Since the Mavericks walked off with the title in 2011, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have been the best teams in the Western Conference, and it hasn't been close. There is a gap between those two and everyone else. The two met in 2012 in a titanic battle. And the only thing that kep us from a repeat last season was the injury to Russell Westbrook in the first round. Now, they're back, ready to face off in a Texas-Oklahoma battle for the right to face Miami return to the NBA Finals.
Let's take a look at their matchup in 2012 and see where they're at now.
OKC-San Antonio, First Blood
In 2012, the Thunder were fresh off a dispiriting loss to the Mavericks in the Conference Finals while the Spurs had shrugged off the first-round exit the year before. It was supposed to be a classic matchup of a Thunder team still too young vs. the established veterans. The Spurs had balance, experience, and Tim Duncan.
San Antonio won Game 1 by a slim margin after coming back from nine down vs. OKC at home. They went on a 30-11 run to take the lead. After that game, I came away believing the Thunder had a formula that could work. Except, then they turned around and lost Game 2 by nine, giving up 120 points in the process. San Antonio held off a Thunder run, and the Spurs were up 2-0. The narratives of the more experienced team kicking the young guns to the curb was in full swing.
And then, a weird thing happened. The entire series flipped.
The Thunder went on to win the next four games, taking the series 4-2. They blew out the Spurs in Game 3, came back from 18 in the elimination Game 6. It was a stunning turnaround for both the Spurs and their fans, because it was the first time that what they really do well didn't work. They had been out-talented before, out-worked, but never out-executed. And yet, that's what the Thunder did in that series.
They didn't do it the Spurs way, with smart cuts and fundamental basketball. They did it the NBA way, with speed, athleticism, and length. The shooters were constantly bothered by OKC running them off the three-point line. The Thunder ran the ball down their throat and the Spurs lacked the players to respond. It was pretty devastating and there was a fear that this was it for them.
But then they made the Finals in 2013.
But they never had to play the Thunder.
Evolution in gradients
So what do these teams look like, two years later as they get set to square off in Game 1 of their rematch?
At first glance, they look pretty similar. It's still Tony Parker dashing into the middle, with Tim Duncan on the block and Manu Ginobili making plays. The Thunder are still Kevin Durant making shots and Russell Westbrook wreaking havoc for both teams. Kendrick Perkins is still setting illegal screens and Boris Diaw is still confusingly talented and yet only moderately impactful.
Everything else, though... that's where we see a lot of shifts.
For starters, James Harden is gone. I'm not going to go into (another) long diatribe about how in reality the choice came down to Harden vs. Ibaka despite Ibaka having been signed before the Thunder traded Harden to Houston, how Harden's defense for the Rockets makes you wonder what would have happened in OKC, about how Steven Adams has already paid dividends or how Jeremy Lamb still has a long career ahead of him. All those things are true. But this is the matchup where they'll miss him the most.
Harden took it to Ginobili in that series. You need quick hands and strength to bother Ginobili and Harden has both. He was just a bigger, better body than Manu and that caused a rash of mistakes from the veteran. The Thunder used Harden on-ball to power their superstars off of it. And Harden meant that one of Westbrook and Durant didn't have to be on the floor the entire time vs. the Spurs. Throw in Harden's heat check three ability and you have a big missing component this time for OKC.
But there are other factors. Tiago Splitter played just 53 minutes in that series. He's now a starter who the team leans on particularly on the defensive end. He's the rim protector San Antonio didn't have as they went small in 2012. Kawhi Leonard was a rookie in his first NBA playoff season. He was still learning how to play the game, still turning his body into its NBA version, still learning his role in San Antonio. Now he's the new member of the Spurs' Big 3 and a playmaking difference maker for a team that needs it. He's an apex predator defensively and extremely versatile on offense.
How about a bench that's seen radical change? The Spurs relied on Stephen Jackson, who was exposed as being unable to keep up with Durant in 2012. Jackson's long gone. Gary Neal was their spark off the bench. He's gone as well. Patty Mills has been elevated to backup point guard and Marco Belinelli is the new sparkplug scorer. Danny Green starts and is pivotal or this team.
Green started off red hot in the 2012 playoffs, but regression socked him badly in the Western Conference Finals. He shot just 26 percent from the field and 17 percent from three in that series. Since then he's become a guy who nearly won Finals MVP last year. So yeah, he's evolved a bit.
But the bench overall might be weaker. Ginobili has been fantastic in these playoffs... he also hasn't been challenged by an elite defender. He's about to face a squad of them, and how he reacts and if he's able to remain effective could determine this series. Mills and Belinelli are both unproven at this level, and face tough matchups on the other side. Are they ready to step up?
That's not to say the Thunder are the same either, outside of Harden. Serge Ibaka was a good defensive player who relied on his athleticism then but was easy to outsmart defensively. Now he's a monster, who understands proper rotations and doesn't fall for pump fake. He's lethal from short-range and dangerous from three. He's athletic, he's strong, and he's worthy of being mentioned as part of the Big 3 for the Thunder... if he's healthy. (Update: He's out for the rest of the season. Welp.)
Reggie Jackson is lightning fast and a big-time player... when he starts. Findind his groove off the bench has been harder, but the Thunder need, need, need him to step up off the bench and apply pressure on the Spurs guards.
Steve Adams is a rookie, and he's another huge potential difference maker. Kendrick Perkins played twice as many minutes as Nick Collison in 2012. If Adams can take some of those minutes, it will help a ton vs. Splitter, and lineups with Collison and Adams could do major damage off the bench.
A core question
So, no, this series bears little resemblance to 2012. The Spurs operate differently, the Thunder function on a different wavelength. The Spurs' core is older, but they also have more familiarity with OKC. Durant and Westbrook are better than they were then... but the team may not be as good. That's what makes this series so difficult to figure out.
All of these elements are from a distance, and though relevant, paint a very confused picture.
The core of this series is the one thing that carries over from 2012: It's the Thunder's athleticism vs. the Spurs' execution. It's not about what kind of firepower each team carries in their personnel, each team is good enough to win the West. What will decide this series is which team can tip the balance of that question of athleticism vs. execution to their favor, and as with any series, who can make a few more plays.
Buckle up. This sequel looks to be anything but a retread.