Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is Sunday afternoon (330 EST, ABC) which means if I’m going to write a West Finals Preview, I’d better do it now. To be honest, it’s much harder to write after San Antonio snuffed out Golden State’s feel-good run on Thursday night at Oracle. The game was hanging in the balance with less than three minutes to go, but Steph Curry and Klay Thompson each had a shot go around and out, while Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard found the bottom of the net. A few questionable second half calls go San Antonio’s way, a few shots rim out, and that’s how little margin for error remained for Golden State.
We’ve heard about both of these teams quite often over the last two rounds, I’ll make it brief.
San Antonio has home court advantage. San Antonio has Popovich. San Antonio has two big men (Duncan and Spliiter). San Antonio has one great individual wing defender who has a knack for the gargantuan offensive rebound and corner three-pointer in Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has one very clutch three-point shooter in Danny Green. San Antonio never wavers, never trembles, and has been in the Western Conference Finals 8 of the last 15 years. Yes, you may be tired of them, but no, they are not tired of you. If Tony Parker’ (calf/ankle) is able to give them 85-90% and Manu Ginobili is able to give them the play-making he provided toward the end of the Golden State series, the Spurs should advance.
Memphis has won 8 of their last 9 games. They’ve given up less than 94 points in 8 of their last 10 playoff games. Their defense is suffocating, relentless, dominant, and any other word that describes a group of five men who have the utmost determination and skill in keeping the other five men on the court from going where they want to go. Memphis has Lionel Hollins. Memphis has the best all-around big man in the NBA, a center who can score, defend at the rim and out at the elbow, with Bill Walton-type 7-foot-passer abilities. His name is Marc Gasol. Zach Randolph is as good at drawing playoff fouls as any big man in the game, and has a knack for the critical offensive rebound. Zach Randolph makes life miserable for the other team. His arms are long, in constant motion, and wil be all over Duncan, Splitter and Leonard. Memphis has the magnificent Mr. Steady Spectacular, Mike Conley, the ambidextrous and lightning-quick point guard who knows the pick-and-roll game as well as anyone in the league. Memphis has surprisingly good bench contributors in Bayless and Pondexter. Memphis has the best one-on-one perimeter defender in the league in Tony Allen. That’s a lot of things for one team to have. An embarrassment of riches, really. They would have beaten the Clippers if Blake Griffin were healthy. They would have beaten Oklahoma City if Russell Westbrook were healthy. Yes, they would have. Probably. Was it a bit easier without either Griffin or Westbrook? Yes.
Darko Index Predicts: Memphis in 7.
In what might be the most evenly-matched conference finals in recent memory, the slight edge goes to Memphis because of age and health. The possibility that Duncan (limited minutes), Splitter (recovering ankle), Ginobili (age/hamstring), or Parker (calf/ankle) can’t give the Spurs everything they are each capable of, that possibility gives San Antonio little margin for error. Memphis is healthier. Randolph is playing through ankle issues himself, but everyone else appears healthy, which is pretty remarkable for mid-May.