“I just think we’re playing against a team that is at its peak, I don’t see nobody beating them.”
These were the words that came out of the mouth of Al Jefferson, the 6’10 center for the Utah Jazz, after his team lost game 3 of the Western Conference playoffs by a score of 102-90. The series wrapped up last night as the San Antonio Spurs swept the Jazz, four games to none.
Jefferson’s statement does hold some truth to it because the Spurs are indeed a team that is playing at its very peak. They actually have been playing at this very high level all season long. The latter part of his statement – “I don’t see nobody beating them.” – forces one to ponder if any of the Western Conference teams that might be advancing to the next round can actually prove Jefferson wrong.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC) are currently the only other team – aside from the aforementioned Spurs – to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Barring any sports miracles, the Lakers (up 3-1 versus the Denver Nuggets) and the Clippers (up 3-1 versus the Memphis Grizzlies), will both advance to the next round, as well. The Spurs might face the Clippers in the next round in what should be a very entertaining match-up, while the Lakers might advance to play OKC – an even more entertaining match-up.
How can the Spurs make it to the NBA finals if they, potentially, have to go through three teams with three different playing styles? Lets try to answer this question by beginning with the most probable match-up with the Clippers. It is evident that the acquisition of Chris Paul has given the once lowly Clippers a fighting chance of making it to the playoffs every year. The emergence and maturation of DeAndre Jordan also gives them a good center for years to come. Blake Griffin is the obvious reason for the teams turn around but he is still developing into a well rounded basketball player – a reliable jump shot and better free throw percentages are what’s left to take his game to the next level. Outside of these three – and also if Randy Foye, Nick Young, Eric Bledsoe play really well and a healthy Caron Butler – the Clippers might just give the Spurs a minor headache. In the end though, they will find that they are lacking the defensive capabilities and the simple fact that their bench cannot match-up with the Spurs bench.
In a nut shell, the Spurs success during the season, and what will inevitably lead to their continued success in the playoffs is their depth. Let’s move on from the Clippers by boldly claiming that the Spurs will win this – only if the Clippers finish off Memphis – series in six games. This leaves us with two possible opponents.
The Lakers or OKC? The Lakers have Kobe and that might be enough for some pundits to pick them to beat OKC and the Spurs. In order for this to happen, Andrew Bynum has to be the focal point of the offense. This is not to say that Bynum should be the go to guy but rather that the offense should flow through him.
OKC will most likely dispatch the rotating services of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka on Bynum. If Bynum plays at the peak which he has displayed occasionally during the season, the OKC bigs (this includes an underrated defender in Nick Collison) will have their hands full. Pau Gasol is not the physical center that Bynum is but what he does have are skills that a rare for most big-men. It is obvious that the Lakers have the interior advantage between these two teams but the Thunder definitely have the upper hand on the wing and in the back court, with the collective efforts of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and even Dereck Fisher (he is old but his knowledge of the Lakers and particularly Kobe gives OKC another edge) will prove too much for the Lakers. So what could the outcome of this powerful tilt be? I predict that the team with the better bench will win it out in six or seven games. By all accounts, OKC has the better bench.
Bench production is key to winning and it is the reason why the Spurs will play OKC and defeat them in six games. Indeed, the Spurs truly are a balanced team and OKC is the only team that comes close to matching their depth in this playoffs – close but not as polished and balanced. The Spurs are doing it with both half court plays and fast break style of play and this is the main reason why they will be in the finals. They can run their offense – the X’s & O’s - better than any team out there and they can also run the fast break with Parker and Ginobili and the young new additions of Daniel Green and Kawhi Leonard. Add Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson and the underrated shooting of Matt Bonner and Gary Neal to that mix and you have a team that can do it all with play calling and also on pure athleticism and good shooting. OKC has three great scorers in Durant, Westbrook and Harden but their strengths rely on one-on-one play making. The Spurs team defense should nullify them and force them to have to run a slower and more ‘play-calling-based’ offense – something which is evidently not their strength. And should OKC try to force the uptempo game, Coach Popovich will simply shift gears and match them with his athletic bench.
Barring any sports miracles, the words you have just read above will hold true. I agree with Al Jefferson, I don’t see nobody beating the Spurs either.