By Michael Kinney
It’s not the Lakers vs Celtics of the 80s or Heat vs Knicks of the 90s.
But as far as this new era NBA is concerned, when San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder meet up in the playoffs, it’s the closest thing to a rivalry going today.
For the third time in five years the two teams will face off in the postseason. Oklahoma City won the Western Conference title over San Antonio in 2012. San Antonio came back and claimed the conference championship in 2014 against the Thunder. Both series were full of drama defining moments.
“We’ve had some battles,” Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant said. “It was a few battles that defined by runs. That shows each team really respects each other and definitely want to compete.”
Neither team will be able to take much from their encounters during the 2015-16 regular season. However, the teams know each other so well, it doesn’t really matter.
“When you play San Antonio you have to be prepared right from the tip on how fast and physical the series is gonna be,” Nick Collison said. “They’re gonna run their offense at a higher speed than most teams you play against, so just being able to know what we’re coming into on the defensive end and how locked in we have to be from the jump is big.”
Despite having tied for the seventh best regular season record (67-15) in the history of the NBA, San Antonio has managed to once again stay under the radar. Except for a couple of contests with Golden State, coach Gregg Popovich has kept him team out of the limelight.
“Obviously, they are a great team, well coached team and they are going to test us,” Collison said. “I think the ability to play every play, be engaged every play is key for us, because they are going to test us. They run a lot of actions, it’s difficult to guard, and they aren’t going to beat themselves.”
What the Spurs bring to the table are the same cast of championship veterans in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. While Duncan has lost a step, he is still formidable at the age of 40. Parker and Ginobli pick and choose when to have their moments.
But this year’s San Antonio is built around LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge came to the team in the offseason from Portland and after a slow start has turned into the player the Spurs see as Duncan’s replacement.
Leonard is the back-to-back defensive player of the year and widely regarded as the best two-way player in the NBA. He is one of the few defenders who consistently gives Durant problems.
Throw in David West, Danny Green, Kevin Martin and Boris Diaw, and the Spurs have a deep, talented and savvy squad. But they know they have their hands full with Oklahoma City.
“Obviously we have to be more physical and crisp than we were last series,” Green told Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News. “They are a big bodies team. They get a lot of offensive rebounds off the glass. That’s where they make a lot of their money. And try to slow down their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Got to slow them down and keep their big men off the boards.”
As great of a defender as Leonard is, Durant, he still averages more than 25 points on 46 percent shooting against him in 11 head to head matchups. That goes with 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
Westbrook’s numbers against the Spurs are just as impressive. Despite some believing he is not a superstar, the fiery point guard has posted 22 points, seven assists and almost six rebounds in 12 playoff games against San Antonio.
“I just go out and play my game and run my team,” Westbrook said. “They are a different team. Obviously they have different players. Some of the guys are better than before. Honestly, I think it’s more important for us to work out what we can do as a team. That’s all I’m worried about.”
Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal is set for Saturday night in San Antonio. Game 2 will take place Monday at 8:30 p.m. The series comes back to Oklahoma City Friday and Sunday for Games 3 and 4.
“I’m excited to play,” Durant said. “We have to be ready from the beginning. Going on the road, first game on the road. Guys here have been in that situation before. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”