5. Gregg Popovich vs Scott Brooks
This is a matchup of great minds, both who have received the Coach of the Year award, Brooks in 2009-2010 and Popovich in 2002-2003 as well as this season. Brooks represents a fast-paced young team ready to take over the NBA while Popovich is the wily veteran who has managed to get his veteran players to buy into a system that values the team over any single player. What amazes me about the Spurs are their ability to rotate so beautifully on defense and their knack for passing up a good shot for a great shot, they always seem to make that extra pass. The Thunder surprised me several times last night when the rotated just as well, stopping the Spurs from any good looks no matter how many passes they made. If the Thunder can keep that up all series (or at least for an entire game) this series is going to be even better than anyone anticipated.
4. Tim Duncan vs Kendrick Perkins
Perkins brought to the Thunder a defensive minded post player with championship experience and toughness in the paint. He has been very important in their rise to the top, but unfortunately his counterpart in this matchup exceeds his pedigree by a longshot. Duncan has receded from his super-stardom with great dignity, taking a reduced scoring role all while maintaining solid interior defense, rebounding, and passing out of the post. Perkins may be able to stop Duncan from scoring inside (Duncan was 6 for 15 in game one) but Duncan’s vision from the post frequently leads to an assist or a pass leading to an assist. Watch for Duncan to hit those open midrange shots when Perkins is slow to rotate.
3. Kevin Durant vs Kawhi Leonard/Stephen Jackson
Last night we saw Popovich throw the combination of Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson at the scoring king Kevin Durant in an effort to at least slow him down. That strategy didn’t work so well as Durant scored 27 points on 42% shooting and was 11 for 12 from the free throw line. Leonard was struggling offensively and Jackson wasn’t a detriment on that end so the Spurs’ coach opted for the veteran late in the game. Personally, I think Leonard has a better chance at stopping Durant if you keep him out there most of the game. He has the length and athleticism to stay on him and contest those difficult shots that KD is known to make so frequently. Obviously you can’t expect anyone to shut Durant down, but if you play defense well enough on him he’ll be forced to pass it to Westbrook who has the unseemly talent of putting up terrible shots, especially late in the game. If the Spurs can figure this out they’ll have no problem in this series, but if Durant continues to produce at this level expect every game to be as competitive as last night.
2. Manu Ginobili vs James Harden
James Harden may have won 6th Man of the Year, but Ginobili has long been one of the greatest bench scorers in the NBA. Manu easily won the matchup in game one, scoring 26 points on 9 of 14 shooting while Harden struggled, going 7 for 17 with 19 points, but Harden will come out on top over the course of the series. Ginobili really stepped up his game last night, but he has struggled throughout the playoffs, which we delve deeper into here, shooting 30% from beyond the arc and 43.8% from the field. Meanwhile Harden has slipped a little in shooting from the field (41.8%) but has maintained his 3-point shooting (38.1%) and has gotten to the line almost twice as much as Ginobili (7.1 times per game compared to 3.6) while shooting 90.1% from the line. Harden’s youth, consistency, and ability to get to the line really give the Thunder an outstanding option off the bench that will surely pay dividends throughout the series.
1. Russell Westbrook vs Tony Parker
Westbrook is the epitome of what teams look for in a young point guard. He’s incredibly quick and athletic, gets to the lane with ease, has a developing jumper, and rebounds well for his position. Parker, on the other hand, is a coach’s dream of what a point guard can become. He creates his own shots as well as setting up others for shots. He always seems to know whether he should take the jumper, drive the lane, or pass up the shot and make the key extra pass to a wide open teammate. In Game One of the series this wasn’t much of a competition. Parker had 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, not to mention some key buckets towards the end of the game to extend San Antonio’s late run. Westbrook, however, went 7 for 21 from the field while accumulating 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. His shot selection towards the end of the game was a momentum killer and he could not seem to contain Parker. If the Thunder are going to win this series they will need their star point guard to step up, put that athleticism to use on defense, and work on being much more choosey with his shots.
15 years ago the San Antonio Spurs were handed the #1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, a result of their dismal 20-62 season that led to the firing of their head coach after only 18 games. With the future of the franchise weighing on that pick the front office wisely chose the 6’11” forward out of Wake Forest: Tim Duncan. Duncan was highly touted coming out of college, but I don’t think anyone envisioned the kind of success this team would achieve with that acquisition. 6 Finals appearances, 4 NBA Championships, and 15 years later we look back at a team that has gone 776-352 (including this season), eclipsing a 70% winning percentage in 8 different seasons and amounting a 68.79% winning percentage overall. In comparison the Lakers have won 5 championships in 7 appearances in that time period, winning over 70% of their games only 4 times and going through 7 different coaches. I will lay out the factors that have caused the Spurs to be the most consistently successful team over the past 15 years. Factors that indicate, if history tells us anything, they will continue that trend for years to come.
1. Tim Duncan
We all know how amazing of a player Tim Duncan is, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see him here. He’s not a flashy slasher/shooter like Kobe, he doesn’t have the scowl, and he doesn’t make big waves in the media; he simply lets his performance on the court do all the talking for him. For the first 8 seasons of his career Duncan never dipped below 20.3 points per game, 11.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, or a 49% shooting percentage from the field. Even after his production dipped ever so slightly he still managed to average a double double for 5 more seasons until last year, when at the age of 34 he recorded his first season without averaging a double double. His numbers become even more impressive in the playoffs where he has averaged 22.7 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while shooting 50% throughout his career when it matters the most. He is not only a great leader but a model of consistency that has been the foundation of this team for 15 years and is surely bound for the Hall of Fame whenever his illustrious career comes to a close.
2. Gregg Popovich
As important as it is to have a core of solid players it is arguably even more important who you put in charge of those men. Gregg Popovich has led this Spurs franchise to nearly 850 wins ever since taking over 18 games into the 1996-1997 season. The 2002-2003 Coach of the Year implements his defense so effectively that ever since his first full season as head coach the Spurs have been in the top 10 in the league in opponents’ points per game excluding last season. Not only does Popovich get his players to execute his strategies effectively but as this team has aged he has gotten his entire roster, including the star players, to accept their roles on the team whether they be diminished or not. As much of a dominant player Tim Duncan used to be his age and knees no longer grant him the mobility he was accustomed to. As he has grown older he has accepted his role on the team: rebounding, providing an inside presence on defense, and playing efficiently in the post. Even Ginobli and Parker have accepted their roles, with Ginobli coming off the bench and Parker picking up the slack left offensively by Duncan’s regression. Each player knows what their role is on the team and they embrace and execute that role for the greater good of the team.
3. Front Office
Lastly we can’t ignore the process through which these players have been acquired. Duncan was almost a lock at #1 when the Spurs were on the clock, so it didn’t take too much thinking to pull the trigger on that one. Aside from that obvious choice the Spurs have made savvy moves that have squeezed every drop of value from their picks. Manu Ginobli was taken in the 2nd round, 57th overall in 1999. He was a project that the Spurs were patient with, letting him develop overseas until he officially joined the team in 2002 and since has been an integral part of their core group of players, averaging over 15 points over his career and earning 6th Man of the Year honors for the 2007-2008 season. Tony Parker was a late first round pick that turned into a 4-time All Star. Most recently the front office made a draft day trade with the Pacers to acquire Kawhi Leonard despite having to give up coveted George Hill, a move that has worked out thus far with Leonard bringing youth, intensity, rebounding, and defense to this aging roster. These moves have kept this team succeeding over this long period of time and indicate further success even after the big 3 of San Antonio move on.
*Transactions not mentioned but worth noting: Dejuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson, and Boris Diaw.