The San Antonio Spurs are owners of the NBA's best record. They have not lost since April 12 and have won 18 consecutive games. They have the league's most no-nonsense superstar in Tim Duncan, a healthy Manu Ginobili, a legitimate 10-deep bench -- and of course, Tony Parker.
On the other side of the Western Conference Finals sits the young and brash Oklahoma City Thunder, anchored by three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, a sensational front line in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and the unmistakeable Russell Westbrook.
Let us further examine the Westbrook and Parker matchup, because both offenses are fueled by their lead guards and nobody right now is playing better than these two.
On one hand there is Parker, who, at 30 years old, is enjoying one of his best seasons as a pro; an MVP type of season, actually, during which he averaged over 18 points and a career high 7.7 assists. The perplexing thing about Parker is that for as great of a career as he's had -- four-time All-Star and three-time champion -- it always feels like he's on the outside looking in when we talk about the league's best point guards: Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Westbrook, and then Parker. In some form or another, that has been the hierarchy.
This season, more so than ever before, Parker has been at the forefront of the Spurs' offensive attack. Head coach Gregg Popovich has employed far more spread pick-and-roll and far less classic Duncan post-ups. The result has been one of basketball's most efficient and high-scoring offenses. In the regular season, the Spurs ranked second in scoring with nearly 104 points per game. In sweeping both Utah and the Clippers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Parker has helped them maintain an offensive efficiency (the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions) of 109.6, second only to the Thunder in the postseason -- which brings us back to Westbrook.
While OKC's leader and best player is unquestionably Durant, it is Westbrook who often determines the outcome of their games. As last season's playoffs showed us, he can be overzealous and selfish, worried too much about his own scoring and not enough about his facilitation duties. Or, as a crucial Game 4 in LA taught us, he can be unstoppable. With the Thunder down by double digits in the fourth quarter, it was Westbrook who took over with his swashbuckling drives to the basket and dagger pull-up jumpers. His 37 points -- 10 of which came in the fourth -- effectively eliminated all chances of a Lakers victory in the conference semifinals.
While Parker doesn't have the sheer athletic ability of Westbrook, his ability to get into the lane and finish below the rim with his patented floaters and leaners is remarkable. No point guard in basketball has a better "paint game," as evidenced by Parker yet again being one of the league leaders in field goal percentage inside of five feet.
A typical half-court possession for San Antonio starts off with either a high ball screen -- often from Duncan for Parker -- or a dribble hand-off where Parker can get the ball on the move. This is where the spread pick-and-roll becomes so deadly: The Spurs have a horde of deadly perimeter shooters in Danny Green (43.6 percent threes in 2011-12), Matt Bonner (42 percent), Ginobili (41.3 percent) and rookie Kawhi Leonard (50 percent corner threes), leaving the defense with the dilemma of either helping off those shooters to try and corral Parker, or leaving Parker in single coverage to drive the lane, where he is lethal.
Because of all these shooters, San Antonio no longer has to run traditional screen-and-roll from free-throw line extended. Instead, with a maestro like Parker at the helm, it can literally initiate its offense from 30 feet away, using the additional space to create ultra drive-and-kick options, as well as roaming room for both Parker and Duncan.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, has perhaps the game's most dynamic and athletic point guard in the 23-year-old Westbrook. The main question mark throughout his career has never been about his talent, but rather about his decision making: Is he a true point guard? Does he know that this is Durant's team? Can he play within a system? So far in these playoffs, the answer is yes. In over 178 minutes of total floor time in the Lakers series, Westbrook turned the ball over only four times. That is an incredible number for any point guard, especially one who committed nearly four turnovers a game in the regular season and who has the third-highest usage rate (the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes) in these playoffs.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, 17 of Westbrook's 37 points in that crucial Game 4 were from pick-and-rolls, while 14 were from isolation. In other words, Westbrook is so gifted a scorer and so versatile a playmaker that there is no one way to defend him. Last season, that wasn't the case: Dallas forced him away from the hoop by daring him to shoot jumpers, where he shot just 39 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three in the postseason.
On the other end of the court, Parker has been terrific defensively in these playoffs, most notably by clamping down on Chris Paul. While Paul wasn't fully healthy, he was held, shockingly, below 13 points on just 36 percent shooting. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Parker was one of the better isolation defenders in all of basketball this season, holding opponents to 34 percent shooting in such scenarios. The key to that statistic is forcing your man away from the basket and into jumpers. OKC, thanks in large part to Westbrook's driving ability, is 31-4 this season when they score more than 35 points inside the restricted area, and 5-0 in the postseason (per ESPN Stats & Info). Or, in simpler terms, when Westbrook can beat his man off the bounce, they win.
Westbrook, while known primarily for his highlight reel scoring, has also emerged as a very dangerous defender. He plays the passing lanes extremely well and is tremendous against pick-and-roll, where he holds the ball handler to a mere 41 percent shooting, ranking him in the 73rd percentile of the NBA (per Synergy).
The Parker vs. Westbrook matchup will pit arguably the two best and hottest point guards currently in the NBA against one another. While both teams surely possess excellent offensive balance and an arsenal of other weapons, their overall success still hinges on their lead guards.
And whoever wins that battle will very likely have his team headed to the Finals.
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