's assume Collison is the power-forward starter. He has made a solid career out of defense and rebounding. He can knock down an open jump shot, but not like Ibaka, whose absence will really hurt the Thunder.
BENCH: Manu Ginobili isn't shooting it that great this postseason, but he is scoring for the Spurs. Ginobili is always a threat and knows how to get to the free-throw line. Marco Belinelli is steady, but hasn't been as great in the playoffs that he was in the regular season. Patty Mills and Boris Diaw are both scoring at least 8.0 points a game this postseason in limited minutes.
Reggie Jackson is the last OKC double-figure scorer. He's been inconsistent in the playoffs, but has a great track record against the Spurs, averaging 21 points in the four regular-season meetings. Caron Butler has been good and started the last two games against the Grizzlies. Derek Fisher can still knock down a jump shot before he becomes the Knicks head coach. Someone in the group of Adams, Perry Jones and Collison will need to step up profoundly in Ibaka's absence.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
COACHING: Popovich was once again named Coach of the Year. He has guided the Spurs to four titles and is the yardstick by which all other coaches are unfairly measured. He mixes and matches personnel better than anyone.
Brooks is a former Coach of the Year and his wits will be tested in how the Thunder respond without Ibaka. That is the most important question he faces in this series. Brooks' offense is far from fancy because he has two of the best scorers in the world.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
PREDICTION: The Ibaka injury is just too much for the Thunder to overcome.
Offensively, the Thunder will get no low-post scoring, although Ibaka is more of a mid-range guy. Perkins, Collison, Adams and Jones all struggle inside and it will be worse against Duncan.
Defensively, Collison can do an adequate job against Timmy Fundamentals, but Ibaka is the only OKC rim protector. Parker will be able to skate to the basket without much resistance in close.
Durant and Westbrook will put up points, but the San Antonio team concept is too much. Popovich will hammer the fact that there is no other scoring option for Oklahoma City, other than Jackson. That will allow the Spurs to better defend Durant and Westbrook in a group environment.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: SPURS in SIX
05/18 14:31:10 ET