(Reuters) - The San Antonio Spurs lost all four of their regular season games to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder but a suspenseful, hard-fought series would be no surprise in their clash for the Western Conference title.
While Oklahoma City owns bragging rights from those head-to-head meetings, San Antonio owns the rings, having won four NBA titles in the glorious career of forward Tim Duncan and fallen just shy in last year’s seven-game NBA Finals to the Miami Heat.
The ball-sharing flow of the top-seeded Spurs will once again be measured against the Thunder’s one-two knockout punch of league MVP Durant and dynamic guard Russell Westbrook when the teams launch their series on Monday in San Antonio.
Durant, who won his fourth NBA scoring title this season with a career-high 32-point average, and the speedy, high-leaping Westbrook averaged 21.8 points to give opponents fits.
Oklahoma City are hungry for victory, eager for another chance at the NBA title after falling in five games to the Heat in the 2012 Finals.
The Spurs, meanwhile, deploy a deep bench to keep their core veterans such as Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fresh and to keep pressure on the opposition with their motion and ball movement.
San Antonio posted a 62-20 record, three games better in the standings than Oklahoma City, who lost Westbrook for almost half the season after knee injuries.
An impressive six Spurs averaged double figures this season.
Highly respected coach Gregg Popovich juggles a lineup with a distinctly international flavor that, besides Parker of France and Argentina’s Ginobili, includes Mario Belinelli of Italy, Frenchman Boris Diaw, Australian guard Patty Mills and Brazilian Tiago Splitter.
Injuries could sway the balance.
Parker, critical to the Spurs’ attack with his daring drives to the hoop and soft jumper from mid-range, left Wednesday’s second-round clincher over Portland early in the second quarter due to a strained left hamstring.
Last year a strained hamstring limited him in San Antonio’s agonizingly close bid for the NBA title against Miami.
All-Star guard Parker was optimistic in a text message he sent to the San Antonio Express-News after taking an MRI.
“It’s OK; not too bad,” said Parker, who turns 32 on Saturday. “Not as bad as the NBA Finals (last June). NBA Finals was a Grade 2. This one is Grade 1. So should be fine for Monday.”
Parker averaged 23.5 points in the first four games of the Western Conference semi-finals against the Blazers before hurting himself in Game Five.
The Thunder also have a concern as power forward Serge Ibaka of Congo was forced to leave Thursday’s series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Clippers due to a calf injury.
Heading into Game Six against the Clippers, Ibaka was averaging 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue