Tahlequah Daily Press

Thunder/NBA

April 19, 2013

Too many obstacles for OKC to overcome in playoffs

Gregg Popovich has been at this for a long time. He knows what he’s doing.

The long-tenured coach didn’t just stumble into four NBA championships on accident. There’s a reason why San Antonio has been a playoff mainstay since he became the authoritative figure by the Alamo in 1996.

So before getting fired up about Oklahoma City landing the top overall seed in the Western Conference, here’s something to remember: Popovich probably wanted it that way.

Just look at the matchups.

The Spurs’ road to the conference finals navigates through the City of Angels before being rerouted through the Rocky Mountains or the Golden Gate Bridge. The Lakers — despite a sense of rejuvenation without Kobe Bryant — will pose a very limited threat to the Spurs in the opening round of the playoffs.

San Antonio in five — six at the most.

From there, San Antonio gets to face two of the softest teams in the Association. Sure, Denver and Golden State put up a lot of points and have dynamic playmakers (Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala in Denver; Steph Curry and David Lee in Oakland). But slow-and-steady, half-court basketball works to perfection in the playoffs.

The Spurs can do that in their sleep. Thus, San Antonio overcomes altitude sickness and dispatches of Denver in seven.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City — after breezing through Houston and hanging out with James Harden for a week or two — will get the greater of two evils. Either the Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies.

The Thunder will undoubtedly root on the Clip Show, after OKC dominated LA and swept the season series. A meeting with Memphis would be far less desirable for the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Show.

The Grizzlies took two of three from OKC during the regular season, and a showdown in the playoffs would likely mirror the melee that took place in 2011. Only this time O.J. Mayo is in Dallas and Harden is in south Texas, so those cancel each other out.

Also, playing Memphis means more minutes for Kendrick Perkins, which is never a good thing for OKC. The so-called “defensive enforcer” in the middle makes barely enough plays on defense to even out his lane-clogging clumsiness on offense. Advantage, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies.

However, the Griz rarely have an answer for Durant and Westbrook (Tony Allen can’t do it all on his own), so the Thunder — with some guard help from Kevin Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha — should wiggle their way into the conference finals — for the third time in three years — in seven games.

Then, history will repeat itself all over again. OKC and San Antonio will play for the right to watch Miami hoist another Larry O’Brien trophy. Only this time, the Thunder will be the No. 1 seed with rights to homecourt advantage.

That’s it. Everything else will be as it was in 2012, minus Harden providing headaches for Spurs defenders. (Reference Game 5 last season, if you need a refresher).

And that could very well mean the difference in the Thunder returning to the finals or OKC wondering what could have been.

Sure, San Antonio would prefer to have four out of seven games at home — if the series were to go the distance. But that didn’t work out for the Spurs last year, so might as well mix it up this season.

Thus, the genius of Popovich. He’s no fool in the coaching box. He’s well aware of what’s ahead of him. With OKC and San Antonio vying for the coveted spot in the final month of the season, Popovich had to weigh his options: homecourt advantage or a healthy roster, more specifically, a healthy Manu Ginobili. He chose the latter.

And you can bet that Popovich is dying for a chance at redemption in the conference finals. Only this time there is no Harden to deal with, and Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter are all a year older and more seasoned.

Oh, and adding Tracy McGrady during the final week of the season didn’t hurt, either.

So, much like OKC tore San Antonio’s heart out in 2012, the Spurs will return the gesture this May.

And if the Thunder is fortunate enough to reach the NBA finals, LeBron James will be waiting.

Looks like it could be another title-less season in Oklahoma City.

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