After a season spent waiting for the inevitable Golden State Warriors-San Antonio Spurs playoff clash, the Oklahoma City Thunder—and not those Spurs—will face the 73-win defending champs with an NBA Finals berth at stake.
The Dubs and Thunder met three times this year, and Golden State took all three contests. So...preview over, right? OKC is cooked.
If Stephen Curry hadn't buried this (or any of the 11 other threes he nailed) in a 121-118 overtime win on Feb. 27, the Thunder would be a more respectable 1-2 in the season series:
And if Oklahoma City hadn't squandered a fourth-quarter lead March 3, things would get even more interesting.
Russell Westbrook said to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard his team was "very confident" Thursday, and it should be after destroying a 67-win juggernaut. Though the Thunder have yet to beat the Warriors this season, they are, by far, the most formidable foe the Dubs have faced in the playoffs.
This'll be good, but it'll be even better if you know what to watch for.
The key angles in this series don't matter if the best player on the planet isn't himself. Ankle and knee sprains in Round 1 cost Curry a couple of weeks, and the version of the MVP who returned wasn't quite the same as the regular-season edition.
Yes, Curry won Golden State a pair of games against the Portland Trail Blazers with late outbursts, but he was ever so subtly diminished before those eruptions—slightly less shifty, not quite on balance when shooting from deep and perhaps a half-step slower on straight-line drives. It didn't end up mattering because Curry found his best self when it mattered, but if he's not full-go in the conference finals, Golden State could struggle.
Here's an obligatory reminder: The Warriors' net rating was plus-18.3 with Curry on the floor in the regular season and minus-3.7 when he sat.
Curry's fitness will be of unique importance in this series. The MVP never stops moving on offense, darting around screens and drifting into space whenever his defender blinks. Russell Westbrook is many things, but an attentive one-on-one defender is not one of them:
Losing contact with Curry is not an option, but the Thunder are more likely to survive Westbrook's sporadic snoozing if the Warriors' best player isn't quite healthy enough to take advantage. Fortunately for Golden State, those late-game surges against Portland suggest Curry is getting closer to full strength.
But he's not out of the woods entirely, per Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group:
The Thunder's Biggest Weakness
Westbrook's defensive issues are a microcosm of his team's overall vulnerability on that side.
The Thunder ranked 12th in league defensive rating this year—an underwhelming spot in light of the team's overall athleticism and individual stopping power. Communication was a key issue, as were lapses in focus, and the Warriors are outfitted to capitalize on both.
OKC looked stouter on defense against the Spurs because San Antonio gradually stopped moving the ball and attacked in isolation far too often. That's no way to exploit a defense that, when stretched, tends to come apart at the seams. The Spurs averaged just 16.7 assists in their last three games against the Thunder, a far cry from the 24.5 they posted during the regular season.
Golden State won't stagnate so easily.
The Warriors are currently moving the ball better than anyone, leading all postseason teams with 336.9 passes per game. They only ranked seventh in that category during the regular season, but they topped the NBA in secondary assists, potential assists and points created via assists.
Oklahoma City won't have the luxury of sitting back and utilizing its individual athleticism against one-on-one attacks because the Warriors don't traffic in such easily stifled sets. Golden State's offense was the best in the league for many reasons (the first three being Curry, Curry and Curry), but ball movement was at least the fourth-most significant factor.
The Unusual Case of Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter provides the Thunder with a monstrous weapon on the block and on the boards. He also might as well be a giant, an anthropomorphic bull's-eye for offenses looking to exploit a weak link.
Smart teams attack Kanter relentlessly in the pick-and-roll, forcing him to move in space, make quick decisions and come out from under the rim, where he's a rebound inhaler.
With Kanter on the court, Oklahoma City allowed an extra 6.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. Though he's been a bit better on defense in the playoffs, we should still expect Golden State to involve him in as many high-screen actions as possible.
If the Warriors can embarrass him that way, perhaps they'll limit his role enough to hamper the Thunder's frightening prowess on the boards. This is kind of a big deal, per Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com:
The Thunder paired Kanter with Steven Adams to great effect against San Antonio, dominating the glass and generating tons of second chances while also limiting the Spurs' extra looks on the other end. Oklahoma City only trotted out its big front line (Adams, Kanter and Kevin Durant) for two minutes during the three regular-season games against the Warriors, so it's hard to get a read on how effective that strategy might be.
