HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Identifying the differences between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder isn’t nearly as clear-cut as a quick scan of the Western Conference standings.
The Spurs lead the West and the entire NBA with a 39-11 record, and that includes their current 11-game win streak. The Thunder have the second best mark in the West and the league at 37-12.
But that still doesn’t give us any real insight into these two teams and what makes one superior to the other, if that is the case. They’ve split a pair of games this season, the Spurs won the first matchup 86-84 in the November 1 season opener for both teams in San Antonio. The Thunder took the second 107-93 on their home floor Dec. 17. And they have jockeyed for position at the top of the standings all season.
It’s a continuation of the battle these two teams waged last season for the supremacy in the Western Conference and there hasn’t been much separation between the two, save of course, for the Thunder’s triumph in the Western Conference finals last season. The script this season is following the same path as a year ago, with the Spurs holding the edge in the regular season standings but the Thunder — with their younger and more dynamic cast — holding the edge in a potential playoff series.
The Spurs have workhorses in All-Stars Tony Parker and Tim Duncan with a wild card of Manu Ginobili (when healthy) and a seasoned and steady supporting cast led by Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and others. And they have arguably the NBA’s best coach in Gregg Popovich.
The Thunder counter with a pair of All-Stars and superstars of their own in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with a wild card of Serge Ibaka and a steady supporting cast led by Kevin Martin and Nick Collison and others. They too have an excellent coach Scott Brooks, whose experiences in recent seasons have helped shape his view of what it takes to push his team in ways that have helped the Thunder evolve from a lottery outfit to title contenders.
Again, there’s isn’t so much as a sliver of space difference between these two heavyweights on paper.
That said, both of these clubs understand the tenuous nature of having a perceived advantage and what that means in the postseason. The Spurs had home court advantage in the Western Conference finals (and a 2-0 series lead) and it couldn’t save them from the clutches of a Thunder team that was simply better at that time.
The Thunder took that same home court advantage into The Finals against the Miami Heat and couldn’t hold off LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Co.
The Spurs and Thunder should have serious challenges on their hands long before they get to the Heat, or whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference come playoff time. The Los Angeles Clippers (when healthy), Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and perhaps even the struggling Memphis Grizzlies will all have to be dealt with in the playoffs.
But the cream of the Western Conference crop seems to be separating themselves from the pack as we inch closer to the All-Star break. Yet there is very little empirical separation between the Spurs and Thunder.
There is plenty of regular season basketball to be played. So we’re not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves here. That said, if they face off again in the conference finals this season, it’s hard to see the Spurs overcoming the same things that cost them against the Thunder last season. Those young legs will be tough to overcome in a seven-game series.