Playoffs: Surprise heroes in West

Collison, Arenas and Millsap could help derail the Spurs' title hopes

Updated: April 25, 2012, 12:51 PM ET
By Bradford Doolittle | Basketball Prospectus
Paul Millsap Russ Isabella/US PresswirePlaying Paul Millsap at the 3 could help the team pull off a first-round upset.

Just like the Bulls in the East, the top-seeded Spurs not only finished with the Western Conference's best record, they also paced the conference in point differential. Historically speaking, point differential is where it's at when it comes to forecasting the NBA playoff bracket. Yet, like the Bulls, there is a perception that the Spurs overachieved to land that No. 1 slot, and their 21-3 (so far) sprint to the finish will prove to be the high point of their campaign.

The Thunder were the overwhelming choice to win the West before the season. Despite a tepid 16-9 stretch heading into the postseason, Oklahoma City may remain the consensus pick to face Miami in the Finals, giving us our first championship tilt with non-plural nicknames better suited to a weather forecast than a basketball series.

Such a matchup isn't inevitable, however, and given the Spurs' seed, point differential and playoff track record, they have to be looked at as the favorites in the West right now. So let's look at three players who could prove to be a thorn in the side to San Antonio, perhaps leaving us with that Heat-Thunder storm after all.

Nick Collison, Oklahoma City Thunder
Whereas we've looked upon a Chicago-Miami matchup in the East finals as inevitable ever since last season's East finals, no one really looks at a potential Thunder-Spurs West final as unavoidable. It could happen, and given their seeds and point differentials, a San Antonio-Oklahoma City matchup is the most likely outcome for the West bracket. But there is a long way to go to get from here to there.

If it happens, we can look back and see that the Spurs beat the Thunder in two of their three regular-season meetings, and won the two most recent contests. The aggregate results from those games yield counterintuitive conclusions. Whereas San Antonio is viewed as a deep squad with a Hall of Fame, but aging, big three, the Thunder is looked upon as a team with a power-packed big three and a fall off after the star-studded starting lineup hits the bench. In the regular season, it was the Thunder bench that fared best against San Antonio.

It's not a surprise that Collison rates as a good bet to see a lot of minutes against the Spurs. He's long been a plus-minus superstar, whose on-court impact is far greater than his meager box score statistics would suggest. The questions are, however, how much do you play Collison, and with whom do you play him?