When the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs meet tonight in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals (9 p.m. EST, TNT), the teams won’t just be playing for the right to advance to their second NBA Finals in three years; they’ll be playing to establish dominance in what’s arguably the most difficult conference in all of sports.
It’s no secret that the NBA’s competitive balance between the Eastern and Western Conferences has been, well, imbalanced in recent years. Perennial contenders the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers -- who are meeting in the Eastern Conference finals for the second year in a row -- are significantly better than the 13 other teams in their conference, where a sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks team made the postseason as the No. 8 seed. Out west, the Phoenix Suns finished with a record of 48-34, same as the No. 3-seeded Toronto Raptors, and didn’t even make the playoffs.
This makes the recent accomplishments of the Thunder and Spurs all the more noteworthy. Four teams in San Antonio’s Southwest division made the playoffs this year and the Spurs still finished with an eye-popping 62-20 record. Even more impressively, head coach Gregg Popovich has lead his team to 50-plus wins each season but one since taking over as coach during the 1996-97 season, including the 2011 lockout-shortened season when the NBA played just 66 games. The only time one of Pop’s teams didn’t cross the 50-win threshold was during the abbreviated 1998-99 season, when they won the NBA Championship with 37-13 record. It’s an unprecedented stretch of consistency made all the more remarkable given the quality of Western Conference opponents.
“Impressive” and “remarkable” are words often used to describe Thunder star and NBA MVP Kevin Durant. Although LeBron James is frequently cited as the league’s best player, that distinction belonged to Durant this season, as he posted numbers not seen since Michael Jordan was in his prime. His teammate, Russell Westbrook, is considered by many to be among the best point guards in the NBA, giving the Thunder a powerful one-two punch.
These human highlight machines will have to be even more dominant than usual if the Thunder hope to advance to the finals. OKC big man Serge Ibaka went down with a season-ending calf injury against the L.A. Clippers, which will put even more pressure on Durant and Westbrook to produce, especially since San Antonio has a much better bench. That said, the Spurs are still driven by the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, Hall of Fame-caliber players who are nevertheless on the backside of their careers. San Antonio has done a tremendous job restocking with young role players, but the Western Conference finals still come down to a battle between youth and experience and OKC’s 4-0 season-sweep of the Spurs should give them some much-needed confidence.
Like the Eastern Conference finals -- where Indiana took a 1-0 series lead on Miami with a dominant 107-96 victory on Sunday -- the Spurs-Thunder series is likely to go to six or seven games. And regardless of the outcome of the NBA Finals, the winner of the series can lay claim to the throne in the toughest conference in sports.