On Sunday, May 27, the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs will try to extend their overall winning streak to 19 games when they host the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Western Conference Finals. The Spurs won their final 10 games of the regular season and have won their first eight postseason contests. San Antonio's last loss occurred more than six weeks ago--on April 11, against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last year, the Western Conference's top seed was not so kind to the Spurs. San Antonio lost their opening-round series of the 2011 NBA Playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2. This season, they swept both the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers to earn their spot in the Western Conference finals.
The Thunder reached the conference finals by exacting revenge against the two teams that bounced them from the playoffs the last two seasons. In the first round, they swept the defending NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks in four straight games. Then Oklahoma City victimized the Lakers (winners of the 2010 NBA title) four games to one in the Western Conference semifinals.
Now another NBA champion stands in the Thunder's path. To keep their hopes of bringing the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Oklahoma City alive, the Thunder will have to win four games against the four-time NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007).
Game 1: Sunday, May 27, Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, 8:30 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 2: Tuesday, May 29, Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, 9:00 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 3: Thursday, May 31, San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder, 9:00 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 4: Saturday, June 2, San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8:30 p.m. ET TNT
Game 5: Monday, June 4, Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, 9:00 p.m. on TNT (if necessary)
Game 6: Wednesday, June 6, San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder, 9:00 p.m. on TNT (if necessary)
Game 7: Friday, June 8, Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, 9:00 p.m. on TNT (if necessary)
During the regular season, the Spurs and Thunder met three times with San Antonio winning the series 2-1. Former Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili did not play a single minute against Oklahoma City during the regular season, but he will probably be a difference maker during this playoff series.
This will likely be a fast-paced and high-scoring series. San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the only teams averaging 100 points or more through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Spurs have been a model of efficiency all season long. They finished the regular season with the most efficient offense (108.5 points per 100 possessions) and a second-best (behind the Chicago Bulls) efficiency differential of 7.9. During the playoffs, San Antonio has improved that efficiency differential to a whopping 14.7 by becoming more efficient on both sides of the ball.
During the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Spurs had an offensive efficiency rating of 109.6. In their eight straight playoff victories over the Jazz and Clippers, who both had offensive efficiency ratings well above 100 during the regular season, San Antonio allowed just 94.9 points per 100 possessions.
To keep their hopes of a fifth NBA championship alive, San Antonio will have to count on its offensive and defensive efficiency to contain the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are capable of incredible scoring runs, and those runs can help them extend a lead or help them come from behind to overcome a deficit. Oklahoma City used explosive runs to do both against the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers in the first two rounds.
If the Spurs want to avoid the fate of the Mavericks and Lakers, they will have to keep the Thunder's scoring runs to a minimum. San Antonio can minimize Oklahoma City's runs by taking care of the basketball, taking quality shots and maintaining floor balance.
The Spurs run their half-court offense with surgeon-like precision. Their crisp ball and player movement helps them get quality shots on a consistent basis. Many of those shots wind up being wide-open threes.
Much of San Antonio's offensive efficiency comes from hitting those open three-point shots. During the regular season, the Spurs made 8.4 threes per game and shot a league-high 39.3 percent beyond the three-point arc. So far in the playoffs, those numbers have improved to 8.9 and 42.3, respectively.
To limit San Antonio's efficiency on the offensive end and to give themselves an opportunity to win this series, the Thunder will have to defend the three-point line. In three regular-season, head-to-head matchups, Oklahoma City allowed the Spurs to shoot a phenomenal 51.9 percent (28-of-54) from three-point land. If the Thunder allow San Antonio to consistently convert threes at such a high clip during this series, Oklahoma City will have no chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.
During the regular season, the Thunder committed a league-high 16.3 turnovers per game. However, during the playoffs, they have protected the ball better than any other team and have dropped that number down to 10.7. In fact, Oklahoma City has committed fewer than 10 turnovers in four of their nine postseason contests. If the Thunder continue to protect the basketball and value each possession, they will be a very difficult team to beat.
For Oklahoma City, this series basically comes down to defending the three-point line and protecting the ball. If the Thunder can do those two things, they just might make it to the 2012 NBA Finals. If they can't, then next season, the Oklahoma City Thunder may get an opportunity to exact some revenge against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Playoffs.
Prediction: Spurs 4-2
Mark is a lifelong fan of the NBA who has loved the game of basketball ever since his first trip to an NBA arena. Mark has watched more basketball games than anyone can count and has hundreds of articles about the NBA published on the internet. Mark also shares his random NBA musings and game-by-game predictions on RandomNBAFan.com.
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Information from ESPN.com's San Antonio Spurs 2012 Schedule, 2011-12 Postseason NBA Team Stats, Hollinger's NBA Team Stats, San Antonio Spurs 2012 Stats, Oklahoma City Thunder 2012 Schedule and Basketball-Reference.com's San Antonio Spurs Franchise Index was used for this article.