One of the central themes of the conference finals is youth versus experience. In the West, the young and hungry Thunder have a 3-2 lead on the veteran San Antonio Spurs. In the East, the Miami Heat’s Big 2 are trying to bury the Boston Celtics’ Big 3 once and for all. We’ve seen this play out many times before in the NBA postseason, but in the Thunder-Spurs series, the gulf in age is wider than it might seem.
The average age of Oklahoma City’s roster is 26.4 years old. San Antonio’s average age is only 1 year higher at 27.4 years old. A more accurate representation of roster age, however, is one where each player’s age is weighted by his playing time in this series. Using this approach, the Thunder’s average age drops nearly a full year to 25.6. Conversely, the Spurs average age increases to 29.4 years. This dichotomy shows us the different approaches used by both coaches, and how they are both playing to the strength of their team.
The clear strengths of the Oklahoma City Thunder are their youth and athleticism. The under-24 foursome of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka has carried the team to within a single victory of the NBA finals. Coach Brooks has played each of these guys more minutes in this series than in the regular season because their youth and the speed and stamina that comes with it are the biggest advantage the Thunder have over the Spurs.
Their best lineup from a plus/minus standpoint has been this foursome and the decidedly not-young Derek Fisher. According to BasketballValue.com’s stats, that lineup is +22.5 points through the first 13 games of the playoffs. Their next best lineup, +19.7 points per 48 minutes, is that same youthful foursome with Thabo Sefalosha instead of Fisher. It’s no surprise that this was the Thunder’s crunch-time squad lineup in the final two minutes of Game 5 given Thabo’s defensive ability and the offensive potency of the Thunder’s young guns.
On the flip side, San Antonio has the experience of four championships on their side. The 30-and-over trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker has been together for three of those titles, and the Spurs strength is their familiarity and the chemistry it breeds on the offensive end.
Coach Popovich has played each of these guys five more minutes per game in this series than he did in the regular season. Pop trusts his older players to summon the strength and stamina necessary to stay on the court longer, because the more this trio plays together, the better chance the Spurs have of winning night in and night out.
In fact nearly all of the Spurs’ top lineups from a plus/minus standpoint have these three veterans in them, and Ginobli starting Game 5 and playing 38 minutes shows how much Popovich is leaning on his leaders. For the Spurs, the key to victory might be finding the right duo to pair with their three stars.
Maybe an injection of youth is the ticket.
Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli are a staggering +41.7 points per 48 minutes in only 17 minutes when paired with Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Knowing Pop and how much the Spurs want to make it back to San Antonio for Game 7, I’d expect to see that lineup for more than a few minutes in Game 6.