After entering the postseason as the top two seeds in the Western Conference, it's only fitting that the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder be the last teams standing in the wild, wild West.
The Spurs and Thunder will meet in the Western Conference finals for the second time in three years, starting Monday night at the AT&T Center. Tipoff is at 8.
San Antonio finished the season with a league-best 62-20 record, three games ahead of No. 2 seed OKC (59-23).
The Thunder stunned the Spurs in this round two seasons ago, winning the series in six games after losing the first two in San Antonio. OKC s 20-point victory in Game 3 snapped a 20-game Spurs winning streak, sparking the Thunder to four consecutive victories that sent them to the NBA Finals.
OKC has had the Spurs' number the past few seasons, winning 10 of the last 12 games between the rivals and going 4-0 against the Silver and Black during the 2013-14 campaign.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked after Monday's shootaround what he can take from his team s regular-season success against the Spurs.
That we beat them four times, Brooks said. That's about it. It means nothing now. We have to play a very good basketball game to beat them, and vice versa, but we know that they're good.
They have a deep team, they have great 3-point shooters, they have great experience, and a talented point guard that can get to the paint when you don't think their opportunities are there. Regular season means nothing right now. We're both 0-0 going into the first game.
The Thunder were dealt a major blow last Thursday night when 6-foot-10 forward Serge Ibaka sustained a calf injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for the remainder of the postseason.
It says here the Spurs will win series in six games
Ibaka, who hit 11 of 11 shots in OKC's win over the Spurs in Game 4 of the 2012 West finals, anchored the Thunder's defense and was the their third-leading scorer. He averaged 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 13 playoff games this season. Ibaka led the NBA in blocked shots for the fourth consecutive year this season with 219.
Ibaka was injured in the third quarter of the Thunder's series-clinching victory against the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference semifinals.
The Spurs had an injury scare of their own in their series-clinching victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last Wednesday night. Point guard Tony Parker left the game in the second quarter after feeling tightness in his left hamstring and did not return.
An MRI the next day revealed Parker had a Grade 1 strain of his left hamstring, but he said after practicing Sunday that he will play in the series opener.
I had made up my mind to pick the Spurs in seven games, but Ibaka's injury changed everything.
After studying the tea leaves and they really are tea leaves and the spots on my tortilla at breakfast, I say the Silver and Black will end the series in six games and advance to the Finals for the second year in a row.
But this comes with a caveat. If Parker's hamstring affects his game or sends him to the sideline again, the Spurs will be in a heap of trouble. With Ibaka out, the Spurs maybe could beat OKC without Parker, but it would be very difficult.
Still, caveat or not, it says here the Spurs will beat the Thunder because they have the better overall team.
Even without Ibaka, Thunder still highly talented team
Ibaka, who did not travel with the team to San Antonio, will be sorely missed, especially on the defensive end. Remember, this is a guy who has led the league in blocked shots in each of the last four seasons.
Brooks said his players have done a great job of remaining positive despite losing Ibaka.
There's no question that Serge is a guy that's had a good year and he's helped us be a very good basketball team, Brooks said. But there's no reason to put your head down now. You've got to tie your shoes up and go out there and compete. We feel that we have enough. We have guys who can step up.
We're not looking for one guy. We're looking for a team to step up. Obviously, he (Ibaka) brings a lot to our team, but we still have a locker room that can compete at the level that we need to compete against the Spurs.
Nick Collison and Steven Adams will fill in for Ibaka, but Brooks has other options, including going with a smaller lineup.
I think they're (Spurs) prepared for everything we can throw at them, and vice verse, Brooks said. We understand what they do, and I'm sure they understand what we do. We have options with Serge being out and we understand we're going to have to utilize all of our options to beat a very good team.
While Ibaka's loss is huge for OKC and changes the dynamics of the series, the Spurs still must contend with MVP forward Kevin Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook and backup guard Reggie Jackson.
The task of trying to slow down Durant will fall on Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who was rookie when the teams met in the 2012 conference finals. Durant is averaging 31.4 points and 9.5 rebounds in the playoffs.
It's just going to be a group thing, trying to stop him but also the Thunder, Leonard said. The team scores the ball well, him (Durant) and Westbrook, and the other guys are shooting the ball well from 3s. It's going to be a team effort.
Westbrook putting upimpressive numbers for Thunder
Durant said OKC faces a challenge on both ends of the floor.
They move the ball so well and they have a lot of shooters, he said. We have to all move the ball in order for us to get looks. It's going to be a challenge tonight against a good defensive team, but we can do it.
Durant then was asked about Ibaka.
First of all, we want to keep encouraging Serge, Durant said. It's tough to not play, especially at this time of year. He prepared his whole life for these moments, and for it to be taken away by injury is unfortunate. We've just to step up. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We've got to make up for a lot.
Westbrook is averaging 26.6 points, 8.4 assists and 8 rebounds.
He's an incredible talent having a great playoff run, Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. Some incredible numbers. Just an impressive athlete when you try to stay in front of him. His confidence is there.
Jackson has been called a Spurs killer by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for his propensity to come off the bench and score points quickly against the Silver and Black.
We've seen a lot of Reggie and Russ (Westbrook) playing at the same time, the two point-guard approach Spurs guard Danny Green said. We'll expect that. Reggie always plays well against us for some reason. Hopefully he doesn't play as well in this series and they don't do it as much (play Jackson and Westbrook at the same time).
But we're prepared for it. We have enough guards to match up and give them the match that two guards bring.
Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Western Conference finals
Game 1: Thunder at Spurs, Monday, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Thunder at Spurs, Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Game 3: Spurs at Thunder, Sunday, May 25,7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Spurs at Thunder, Tuesday, May 27,8p.m.
Game 5, if necessary: Thunder at Spurs, Thursday, May 29, 8 p.m.
Game 6, if necessary: Spurs at Thunder, Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m.
Game 7, if necessary: Thunder at Spurs, Monday, June 2, 8 p.m.