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Preview: Western Conference Finals

Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan will lead their respective teams into battle as the Western Conference finals commence this coming Monday.

Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan will lead their respective teams into battle as the Western Conference finals commence this coming Monday.

Two years ago the Oklahoma City Thunder earned an upset victory over the San Antonio Spurs en route to the NBA Finals.

Now they’ll look to do the same as the two top-seeded teams meet in the Western Conference finals, beginning Monday.

By ousting the Los Angeles Clippers in Thursday’s Game 6 at Staples Center, the Thunder booked a third trip to the conference finals in four years, setting up the rematch with the Spurs that many have been waiting for over the past 24 months.

A season-ending injury to Russell Westbrook put paid to any hopes of a second go-around for the two sides last year, but beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET on Monday, the best the West has to offer will duke it out once more for a shot at the big one.

For the Thunder, it’ll be a chance to return the finals and get another crack at a title that has so far eluded the young and talented side. For the Spurs, the series offers an opportunity to exorcise the memory of 2012’s disappointment. That series saw Gregg Popovich’s side take a 2-0 lead before losing four straight to a younger, hungrier Thunder side.

Some might say that San Antonio expelled any remorse last year as the team made its way to, and punched its weight during the NBA finals. But there was an asterisk beside the Spurs that year, an asterisk that declared the side hadn’t beaten the best team in the conference.

This season the Spurs have their own right to that title, unless of course they fail to beat the Thunder when it matters.

The 2012 series was by no means the definitive take on postseason competition between the two sides. You have to venture back to the days of the Seattle SuperSonics to uncover their earlier meetings though.

Between San Antonio’s arrival in the NBA in 1977 and the Sonics departing for Oklahoma City in 2009, the two franchises met in the postseason three times (1982, 2002, 2005). The Spurs took all three series, recording a combined 11-5 record over the three campaigns. Their most significant victory came in 2005 as they eliminated the Sonics in the Western Conference semifinals, before eventually moving on to a seven-game NBA finals thriller with the Detroit Pistons, and a second championship in three years.

But history won’t mean much for a pair of teams that have very different reasons for needing a win.

Much has been written about the Spurs and their aging trio of Tim Duncan (36-years-old), Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (31). The clock is, as it has been for the last few years, ticking away on the team’s chances of an NBA title, which insinuates that the Spurs are in a win-now situation.

Things are very different for the Thunder, a team that’s still young enough and talented enough to contend for many years to come. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that means Scott Brooks’ team isn’t in a need-to-win situation. The Thunder very much need to win.

Bill Simmons explained it best in his column for Grantland.com earlier this month as Oklahoma City waged war with the Memphis Grizzlies, suggesting that talent and potential were no guarantee to take a team to the Promised Land.

Simmons cited the 2002 Sacramento Kings, a team that came so close to the NBA finals but like a blip on a radar almost instantaneously disappeared from contention. He cited the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers and 1977 Portland Trailblazers, teams that looked to all the world like they’d have continued success for years to come, only to drop off in the blink of an eye.

The Thunder, bona fide contenders for four years now, are so close but, with one freak injury or one ill-fated front office move, could be further away than ever. So it’s a case of win now. Win everything now!

Friday saw Las Vegas sportsbooks unleash a plethora of betting lines and prop bets. For the record, San Antonio currently sits at 23/10 to win the NBA championship, behind the Miami Heat (Even). At 7/2, Oklahoma City sits ahead of the Indiana Pacers (10/1).

In terms of the Western Conference finals, San Antonio (-165) opened as the series favorite over Oklahoma City (+145), according to Bovada, despite the fact that the Texas side went 0-4 against their opponents during the regular season. Yes, you read that right: 0-4!

Of course, regular season records – at least to the Spurs – mean little and it’s hard to imagine Popovich or his veteran players worrying too much about what happened between November and April. They’ll be keener to avoid a let-up like the one that saw them usurped in 2012.

The Thunder received a big blow Friday when it emerged that Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury.

Ibaka limped out of Thursday’s closeout game in the third quarter and didn’t return.  Having enjoyed a career year, Ibaka’s absence, in addition to being personally down heartening, could have a huge impact on the Thunder. In fact, with the bookmakers releasing betting lines prior to the news, we could see a flurry or recalculations between now and tip-off on Monday.

Meanwhile, Parker has said he expects to be ready to go for the Spurs. He’s currently listed as day-to-day with a hamstring injury.

For now, both teams will narrow their focus and begin preparing for what figures to be a close, well-matched series.

For Oklahoma City, objective No. 1 will be to do something the franchise has never done: beat San Antonio in a Game 1.

The Western Conference finals get underway on Monday with the No. 1 seeded Spurs hosting the No. 2 seeded Thunder. Tip-off at AT&T Center is scheduled for 9:00 pm. ET.

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