ESPN basketball guru Stephen A. Smith — also known as Screaming A. or Stephen Naismith, whichever you prefer — says the San Antonio Spurs are unbeatable and doesn’t think any of the teams left in the NBA playoffs, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, can knock them off.
“They don’t have a weakness,” Screaming A. says of the Spurs, who have won 18 consecutive games and have yet to drop a game in the 2012 NBA playoffs. “How can you beat them? You have to hope they beat themselves.”
In the history of basketball, no team is unbeatable — not even the great San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won’t beat themselves, so that approach is out the window. But there are several matchups the Thunder can exploit to give the Spurs a run for their money.
Here are five things to watch in the Spurs-Thunder conference finals:
1-TIM DUNCAN VS. PERKINS, IBAKA, COLLISON, MOHAMMED
No matter how old he gets or how his role has changed on offense, Duncan remains the foundation of the Spurs program. He is the anchor on defense and his presence on offense allows Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green room to operate. Kendrick Perkins will likely get the assignment to guard the future Hall-of-Famer, but he won’t be alone. Expect OKC head coach Scott Brooks to throw different bodies at Duncan, including Ibaka, Collison and Duncan’s former teammate Nazr Mohammed. The Thunder big men won’t get much help from their teammates because they must stay attached to the Spurs’ 3-point shooters. This means the OKC bigs must deal with Duncan one-on-one, and their ability to make Duncan work and expend energy will be an important part of the game plan.
2-TONY PARKER VS. RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Parker pretty much had his way against the Thunder during the regular season, including a 42-point game, so it is up to Westbrook to make Parker work a little harder on defense. Westbrook is coming off a great series against the L.A. Lakers, but none of the Laker guards really challenged him. Parker is a totally different beast. Parker will test Westbrook on every possession with an array of screen-and-rolls, and Westbrook must be able to fight through the picks and not allow Parker to easily turn the corner. On offense, Westbrook has to punish Parker by posting him up from time to time and maybe get a couple of cheap fouls on him. This is one of the marquee matchups for the playoffs and should be fun to watch two of the fastest guys in the league go head-to-head.
3-MANU GINOBILI VS. JAMES HARDEN
Harden was recently named the best sixth man in the NBA, but he’s now matched up against the former Sixth Man of the Year. Ginobili and Harden are eerily similar in the way they play. Both are lefties to begin with, but they’ve also mastered the art of the Euro step. Ginobili brought the Euro step to the NBA in 2003, and Harden is one of just a handful of American-born players who have incorporated the move into their offensive repertoire. The Spurs won two out of three games against the Thunder during the regular season, but Ginobili didn’t play in any of them. It will be interesting to note how Harden and Co. will game plan for Ginobili, who is the fire that ignites Gregg Popovich’s methodical offense.
4-GOING DEEP ON THE BENCH
The strength of the Spurs this season has been their depth. Popovich can go 10 deep in his rotation, and the addition of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw halfway through the season only bolstered their roster. Parker, Green, Leonard, Diaw and Duncan start the game, but the Spurs don’t lose much on both ends when they bring in Gary Neal, Ginobili, Jackson, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter off the bench. The Thunder won’t be able to compete with the Spurs’ depth, but they can get contribution from some key bench guys. Obviously the offense will run through Harden when the starts sit, but Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook must be able to knock down some 3-pointers to keep up with the high-scoring Spurs, and Collison and Mohammed need to win the rebounding battle.
5-DURANT MUST CLOSE THE DEAL
The Spurs have may the most complete team in this series, but the Thunder easily has the best player in Kevin Durant. The three-time scoring champion was absolutely clutch in the Lakers series and for OKC to advance it’ll need another super effort from its MVP. Just like the previous round, there will be moments in this series when the Thunder will ask Durant to make game-winning plays and he must be able to deliver on cue. Durant said he learned a lot from last year’s elimination against Dallas in the conference finals. The Thunder are back in the West finals, and we’ll see if they learned from their mistakes. For the Thunder to eliminate the Spurs Durant must be extra special. He is the one player the Spurs won’t be able to match up against. Can Durant rise up to the challenge and lead the Thunder into the NBA Finals? Can’t wait to find out.