By: Martin Sumners
The first round of the NBA Playoffs has come to a close for the Western Conference, and the teams vying to make it into the conference finals are ready for battle. Let’s take a look at the Western Conference semifinal matchups to give you insight into who we think will come out on top.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
Most of the analysis of this series is premised on the notion that these two franchises are polar opposites. There is some validity to that. The Spurs are the paragon of stability built around a veteran core of three great players in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker and a highly respected coach in Gregg Popovich. The Clippers are younger and funner (not a word) with their Lob City side show led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and a coach in Vinny Del Negro, who is questioned at every opportunity.
This may lead one to think that the Spurs are the slow-down team that methodically wears down its opponent and that the Clippers are the free-wheeling run-n-gun stereotype. However, the Spurs have revamped the focus of its offense from forward Duncan to point guard Parker, finishing second in points scored and three-point shots made. The Clippers are statistically better defensively than the Spurs, holding teams to fewer points and lower field goal percentages.
Also, many will claim that the Spurs showed how dominant they can be by dismissing its first-round opponent Utah Jazz in a sweep where they were rarely challenged and that the flaws of an the inexperienced Clippers were unveiled in a long seven-game series with the Memphis Grizzlies. Yet, it should be noted that the Clippers showed grit by winning the seventh game on the road, which teams lose 80% of the time. And that these same Grizzlies defeated the Spurs in the first-round last season.
Considering the regular season series between these teams, it also suggests that they may be like images in a car rear view mirror – closer than you think. The Spurs, in the second game of the season for both teams, soundly defeated the Clippers 115-90. But that game was so long ago Richard Jefferson was the third-leading scorer for the Spurs with 19 points on 8-9 shooting. Jefferson has since been traded to the Golden State Warriors. That victory extended the Clippers’ almost ten-year long losing streak in San Antonio where they had last won on January 31, 2002.
The Clippers gave away the next meeting in one of the most bizarre endings to a game in the history of the NBA. The Clippers, winning by three with a few seconds left, needed point guard Paul to dribble out the clock, but he instead tripped and threw the ball wildly into the surprised hands of Spurs’ guard Gary Neal, who made a three-pointer at the buzzer. In overtime, the Spurs outlasted the deflated Clippers 103-100. But finally, the hex was removed in a March game as the Clippers stunned the Spurs 120-108 in San Antonio. Despite Parker being out, that does not deny the psychological impact of that victory.
Both teams have deep benches and it’s almost unheard of during playoff basketball that each, in their clinching playoff games, had ten players play double-digit minutes. At one point, midway through the decisive and closely contested Game 7, the Clippers had the floor spread with five substitutes. Rising star and highlight dunker Griffin, however, is finding playoff basketball a little more challenging than regular season as the game is played more half-court, reducing fast-breaks and easy points.
The Spurs rely on execution and quick ball movement on offense. With Duncan on the block as an anchor, the rest of the floor usually has three or four perimeter shooters surrounding him, ready to hit the open man with precision passing. The Clippers have many capable defenders with speed to challenge these shots, but that takes discipline. That remains the question for the talented but evolving Clippers team that has many players who have not played together that long.
Being that the Clippers are so deep is a double-edge sword. It gives them flexibility to play many ways with a lot of different looks. Similar to the point made above, the cohesion can be lacking as their identity has been marketed as high-flying Lob City, but they may be best when they lock in defensively. Unfortunately, they do not seem to realize that and rely on offense.
Spurs in 6.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (3) Los Angeles Lakers
It seems that this series has been in the making since the young and upcoming Thunder challenged the defending champion Lakers in the first-round of the 2010 playoffs. The Lakers won that series in six games, but only after avoiding a decisive Game 7 with a tip-in by Pau Gasol with a few seconds left in the game. Almost inevitably, many could foresee the tables turning where the Thunder would be ready to challenge the Lakers and NBA status quo. That time has come.
For the first time since acquiring Gasol midway through the 2007-08 season, the Lakers are a playoff underdog. The Thunder, groomed since its move following that same 2007-08 season from their original home of Seattle (SuperSonics), could be ready to transition into a champion. This scenario has been seen quite often such as when the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls overcome the Isiah Thomas-led Detroit, after years of being bullied, en route to multiple championships. The Pistons, a few years prior, had also finally defeated its nemesis Boston Celtics on the way to back-to-back titles.
This series initially may have been viewed primarily looking at the teams’ top scorers; Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. In fact, Durant finished a few tenths ahead of Bryant as the top scorer in the league and having the top two scorers face off in the playoffs is such a rare event that it has not happened since the 1997 NBA Finals with Michael Jordan versus Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz.
However, the seemingly random elbow from Metta World Peace that concussed the eventual Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden in the penultimate game of the season for the Lakers has somewhat shifted the focus. The elbow caused World Peace to receive a seven-game suspension that he returned from just in time to help the Lakers fight off the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the first-round series where he made four three-point shots and played handcuff defense. Harden missed the last two games of the regular season with the injury, but showed his worth with his inspiring 15 point fourth quarter, leading the comeback win in the decisive series game versus the Dallas Mavericks.
The Thunder, coming off a sweep of its first-round opponent and defending champion Mavs, are well rested with nine days before taking on the Lakers who just concluded its series two nights ago. The Lakers, however, hope that rest turns into rust. The Lakers may not be that fresh but as Bryant revealed; a year of rest wouldn’t help the Lakers get any quicker. The Lakers rely on Bryant’s 33 year-old legs and perhaps more significant is the 16 years of NBA usage and seasoned vets in Gasol and more recently World Peace. The change of coaches from Phil Jackson to Mike Brown has been simultaneous with the rise of the young 24 year-old Andrew Bynum. However, Bynum’s flashes of unstoppable play on both ends of the court have often been overshadowed by nonchalance or sulking.
The Thunder offensive punch derives from the trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden off the bench none older than 23 years old. In the closing moments, Harden will invariably be there replacing starting two guard and defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder also have forward Serge Ibaka, who at 22 is one of the best defenders in the league and can run the floor creating easy baskets.
Durant will have his share of big scoring games, although World Peace can slow him down with physical and tenacious defense. The key for the Lakers will be controlling Russell Westbrook. The Lakers had hoped that trading for Ramon Sessions would help them defend quick point guards, but he has had some issue with doing just that as Nuggets’ Ty Lawson took advantage of him most of the series resulting in his being benched for Steve Blake in Game 7.
Blake can’t effectively guard Westbrook either, and so Bryant will likely draw that assignment in crunch time. That leaves Harden to be accounted for, and although the Lakers don’t usually play World Peace and Matt Barnes at the same time, thinking outside of the box they could utilize Matt Barnes to defend Harden. That could diminish their offensive production, but defense may be in order to handle the Thunder with its three lethal scorers.
The Thunder will likely not double team the post like the Nuggets did to frustrate Bynum and too some degree Gasol. They tend to rely on center Kendrick Perkins who has battled Bynum and Gasol since his Celtics days before being traded to the Thunder last season. Ibaka also can match up with Gasol without much help. So, the key for the Thunder is how well they can defend the Lakers length down low.
The Lakers have been brilliant and baffling at times this season as well as within a particular quarter. The Thunder will look to exploit this inconsistency and hold on as Bryant leads a late Lakers’ charge. Thunder in 6.
Martin Sumners is an NBA columnist for IamaGM.com. Find out more about Martin at sumsoul.com and follow him on Twitter @sumsoul.