The Western Conference Finals begin Monday night, but it’s not the matchup everyone was expecting after the Oklahoma City Thunder upset the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semi-finals. The top-seeded Golden State Warriors have been taking care of business with or without two-time MVP Stephen Curry, ousting the Blazers in just five games. While the Warriors are the overwhelming favorites, no one gave the Thunder a shot against the Spurs, so I wouldn’t rule them out against Golden State either. This a series featuring two extremely talented teams with completely different playing styles. There’s a lot of different ways this one could play, so I’ll make a case for both sides. Let’s start with the underdogs…
3 reasons the Thunder will upset the Warriors as they did San Antonio:
1. Durant and Westbrook are locked in
After getting blown out by the Spurs in game one, much due to uncharacteristically bad performances by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder’s lethal duo bounced back with authority. In games two-through-six, Durant averaged 31 points, while Westbrook put up his usual ridiculous numbers, averaging 27.4 points, 10.8 assists, and 7.4 rebounds. Of course, we all know these two rack up incredible stats, but it was the way they took over the series and continued finding ways to generate offense against the best defensive team in the NBA that made this so impressive.
Durant and Westbrook are playing with better rhythm and harmony than ever before. Rarely have these two stayed healthy deep into playoff runs, and when they have, they’ve made it to the conference Finals or beyond. Right now, they are healthy and clicking better than ever. Westbrook is dialing back on the circus shots and over-dribbling, and Durant is proving he can handle the pressure on the biggest stage. While Golden State has quite possibly the best player in the NBA, Oklahoma City is the only team in the league that can truly claim to have two of the best five.
2. Size matters
After Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s next three leading scorers in the playoffs are all traditional big men (power forwards and centers): Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter. Very rare for the current NBA era, where teams are going with smaller, more athletic lineups stacked with three point shooters that can run, spread the floor and hit open shots. While there is certainly a reason to be concerned about OKC’s ability to handle Golden State’s speed and shooting, they should be able to cause equally difficult matchup problems with the post-scoring, shot-blocking and rebounding abilities of their three big men.
No matter how tempting it may be for OKC to go small to try to run with the Warriors, they can not beat Golden State at their own game. The Thunder have to play into their own strengths, and that means giving plenty of minutes to Ibaka, Adams and Kanter, often playing two at the same time. They will have to deal with giving up some fast break points in exchange for getting some offensive rebounds and easy post-up baskets, but Oklahoma City has to stay dedicated to beating Golden State with size and physicality.
3. Curry’s injuries could still be a problem
While two weeks of rest is plenty for a grade 1 MCL sprain, the fact that the Warriors took such a cautious approach with their superstar, combined with the fact that he missed two games in the first round due to a sprained ankle in the same right leg, suggest that Steph Curry might not be entirely in the clear. Typically when the team favored to win it all sits their best player for two weeks in the playoffs, it’s a somewhat serious injury. Obviously he’s still capable of playing as well as anyone in the league, as proven in games four and five against Portland, but there’s still fear that at any moment he might tweak, twist, or turn something in that pesky right leg again and need to hit the bench for extended time or even miss more games. This wasn’t a major issue against mediocre competition like the Blazers and Rockets, but if Curry isn’t on top of his game against Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be moving on the Finals.
C’mon man! We’re talking about the defending NBA Champions, who are fresh off the best regular season in league history. The Warriors are a damn-near unstoppable force, led by back-to-back MVP Steph Curry. You’re just gonna throw out three half-assed reasons on why the Thunder will beat them and say that’s a wrap?!
Calm down angry Warriors fan who doesn’t understand the concept of my fair and balanced article. First of all, I’m using my whole ass. And now, without further ado…
3 reasons the Warriors will beat the Thunder and get back to the NBA Finals:
1. Recent history
The Warriors had the best record in the NBA last season and went on to win the championship. They had the best record in NBA history this year and they coasted through the first two rounds the playoffs, despite missing their best player for much of the run. That player is also just won his second straight MVP award. These things tend to mean something. In this case, it means they deserve to be considered the best team in the NBA, and they should be favored in any series.
Sure, Oklahoma City just knocked off a tougher opponent than Golden State has faced in the playoffs this year, which makes the Thunder a little hotter in the “what have you done for me lately” department. But there’s a reason OKC had to face the Spurs in the second round; they were the three seed and the Warriors were the one seed. Golden State won 18 more games than the the Thunder this season. That’s a lot more wins. Even if Oklahoma City somehow bought all of the Lakers wins in the 2015-2016 season, they would still have one less than the Warriors. The Warriors have the much more impressive track record over the last two years, and one impressive series win does not make the Thunder the favorites.
2. They have creators
The Thunder’s biggest strength are listed in points 1 & 2 in the section above: They have Durant and Westbrook, and they have three really good big men. But their weakness is just as glaring: lack of players who can handle the ball, create space and get open shots and generate offense for others. It’s nice to have bigs that can get you double-doubles, but those guys generally need help from guards and wings to get them the ball in position to score. In the playoffs, Golden State has six players in the small positions (point guard, shooting guard and small forward) that average over 6 point per game, and that’s not including Draymond Green who plays power forward, but can stretch the floor and do just about everything on a basketball court.
Oklahoma City only has three players at the small positions averaging over 6 points per game: Durant (27.4), Westbrook (25.5), and Dion Waiters (9.4). Looking at the assist numbers is even more alarming for Thunder fans, as they only have two players averaging over 2 assists per game in the postseason: Westbrook (10.8) and Durant (3.6). Dion Waiters is their third assist leader with a measly 2 dimes per game. Golden State, meanwhile, has five players averaging over 2 assists per game. The Warriors as a team are dishing out a league-leading 27.1 assist per game to the Thunder’s 20.2 (9th among the 16 teams in the playoffs). The Warriors also have the edge in three point shooting (12.2 per game vs. OKC’s 8.5).
What this means (for those of you who haven’t figured it out) is Golden State can move the ball and shoot regardless who’s on the court, giving them the freedom to give Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson some much needed rest. Oklahoma City on the other hand, will struggle to score and be very turnover prone any time Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are on the bench. If either of these guys have an off night, or get into early foul trouble, it will be nearly impossible for the Thunder to find a way to win.
3. He’s back baby!
You may have read my article a few weeks ago explaining why Steph Curry’s injury was more serious than the team lead on. While that could still be true, he showed no reason for concern in games four and five against Portland. Curry logged 37 minutes in each contest, the most he’s played since April 5. In game four, he came off the bench, looking rusty for much of the game, until he got hot in the fourth quarter, then got hotter in overtime with an NBA-record 17 points, finishing with 40 in the game. He looked like his usual self again in game five as well, scoring 29 with 11 assists and helping put the Blazers out of their misery. Yes, he just sat out for two weeks with sprained right MCL. Yes, he missed two games before that with a sprained ankle in the same leg. And yes, it’s possible that he’s in a fragile state right now and has some nagging injuries, but he certainly gave us the confidence that he is back to MVP form. He also gave himself another four days of rest by finishing off Portland in just five games.
Three of the best players in the world will be on display. Both teams will cause matchup problems for the other: Oklahoma City with their size, and Golden State with their ball movement and ability to spread the floor and shoot. In the end, I think the Golden State will have the edge. They just have more guys at the wing and guard positions that can create offense. The Thunder will demand a little too much out of Durant and Westbrook, and the Warriors will be more consistent and efficient on the offensive end. This could all change depending on the status of Steph Curry’s right leg, but until then, I’m picking the Warriors in seven games in what should be the best series in of 2016 playoffs so far.