The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, having stormed through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs, begin their duel for the Western Conference crown tomorrow.
The Western Conference finals, with a berth in the NBA finals championship series at stake, pits the west’s top two teams against each other.
The Thunder, the dominant force in the west for much of the season, saw the Spurs assume that mantle with a late-season winning streak that has now reached 18 games.
During the streak, the Spurs have won by an average of 14 points per game, finishing off the regular season with 10 successive victories before sweeping past the Utah Jazz and then the Los Angeles Clippers to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.
The young Thunder squad led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dispatched defending NBA champions Dallas in the first round, and the 2010 champions Los Angeles Lakers in the second as they seek a first title since the club moved to Oklahoma City.
San Antonio host Game 1 of the best-of-seven series tomorrow, a week after the Spurs finished off the Clippers in a Game 4 in which Tim Duncan led six Spurs players in double figures with 21 points and nine rebounds.
The Spurs’ last defeat was an April 11 setback against the Lakers.
However, San Antonio, who won four titles from 1999 through 2007, know the streak counts for nothing if they do not advance. They were the top seeds in the West last year when they were stunned in the first round by Memphis.
“As far as the winning streak is concerned, it doesn’t exist for us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Each game is its own and we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t come up and it’s not even on the radar for us.”
What the Spurs will draw on is their wealth of post-season experience. Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have played 130 playoff games as teammates.
Popovich’s 116 career post-season wins are third all-time among coaches behind Phil Jackson (229) and Pat Riley (171).
“They know that if they just stick with each other and the system, that oftentimes things are going to turn your way,” Popovich said of his big three.
Westbrook and Durant, both 23, have youth and enthusiasm on their side, but Westbrook said they know their opponents’ experience will be hard to overcome.
“They have been together a while. They have a lot of tricks to their game,” Westbrook said. “It’s going to be a mental challenge for us. They haven’t lost in a while and we’ve got to be prepared to play.”
San Antonio were 2-1 against Oklahoma City in the regular season, with Ginobili missing all three games because of injury.
The Thunder won the first meeting in January, but the Spurs won the next two.
The match-up between point guards Westbrook and Parker will be key. Rising star Westbrook has the advantage in size, and is a dangerous scorer as well as a facilitator for Durant. However, France’s Parker boasts dazzling quickness and scoring ability and a wealth of experience in creating plays for his teammates.
He averaged more than 18 points and a career-high seven assists per game this season.
Former Spurs player Steve Kerr says the Spurs “have become Tony Parker’s team.”
“He sets the entire table for the Spurs,” Kerr said. “His speed leads to everything for them.”