Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder need four more wins to make the NBA Finals. (AP)

 

The NBA’s Western Conference Finals begin Sunday night, and the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have been resting up while the Eastern Conference teams have been slugging it out. The Thunder are in the league semifinals for the second straight year, and this time, they have a better shot of making the Finals, as CBSSports.com writer Royce Young told Doug Tribou on this week’s Only A Game.

“I think they match up a little better than a lot of people think,” Young said. “The Spurs have been a terrific team, the best team in the postseason. They’ve won 18 games straight stretching back to the regular season, 28 of their last 30 overall. But Oklahoma City has a really good team, and they led the Western Conference almost from start to finish. The Thunder have the players to match up.”

This postseason, Oklahoma City has dispatched two perennial conference powers — the Mavericks and the Lakers — in a total of nine games, including a first-round sweep of reigning champion Dallas. All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook grab the headlines, but a balanced roster has been a key to the Thunder’s success this season.

“They’ve got some really underrated guys,” Young said. “Start with James Harden, who just won Sixth Man of the Year. There are guys like Thabo Sefolosha who did a great job defending Kobe Bryant in the Lakers series, a guy like Kendrick Perkins, whose only job is to defend big low-post guys. He did a great job of that in defending Andrew Bynum. Oklahoma City has a lot of those role players that contribute to the success of the team.”

Fans had been gathering in an area called “Thunder Alley” outside Chesapeake Energy Arena to watch games, but the tradition is already over after Monday night’s shooting in nearby Bricktown.

“Obviously, the organization and the city are erring on the side of safety,” Young said. “You’re talking about 10,000 gathering outside for Game 5 against the Lakers. If they were to go to the NBA Finals, you’re talking about maybe 15, 20 or 25,000. If something were to happen, everybody would point the finger and say ‘Why didn’t you do something about this earlier?’”

The Thunder have to beat the Spurs and either the Heat, Celtics or Sixers to win a championship. While a lot still has to go their way to end the season holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Young thinks the Thunder have a better shot this time around.

“They came back against the Mavericks for a dramatic Game 1 win, they beat the Lakers twice in comeback fashion and they have a big-time closer in Kevin Durant,” he said. “Now they possess a little bit of the mental toughness they need to go along with the talent they have.”