Western Conference Finals preview: Ultimate contrast

Western Conference Finals preview: Ultimate contrast
May 19, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Leonard is a superb defender, with the length and range and quickness to bother KD as much as anybody can. But Durant on his game sees through his defender.
Monte Poole

Programming note: Watch Steve Kerr's introductory press conference Tuesday at Noon on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, or streaming live right here.

Former coach Mark Jackson says the Warriors are championship-ready. CEO Joe Lacob believes they should be a top-four team in the Western Conference.

Both need to take a closer look.

The Warriors are a playoff team, nothing more, and will be among the 26 NBA clubs watching Monday night, when two legitimate championship contenders meet for Game 1 of a series that will illustrate their superiority.

What would have been a fantastic conference finals series, featuring the Spurs and the Thunder, has been reduced to merely spellbinding.

The Thunder were set to close the window on the mighty Spurs – until is was discovered the calf injury Serge Ibaka sustained in their clinching win over the Clippers last Thursday is expected to sideline the power forward until next season.

Ibaka is Oklahoma City's third-best player, a premier shot-blocker and one of the few players in the league capable of disrupting San Antonio's wonderful offensive system. And, by the way, he's a terrific foil for the redoubtable Tim Duncan.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks likely will respond by going small, as he should. Starting center Kendrick Perkins is a plodder who doesn't need to be defended and can't keep up with old man Duncan, much less the constant movement from other Spurs big men.

So now we get the ultimate in contrasts, the league's most cohesive squad, the Spurs, against the most electric duo in the league, OKC's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Imagine a dozen pit bulls battling two panthers.

It'll be fun to watch, but the Spurs have the edge.

As for the Warriors and most other teams around the league, they'll see things they can only dream of.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

SF Durant vs. SF Kawhi Leonard: Leonard is a superb defender, with the length and range and quickness to bother KD as much as anybody can. But Durant on his game sees through his defender. San Antonio would be pleased if Leonard can keep Durant below 30 points per game.

PG Westbrook vs. PG Tony Parker: Westbrook likely will share duties defending Parker, one of the quickest guards in the league. Parker also will see plenty of Reggie Jackson. But the Spurs have no counter for Westbrook. Everybody they can throw out there is too small or to slow. Westbrook, more than Durant, is key for OKC.

Thunder bench vs. Spurs bench: San Antonio has the deepest bench in the league. There is no individual who instills fear, but they attack like a school of piranha. Boris Diaw is subtly effective, and guards Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli can shoot it with anyone. OKC needs to get something out of Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III.

KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Neutralizing Westbrook -- I don’t see one, but that doesn't mean the Spurs won't uncover one.

2) Paint defense -- We know San Antonio's will be sound, but can OKC cover for the loss of Ibaka?

3) The KD Factor -- Will the Spurs be able to keep him from taking over games?

COACHING MATCHUP: Umm, this one is easy. I like Brooks more than many, but he's no match for Gregg Popovich, who has exquisite command of his roster.

KEY INJURIES: Ibaka (calf) is out for the Thunder. Parker (hamstring) is day-to-day for San Antonio.

RECENT HISTORY: OKC swept the season series against San Antonio, winning all four games. The Thunder had the goods to stifle the league's most irrepressible offense. Ibaka, however, was a huge part of that.

THE VERDICT: The Spurs in seven. KD will be heroic. Westbrook will be by turns scintillating and maddening. The Spurs will be hypnotically consistent. In Pop we trust.

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