The Oklahoma City Thunder have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. Following their miraculous playoff run last season, in which they won their conference before falling to the Miami Heat, they have dominated the first half of this season, amassing a terrific 33-9 record, which is the best in the NBA.
So the Golden State Warriors clearly have their work cut out for them when they host Kevin Durant and company tonight. The Warriors have been showing flashes of brilliance recently, and if they are able to manage a few facets of the game, they will be able to upset the Thunder.
Shut Down Russell Westbrook
The Thunder's star point guard has scored 30 or more points in four of his last five games. During that stretch, the Thunder went 4-1, with the sole loss being a tight overtime game against the Denver Nuggets. Durant is almost invariably going to score his 25-plus points, but if Westbrook is also dominating, opponents will get scorched.
The Warriors have proven they have the aptitude to shut down premier point guards. On January 21st they were able to make Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers look like a JV player, by holding him to four points on 1-of-7 shooting in a Warriors' 107-99 win.
If Jarrett Jack and Stephen Curry can play the same effective defense on Westbrook, it will greatly limit the Thunders' prolific offense.
Control the Defensive Boards
The Warriors rank first in the league in defensive rebounding, averaging 34.0 defensive rebounds per game. They have a multitude of players who can play the glass; an astounding 10 players contribute 3.0 or more defensive boards per game, led by David Lee, who averages 10.8.
In order to beat the Thunder, they will need to take advantage of their opponents missed shots by clamping down on these rebounds. That will take some heat off the Warriors' offense by not allowing the Thunder many second-chance shots, and give the edge to the Warriors. The Thunder are a great shooting team, making 47.8 percent of their shots from the field, so capitalizing on those misses is crucial.
While the Thunder have great rebounders as well, they rank 24th in the league in offensive rebounding, which will make it easier for the Warriors to dominate that part of the game.
Make their Shots (Particularly Threes)
This one might seem obvious, but it is critical that the Warriors knock down their shots in order to win this game.
Just like the Thunder, the Warriors shoot for a high percentage from the field, at 45.8 percent, but they are especially good from beyond the arc, from which they shoot a league best 39.3 percent. Curry is a huge factor in this aspect of the game, as he shoots 46.4 percent from three-point land. He will need to be making quite a few of those, because as good as the Warriors play on defense, the Thunder—the NBAs best scoring offense—will get their points, and the Warriors need to keep pace.
The Thunder capitalize on their opponents' misses with terrific defensive rebounders like Serge Ibaka, Durant and Kendrick Perkins. This advantage will be meaningless if the Warriors are able to make their shots.