So far in this year’s rendition of the NBA Playoffs, the events have proceeded as projected in the Western Conference. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder blew their first round matchups out of the water with sweeps. The Spurs’ was to be expected, but the Thunder’s exercise in revenge at the expense of the defending champion Dallas Mavericks was one we saw coming, but not to the tune of the Mavs leaving the postseason without a single victory.
And now, fresh off another sweep of the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Antonio Spurs look toward their presumable matchup against the Thunder once Oklahoma City dots the I’s and crosses the T’s against the Los Angeles Lakers which the Thunder lead 3-1.
That being said, the playoffs in the Western Conference have, for the most part, affirmed pre-existing notions that were in place when the playoffs began a little over three weeks ago. But that is not to say that we have learned a few things, since we have. Most importantly, we have learned…
1. Kobe Bryant is no longer the league’s best closer. Kevin Durant is the league’s best closer.
In Games 2 and 4, the two contests in the series when the Thunder had to play well to win, they came back from deficits of 7 points in each game to take late leads and win each ballgame. Although Game 3 was also within reach, the game turned into a free throw contest that favored the Lakers.
In all sincerity, the Los Angeles Lakers are roughly three minutes of gameplay from leading this series 3-1 as it goes back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder will likely end the series. But the reason the Thunder lead 3-1 instead of the Lakers is the 6’11” guy who plays for the Thunder. Each game presented an interesting dichotomy between the Association’s top two scorers during the regular season.
In Game 2, the man thought to be the best closer let a game slip out of his team’ fingers, a game that would’ve shifted home court advantage and given momentum to the team with the second-best home record in the league. After allowing James Harden to score on a lay-up, Kobe then turned the ball over when he attempted to inbound the ball OVER Kevin Durant’s arms. That’s right…supposedly one of the league’s smartest players tried to pass the ball over a guy whose wingspan surpasses seven feet. That turnover resulted in a dunk by Durant, and it was all downhill from there. Bryant was blocked by Harden on his next shot attempt and badly missed an
open look at a three which would’ve put LA up two with 36 seconds remaining. Instead, Durant scored on the next play and the Thunder finished off a 9-0 run spanning the game’s final two minutes and eight seconds to win 77-75.
In Game 4, Los Angeles held a 92-78 lead with 7:45 left on the clock. Then, Durant led the Thunder back from a 13-point deficit alongside point guard Russell Westbrook who finished the game with 37 points. This contrasts starkly to Bryant, who tried to do it all in the last eight minutes of the game despite the Lakers dominating in the paint for most of the game. In the same eight minutes the Thunder outscored the Lakers 25-8, Kobe went one for eight in the quarter, scoring only 5 points in his return from the bench. You can’t help but think it might have helped if someone else could have shot the ball, especially closer to the basket.
2. The Spurs are not slowing down.
Through 8 games, the Spurs have not lost in the playoffs. As a matter of fact, the San Antonio Spurs have not lost in over a month as result of an 18-game winning streak dating back to April 12. The average margin of victory so far in these playoffs for the Spurs is 13.5, with the highlights being a 31-point rout of the Utah Jazz in Round 1 and surmounting a 24-point deficit in Game 3 against the Clippers to win by 10 points, 96-86. In four of the eight games played Tony Parker has led the game in scoring and is averaging 19.4 points per game in the postseason to lead the team, alongside 7.4 assists.
The part of this team that has Spurs fans most excited is the play of Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental leads the team in rebounding at 9 per game, and is the second-leading scorer for the Spurs at 17.4 points per game. On the defensive side, Duncan has done a magnificent job limiting the efforts of talented, much-younger bigs such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, DeAndre Jordan, and most notably, Blake Griffin.
In tandem with the old guard of Parker, Duncan, and Manu Ginobili, the youth of the Spurs is also stepping up. Starting shooting guard Daniel Green is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 9.9 points per game, but his value lies in his contributions defending the basket as he has been tasked with, and succeeded at, guarding prolific scorers on the perimeter like Devin Harris, Caron Butler, Mo Williams, and even Chris Paul at times. Alongside Green, Kawhi Leonard is also stepping his game up, averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 rebounds as the other starter on the perimeter. Leonard has turned in multiple double-digit scoring nights in the postseason thus far, but like Green, his value lies mostly on the defensive end as evidenced by his team-leading 1.6 steals per game.
With the experience, youth, and depth, the Spurs still look to be the prohibitive favorite despite continuing to fly under the radar while the young and more exciting Thunder receive the bulk of the press. But at the end of the Western Conference Finals, and most likely the NBA Finals, everyone will be talking about the Spurs.