The schedule says this is just another midseason tilt, but it feels more like a gift from the basketball gods.
The Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder have waged two of the season's best battles already. There have been a total of 456 points scored in the two contests—exactly 228 for each team.
The Dubs drew first blood with a nail-biting 116-115 home victory on Nov. 14 courtesy of a cold-blooded, turnaround dagger from first-year Warrior Andre Iguodala.
Not to be outdone, the Thunder brought their own theatrics when the teams met up in OKC 15 days later. After regulation couldn't decide the outcome, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook took matters in his own hands and sealed the 113-112 victory with a crunch-time triple.
These games are not for the faint of heart.
But if you can stomach the momentum swings—keeping some Dramamine on hand wouldn't be a bad idea—you'll be treated to two of the league's best thrill rides going head-to-head. Is there a better way to spend your Friday night?
|OKC Thunder||Golden State Warriors|
|Field-Goal Percentage Allowed||41.9||43.2|
Time: Friday, Jan 17, 9:30 p.m. ET
Location: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Golden State Warriors
Nemanja Nedovic out (hamstring), Festus Ezeli out (knee), Jermaine O'Neal out (wrist)
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook out (knee)
How Golden State Wins
Priorities Nos. 1, 2 and 3 should all be the same: Take care of the basketball.
Golden State averages a league-worst 17.0 turnovers per 100 possessions. It coughed up 15 giveaways during its last trip to OKC.
So, how can the Dubs escape their turnover demons? By maintaining offensive flow.
That means ditching the ball-stopping sets Mark Jackson likes to use and abuse when he thinks he spots a favorable matchup.
The Dubs aren't great in isolations (0.81 points per possession, 13th) or post-up plays (0.82, 18th), but they spend more time on those plays (22.9 percent of all possessions combined) than they do setting spot-up or off-screen shooters (20.9 percent), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Those alarm sirens are blaring in your head for a reason. When you have "the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game," as Jackson said he did last season, via Monte Poole of the Bay Area News Group, you should be doing everything in your power to set up those gunners.
Not surprisingly, when the Dubs do make the effort, the rewards are endless. The Dubs get 1.11 points per possession on spot-up shots and 1.07 coming off screens, both league-best marks. Surrounding Stephen Curry (career 43.6 three-point percentage) and Klay Thompson (40.7) with willing and able passers has its perks.
The Thunder have a top-shelf defense (98.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, tied for second), but even the league's strongest walls can collapse if they're forced to stay on the move.
But enough about offense. Golden State is a defensive club.
At least, that's the story the Warriors want to tell. They certainly didn't look the part while surrendering 123 points in Wednesday's home loss to the Denver Nuggets, a team that's averaging 103.2 points on the season.
"Defensively, that's as bad as it gets," Jackson said after the game, via Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "They scored in transition, they scored in the paint and we couldn't control or contain the pick-and-rolls. It was just a bad, bad display by us."
OKC lost some firepower without Westbrook, but it still has the league's top scorer in Durant (30.0 points). Slowing KD isn't easy, but the Dubs need to at least give it the old college try.
If the Warriors limit their mistakes and limit Durant's production, they should be looking at their 12th win in their last 14 games.
How Oklahoma City Wins
The Thunder have to chase the Warriors off the three-point line.
There is no way to completely silence this long-range attack. Golden State sits third in three-point makes (9.4 per game) and fourth in three-point percentage (38.4).
But simply slowing it down can be enough to secure a victory. The Warriors average 10.1 triples on 40.7 percent shooting in their wins and just 8.3 on 34.7 percent in their losses.
Luckily, defending the long ball happens to be one of OKC's strengths. Only four teams hold teams to a lower three-point percentage than the Thunder's 34.2 mark.
The bigger challenge, though, is the same one that's faced this team since Westbrook went under the knife for his third knee surgery of the last calendar year. This is obviously going to be a Kevin Durant-based attack, but it can't be a KD-only one.
Incredible as it sounds, the three-time scoring champ was a non-factor in these teams' first two meetings. Well, a non-factor by his standards. He averaged 22.5 points but shot just 34.3 percent from the field.
Sans Westbrook, the rest of this roster is littered with question marks. But this team holds an athletic advantage on nearly any given night, and this matchup is no exception.
OKC might need to dip into its reserve fuel supply, though.
The Thunder just took part in a track meet on Thursday, although they only allowed the Houston Rockets to partake in half of the event. After torching the Thunder for 73 points the first half, the Rockets managed just 19 after the break. Per NBA.com's Matt Miller, the 54-point disparity was the largest in two halves of the same game in league history, and Houston also became the first team to hit 70 points in the first half and fail to reach 20 in the second:
Thunder defense tonight: 2012 West Virginia to 1985 Chicago Bears— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 17, 2014
The Dubs have given their roster a defensive slant—yes, even with Wednesday's acquisition of scorers Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks—but there are still sieves to be exposed.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has to dial up a healthy dose of pick-and-rolls, attacking Golden State's weakest links (Curry and David Lee) at every chance. If Lee's exposed, then the speedy Reggie Jackson should have no problem getting to the paint. The fourth-year guard just needs to do a better job of spotting his teammates (3.7 assists) when the defense collapses:
But even strong nights from Jackson and Durant won't be enough. The Thunder have other scorers, but those players (Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb) have to maintain show some aggression.
These aren't the run-and-gun Warriors from old coach Don Nelson's days, but this group can still light the lamp with ease. The Thunder, who will be playing their third game in four nights, will need as many hands in the pot as possible to keep pace.
This will be a game you don't want to miss.
That's not a cop-out—trust me, my pick is coming shortly—but it feels like a point that needs to be made. Whatever plans you had on your Friday night docket are worth cancelling.
Which Western Conference contender will come out on top?
With that out of the way, who will actually prevail here?
Golden State doesn't travel particularly well (13-10 on the road). OKC doesn't take kindly to strangers (16-3 at home). The Warriors' carelessness will only fuel what's already a high-powered offense.
However, this feels like it's going to be a track meet. So I'll go with the side that has all of its best sprinters available.
Expect heavy rain from the Splash Brothers, suffocating efforts from Golden State's stoppers and more offense than KD can muster on his own.
Warriors 113, Thunder 106