Spurs-Thunder: A clash of old and new

By Jeff McDonald

After sweeping through the Utah Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the top-seeded Spurs had to wait eight days to start the second round.

Once there, it took them all of six days to sweep the Los Angeles Clippers, too.

A second straight whitewashing earned the Spurs another extended break — six days before the start of the next round — with one seminal difference: This time, at least, they know what they are up against.

The Spurs’ first trip to the Western Conference finals in four years will open Sunday against fast-rising, second-seeded Oklahoma City at the ATT Center.

“At this point in the season, you want to know what you’re going to face,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “The uncertainty is not always good.”

When it comes to playing Oklahoma City, certainty can also be unsettling.

Propelled by the most prolific scoring trio in the NBA, the Thunder are sure to provide stiffer resistance than the two teams the Spurs just finished shredding like so much used Christmas paper.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave his team the day off Tuesday, a day after Oklahoma City eliminated the L.A. Lakers to punch a ticket to San Antonio.

Popovich and his staff convened to break down film and begin to formulate a game plan for the Thunder, who feature a pair of All-Stars in NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and volatile point guard Russell Westbrook, as well as the Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden.

“They’re great now,” Popovich said, “And the future’s even brighter.”

In a sense, this series sets up as a battle between the league’s old guard against its next wave.

The Spurs are a grizzled four-time champion eager for one more shot at the crown during the Tim Duncan era. The Thunder are a young and hungry challenger impatient to assume the throne now.

In order for the up-and-coming Thunder to take the next step, they must first overcome a savvy, veteran team that has successfully navigated this road before.

“They’ve been together for a while,” Westbrook said. “They’ve got a lot of tricks to their game. We have to step it up mentally.”

As much as the Spurs believe they have their hands full with Oklahoma City, the Thunder are equally wary of the surging Spurs, who are riding a franchise-best 18-game winning streak.

“It feels like they haven’t lost in a while,” Westbrook said.

If there is a secret to handling OKC, the Spurs seem to hold the key. Over the past three seasons, since the Thunder became playoff regulars in 2009-10, the Spurs have gone 8-2 against them.

That includes a 107-96 affair in Oklahoma City’s last trip to the ATT Center on Feb. 4, when Tony Parker erupted for a season-high 42 points at Westbrook’s expense.

“It looks like they don’t ever make mistakes,” Durant said.

After dispatching the NBA’s last two champions (Dallas and the Lakers) in the first two rounds — and needing just nine games to do it — the Thunder can’t help but feel like their time has arrived.

At a combined 68.4 points per game in the regular season, Oklahoma City’s star trio — and not the more ballyhooed triumvirate down in South Beach — ranked as the highest-scoring Big Three in the NBA.

Durant’s 28 points per game narrowly edged Kobe Bryant for the NBA lead, joining him with Michael Jordan as the only players since 1981 to win three consecutive scoring crowns.

“He’s one of the elites, and he will be his whole career,” Popovich said.

With Durant, the 23-year-old former collegiate player of the year at Texas, locked up until 2016 and the 23-year-old Westbrook under contract until 2017, an NBA Finals appearance seems only a matter of time for the Thunder.

The Spurs’ goal, starting Sunday: Delay Oklahoma City’s much-anticipated coronation for at least another year.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Western Conference finals (best-of-7)

Game 1: Sunday May 27 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT

Game 2: Tuesday May 29 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT

Game 3: Thursday May 31 – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT

Game 4: Saturday June 2 – Spurs @ Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT

*Game 5: Monday June 4 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT

*Game 6: Wednesday June 6 – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT

*Game 7: Friday June 8 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT

– All times Central
*If necessary

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