Western Conference Finals: May the Best Bench Win
Mar 4, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (left) and shooting guard Manu Ginobili (20) laugh on the bench in the fourth quarter of a 122-101 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals begins on Monday, and it should be an exciting series thus far in the competitive Western Conference.
Both teams have had some changes since that 2012 series: The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the world by winning four games in a row after going down 2-0 in the series. The series was full of clutch and heartbreaking shots, questionable ref decisions and some big Kevin Durant performances.
Let’s review some of the changes that the benches have gone through.
Who Will Represent the West in the 2014 NBA Finals?
**All stats from NBA.com
Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest change from the Thunder bench between these two series is definitely the loss of James Harden.
Harden averaged 18.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists throughout the series. He shot a margin over 60.0 percent from long range, which included some big ones in clutch time.
The bench, overall, has gotten more talented and deeper for OKC, though. It is no longer dependent on just one player.
Reggie Jackson, a sixth-man-of-the-year candidate, leads this group with his much-improved play. He has taken advantage against the Spurs in the regular season putting up 21.3 points and 4.5 assists. While the Spurs try to put most of their focus on Durant and Russell Westbrook, this has allowed Jackson to exploit the lack of pressure on him.
With Serge Ibaka supposedly out for the rest of the postseason, it will be interesting to see who Thunder head coach Scott Brooks goes with to take his place.
Thunder are +5.7 per 48 minutes with Serge Ibaka on the court this postseason, -2.1 per 48 minutes with Ibaka on the bench.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2014
Steven Adams has been a key big man off the bench since Game 6 during the Memphis Grizzlies series. Then there is Nick Collison who is always ready to hustle when he comes onto the floor and, of course, Derrick Fisher is always ready to knock down some deep-ranged shots.Jeremy Lamb has been absent for the most part of this post season, but he has played well against the Spurs during the regular season as well, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get some minutes in there. Caron Butler was a big mid-season addition for the Thunder. Although he has struggled to fit in so far, he is still someone who can bring out a big game. It is never safe to count him out.
Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Spurs The bench is still led by former Sixth Man of the Year, Manu Ginobili, but the 2014 Foreign Legion is a drastic upgrade to the 2012 model. Ginobili has certainly let father time catch up to him since 2012, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to put 18.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting, again. Ginobili has been a key leader off the bench all season, making sure the ball is moving around and helping players get open looks.
@Spurs bench advantage in its series v. POR: 220 to 77 SAS: 1st this season in Bench PPG (45.1) & 1st so far in the ’14 Playoffs (39.5) — NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 15, 2014
Although the bench has most of the same players since the 2012, it still has changed. In 2012, the Spurs had Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal play a combined 246 minutes, compared to Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green who had only a combined 155.
Fast forward to the present, Jackson and Neal are gone, Splitter has moved to the starting lineup, Mills has been an outstanding bench player all year and, hopefully, Green, who was moved to the bench during the series, doesn’t pull another Houdini disappearing act.
With Parker still dealing with his Grade-1 hamstring strain, Mills will be a vital key off the bench with his energetic play. Diaw started all six games last time these two teams met in the playoffs but has been much better this season compared to 2012. He only averaged 5.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per outing that series, but Diaw has learned the Spurs system much better since and is having a significantly better season this year.
Belinelli was awful in the first round, but he found some confidence in the second round.
If he can find his three point rhythm throughout the series, that can be some serious trouble for the Thunder. Bonner could get some playing time to spread out the floor and keep the slower big men out of the paint.
Pop could also throw in Baynes to wear out the big men considering the Thunder are going to be a bit thinner at the front court. It would be surprising to see Joseph play, but if Westbrook is tearing up the Spurs then we could see Joseph play some aggressive defense against him for a couple minutes.
The Thunder are an extremely athletic team, so the Spurs’ bench will need to come out and match the energy of the Thunder all game.
The bench can most certainly be a game changer in this series.