Like the Eastern Conference finals, which began with an Indiana Pacers win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, the Western Conference finals, which will begin in San Antonio tonight, is a familiar one.
Since the Dallas Mavericks swept the Los Angeles Lakers en route to a title in 2011 — ending the Laker dynasty in the process — the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have been the best two teams in the Western Conference by all estimation.
This is the second time since 2011 that the teams have met in the Western Conference finals, both times as the top two seeds in the West.
In fact, the Spurs and the Thunder have been the top two seeds in the West every season since 2011.
Oklahoma City took the first playoff meeting in 2012 as the No. 2 seed, and last year, entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, only for a Russell Westbrook injury to preempt a rematch, as the Memphis Grizzlies dismissed Oklahoma City in the second round.
Unfortunately, the Thunder enters this series similarly compromised after the team announced Serge Ibaka was expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a calf injury.
Reserve Steven Adams has performed admirably in these playoffs and may even be able to help replace the toughness Ibaka brings inside on the defensive end.
But Adams can’t replace his athleticism on the inside, which is what makes Ibaka special and has made Oklahoma City a thorn in the Spurs’ side since 2011.
The Spurs, of course, have an injury concern of their own as Tony Parker left their closeout win against the Portland Trail Blazers with a hamstring injury. But Parker has managed to be effective at less than 100 percent in the past and is expected to be a full go for Game 1 tonight.
Yet with all of that said, the deciding factor may still be whether or not the Spurs can stop the electric duo of Westbrook and
2014 MVP Kevin Durant.
When the two are playing on one accord, they are the most devastating, and perhaps unstoppable, tandem in the NBA.
And no one knows that better than San Antonio.
But when Durant and Westbrook devolve into isolation basketball, taking turns as the rest of the team becomes uninvolved and generally disinterested, the team is eminently beatable, as the Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers proved by taking series leads against the Thunder in the last two rounds.
Don’t expect the Spurs to be as forgiving if the Thunder allow them opportunities to not just take a series lead but push them to the edge of elimination.
Since looking lethargic in falling behind the Dallas Mavericks 2-1 in the first round, the Spurs have looked every bit the most complete team still playing in the postseason.
That doesn’t mean Oklahoma City can’t beat them.
But it was always going to be difficult for the Thunder with no home court advantage, and it will be even harder without their defensive anchor in Ibaka.
This writer doesn’t see the Thunder overcoming that.
Spurs in five.