Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs is schedule to tip off tonight at 7:30 p.m. CST. Here are three things to look for in a series that looks too close to call for either side.
Kevin Durant. Durant is an absolute scoring behemoth. But you already knew that. Durant averaged 28 points, eight rebounds, 3.5 assists and 49.6% shooting in his fifth season. He led the league in scoring for the third consecutive year although his season average is two points lower than his 30.1 points per game average in the 2009-10 season. Remarkable. In his fifth season, though, Durant has increased his passing proficiency — Durant assisted on 17.3% of Oklahoma City’s possession during the regular season — and improved his shooting percentage. Durant posted a career-high 61 TS% even though his free throw percentage dipped to a career low 86% this year.
While his shooting percentage dipped on shots from the restricted area, Durant’s real improvements came from his developing mid-range game, yet another weapon in his developing arsenal. He shot 46% on mid-range shots, a four percent improvement from his 2010-11 season. This is especially important because his game relies extensively on the mid-range jumper as he takes a little over a third of his shots from mid-range. It’s pretty rare that a 23-year-old can be so successful in the NBA — is there any doubt that he won’t be a surefire Hall of Famer at the pace he’s playing right now? — and still be steadily improving in every regard. He isn’t better than LeBron James but the fact that we’re already comparing him to one of the most gifted athletes of this generation is an indictment of his ability.
Russell Westbrook. I don’t necessarily know how this works but the Spurs outscored the Thunder by eight points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court. With Westbrook sidelined, Oklahoma City enjoyed a 15.5 points per 100 possessions advantage. Don’t let this stat fool you: the Thunder do not want Derek Fisher playing extended minutes in this series. The 16-year veteran has been relegated to a mere hindrance defensively, his bulk providing the only obstacle for Tony Parker. Fisher’s defense against the pick-and-roll has deteriorated significantly in his tenure with the Thunder. Fisher’s defense against the pick-and-roll put him among the top 60 players in the league last year and that carried into the 2011-12 season when he allowed 0.64 PPP on 164 possessions against the pick-and-roll. With the Thunder, that has dropped to an unacceptable 0.88 PPP, putting him 168th in the league. It may be mostly sample size, but it very well could be Father Time slowly chipping away at his skills. If that’s the case, Westbrook has even more pressure to, at the very least, pace Parker in production. In fact, he may have to outplay Parker to cover for Fisher and his teammates.
James Harden. Did you know Harden posted the best overall points per possession numbers of the entire Thunder triumvirate? Harden’s 1.11 PPP is the ninth best mark in the entire league. Harden posted top 10 PPP’s in isolations (1.05), as the pick-and-roll ball handler (1.01), on screens away from the ball (1.35), hand offs (1.30) and cuts (1.53). On about 59.7% of his possessions, Harden was scoring on a more efficient basis than the majority of the entire league. From an efficiency standpoint, the fact that Harden only commands 21.6% of Thunder possessions, compared to the usage rates of Durant and Russell Westbrook, is a little unusual. The 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year garnered 31.4 minutes per game and his effectiveness in the Western Conference Finals could be the decisive factor in whether the Thunder are able to defeat the Spurs in a seven-game series.
Final verdict. Spurs by five. Both teams score more than 100 points. I don’t think there will be many blowouts in this series. Get ready everyone.