The San Antonio Spurs sealed their first return to the Western Conference Finals in three years by defeating the Houston Rockets.
The Spurs have remained the model of consistency under head coach Gregg Popovich, maintaining their impressive record under the 68-year-old’s tenure.
San Antonio have won 50 for the last 20 seasons, winning five NBA Championships in the process. The club have manoeuvred themselves into a strong position to challenge for their sixth crown under Popovich following another surge to the Conference Finals.
Popovich’s men eased their way into the post-season with a 61-win term, finishing behind only the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference to claim the second seed.
The Spurs were handed the challenge of the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, beginning with back-to-back triumphs at the AT&T Center.
However, David Fizdale’s side responded to level the series with two victories of their own on home soil.
Kawhi Leonard upped the ante with two fine performances in game five and six to guide his side into the Semi-Finals and a match-up with their state rivals the Rockets.
Houston came out all guns blazing in the series’ opener, blowing the Spurs away with their offensive firepower on the court to claim a 126-99 victory.
Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge rallied San Antonio to inspire their team to back-to-back triumphs to take the lead, only for James Harden to fire on all cylinders to level the series.
In a nerve-jangling game five, the Spurs displayed their title credentials by edging out Mike D’Antoni’s men in overtime thanks to a Leonard special.
However, an injury kept the Spurs’ star man out of game six. Aldridge picked up the mantle and dominated the Rockets and Harden to seal his side’s spot to challenge the Warriors.
Why The Spurs Can Win
Leonard is a superstar at both ends of the court and will be able to match the firepower of the Warriors if he gets the support of his team-mates.
The 25-year-old rose to the occasion in the 2014-15 campaign when he lit up the NBA Finals to guide his side to victory over the Miami Heat and LeBron James.
He relishes the battle against fellow big-time players and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will provide a stern test of whether he can raise his game to the next level.
Leonard put on a clinic in the season opener against the Warriors, scoring 35 points to guide his side to a 129-100 victory at Oracle Arena. Should he perform at that level throughout the series against the Bay Area outfit – his side could well be competing into June.
Defensively the 25-year-old will need to be at the peak of his powers. He has won Defensive Player of the Year in the past two campaigns, and if he is able to limit Curry, Durant and Thompson’s scoring power enough – then it will be a huge victory for San Antonio.
The experience of head coach Popovich will be a decisive factor and hands the Spurs a large advantage over Golden State.
Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA due to his nous and outstanding record during his tenure with Texas-based outfit. The 68-year-old will no doubt have a plan to limit the free-scoring ability of the Warriors’ potent offense, while allowing his side to capitalise on their few weaknesses.
In the past it was Popovich and Tim Duncan, who bore the hopes of the Spurs. This time with Leonard in the shoes of the future Hall-of-Famer – San Antonio have a great chance to reach Finals once again.
Why The Spurs Could Lose
San Antonio have been accused of being over-reliant on Leonard this term. The 25-year-old has taken over the mantle as the heartbeat of the team from Duncan, and when he has a rare poor outing – the success of the side suffers as a result.
Aldridge has done his utmost to support his team-mate, including his 34-point display to send the Spurs into the Conference Finals.
However, his form has had a propensity to be inconsistent over the years, with his side needing him to be the player that shone in game six rather than the one that went missing in game one of the series against the Rockets.
Aldridge cannot afford a lapse effort against the Warriors as their potent foursome will seize on any form of weakness in the Spurs’ line-up, while the same can be said of Pau Gasol and Patty Mills. The support has to be there for Leonard to allow Popovich’s men first to compete and then defeat the Bay Area outfit.
If the club attempt to go score-for-score with Golden State it will not end well for San Antonio. A strong defensive effort will be imperative to quell the threat of Curry and company in a series that could well go all the way to seven matches.
Leonard missed the last game of the series’ win over the Rockets, but he should be fit enough to return to action for game one. Tony Parker was ruled out for the final five matches with a quad injury and his availability is in jeopardy. Depth will be an important factor in the contest and fitness issues to two of the Spurs’ key players could be costly for their Finals aspirations.
San Antonio are a team made for the big occasion as proven with their excellent record under the tenure of Popovich. They face a massive challenge to stop the Golden State juggernaut, but they do have the talent and the strong level of coaching to advance to the NBA Finals.
A lot will rest on the form of Leonard and his ability to affect the game at both ends of the court. He may need to have a performance for the ages to cope with the threat of Curry, Durant and Thompson, but he has prior history delivering his best in crucial moments.
Therefore backing the Spurs to triumph and win the Western Conference Finals at +700 with Bovada sportsbook is not a bad punt to take. One thing is guaranteed that whoever advances from the contest to the Finals will have had to play extremely well to do so.
San Antonio Spurs To Win Western Conference
May 14th – May 28th 2017