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With injuries to Russell Westbrook and Danilo Gallinari, door opens for Spurs to win Western Conference

When Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley ran into Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook’s knee on a steal attempt in Game 2 of the Western Conference first round, the crowd in Oklahoma City fell silent. Westbrook immediately leapt to his feet and limped over to the scorer’s table, slamming his fist in agony and frustration. The diagnosis the next day was a torn right meniscus, ending Westbrook’s postseason and striking a crippling a blow to the Thunder’s NBA Finals aspirations.

Although the Thunder are still led by Kevin Durant, one of the top scorers in the NBA, the loss of Westbrook will make the Thunder more one-dimensional in terms of scoring. Durant (28.1 ppg) and Westbrook (23.2 ppg) made up nearly 50 percent of the Thunder’s regular season scoring, with sixth man Kevin Martin the next closest at 14.0 ppg. With James Harden now in Houston, Durant will be without the two counterparts that helped him lead the Thunder to an NBA Finals berth last season.

Now, with Westbrook done for the rest of the postseason, which team benefits the most? Answer: the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs already swept the Kobe-less Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference and now await the winner of Denver-Golden State series. Although Denver and Golden State each went 2-2 versus the Spurs this season, the Nuggets will be without key player Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL two weeks before the regular season ended. In the Warriors’ case, superstar Stephen Curry has been hampered by a left ankle injury, a bad sign considering that most of his magic comes from rolling off screens on the perimeter and shooting three point bombs.

Assuming the Thunder outlast either the Memphis Grizzlies or Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals (which could be difficult), viewers will likely be seeing a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. In those Conference Finals, the Spurs won the first two games of the series in San Antonio, improving to 10-0 in their first ten games of the postseason and extending their winning streak to 20 games, including the regular season. Many NBA pundits had argued that they were one of the best teams in postseason history, and had already slotted them in for an NBA Finals showdown with the Heat. However, Durant took the series over and helped the Thunder rattle off four straight wins, which included overcoming a 15-point halftime deficit to clinch Game 6 in Oklahoma City.

Many NBA fans seem to discount that series, likely because of the intriguing NBA Finals match-up that followed between LeBron and Durant. However, the Spurs will not have forgotten their collapse from last season. They will be looking for revenge and will have something to prove. Many experts tend to label the Spurs as too old and that their time has passed atop the Western Conference. However, in comes Russell Westbrook back into the picture. Part of the reason the Thunder was able to pull off four consecutive victories over the Spurs last season was due to Westbrook, one of the fastest players in the league. The Spurs’ old legs could not keep up with the frantic pace of the Thunder, who spent the entire series running up and down the court in transition. With Westbrook out, the feisty Spurs defense can invest most of their defensive resources into stopping Durant.

Because of the Westbrook injury, this could be the Spurs’ best chance of getting to the NBA Finals, especially considering the status of their aging veterans Tim Duncan (37), Tony Parker (30), and Manu Ginobili (35). The Spurs also have solid role players in last year’s first round pick Kawhi Leonard (11.9 ppg), third year sharpshooter Danny Green (10.5 ppg) and the late-blooming Tiago Splitter (10.3 ppg) all averaging double figures during the regular season. However, the Spurs will continue to rely on their aging Big Three that has continued to play at a high level despite having been doubted for so long. A potential NBA Finals match-up with LeBron James and the Miami Heat looms, where future Hall-of-Famer Duncan could be playing for an astounding fifth championship ring. It’s a scenario entirely made possible by the simple act of Patrick Beverley going for a steal.

May 3, 2013

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