We do know, however, that the Warriors won't resist downsizing against that big group like the Spurs did. Nobody likes going small more than the Dubs, and nobody does it better.
If the Warriors slot Draymond Green at center early and often, Kanter will have nowhere to hide. He'll not only be a target in the pick-and-roll, but he'll also have to chase his man around in space. Shrinking the lineup will come with risks for the Warriors; they'll be at a major disadvantage against larger OKC units on the boards.
Will the Warriors run Kanter and Oklahoma City's big lineups off the floor, or will the Thunder punish the Dubs with size and dominance on the glass?
It'll be fascinating to see who blinks first.
The Question Without an Answer
We've waited too long to highlight Kevin Durant. We really have.
Durant torched the Dubs this year, scoring 36.3 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting. He got to the line more than nine times per game, hit 47.6 percent of his three-pointers and took advantage of whichever rangy Warriors wing had the misfortune of guarding him.
Harrison Barnes wasn't quick enough, Klay Thompson wasn't long enough and Green's services were needed elsewhere. Even Andre Iguodala, who forced LeBron James into inefficient scoring during last year's Finals, had no luck slowing down Durant.
Golden State survived Durant's onslaught this season because Westbrook did what it couldn't: slow down KD.
Westbrook scored 25 points on 25 shots per game against the Warriors, hitting 34.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and only 16.7 percent of his threes. Toss in the four turnovers per contest, and you've got the best Durant defender in the league. If Westbrook is as overly aggressive and inefficient in this series as he was during the regular season, Durant's incendiary scoring may not matter.
Fortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook has already endured the requisite "he's shooting too much" portion of his annual postseason narrative arc. It happened after Game 1 against San Antonio.
Now, sufficiently cowed, Westbrook is moving the ball better and taking just four or five terrible shots per game. That's a significant improvement over his typical allotment. If he tones down his out-of-control instincts against the Warriors for even a couple of games, Golden State will have a far harder time wrangling Durant.
Who's Gonna Take This Thing Seriously?
It's crazy to make focus, effort and urgency pivotal issues at this stage of competition, but sometimes otherworldly talent leads to complacency.
It did for the Warriors, who coasted through plenty of games during the season before scorching opponents with late-game five-minute bursts. Golden State went to its Death Lineup (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green) whenever emergencies arose, and that group posted a does-not-compute plus-47 net rating in 172 minutes.
That group has remained effective in the postseason as well, per John Schuhmann of NBA.com:
Still, the Trail Blazers outscored the Warriors in 11 of 20 quarters during the second round. Though it was hardly fatal, the Dubs continued the habit of reserving their best selves for tiny surges. Cruising for three quarters and relying on Curry to close out the show with fireworks may not work against a team as dangerous and confident as the Thunder.
If Golden State is fully engaged and utilizes its most potent lineups more often, it's hard to see Oklahoma City surviving.
For the Thunder, urgency isn't the issue. Instead, it's channeling that urgency in a helpful way.
As long as Westbrook is around to set a rabid tone, the Thunder will play hard. But they'll need to be sensible in their aggression, and they must focus some of their intensity on the defensive end. Too often this season, OKC's supercharged speed and bounce showed up on just one end of the court.
If the Thunder (and Westbrook in particular) can see through the red haze that's so often clouded their vision, if they can make the right passes, if they can take the right shots, they'll have a chance. If they can't, they'll likely suffer the same collapses that plagued them all year.
The good news, according to Fran Blinebury of NBA.com, is OKC is finally showing signs of settling down:
The very same OKC team that surrendered fourth-quarter leads to lose games 15 times during the regular season and were just 3-12 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes after the All-Star break has suddenly gained composure and become a collection of clutch performers in the playoffs. They are 4-2 in those tight spots in the playoffs and were 3-1 against the Spurs.
Oklahoma City buried the Spurs because San Antonio's offense dried up. You could see signs of the Spurs' offensive drought coming, but the extent was still stunning.
The Warriors specialize in splash. Expect the Dubs to score at will against a Thunder defense that has been relatively weak all year, and expect them to do it with ball movement and targeted attacks against OKC's shakiest defenders.
Few teams are as well-equipped to keep up with Golden State offensively, and the Warriors can still ignore Andre Roberson and giggle as Dion Waiters wastes possessions with yo-yo dribbling and wild, doomed forays into the teeth of the defense. The Dubs need not worry about a single wing or guard outside of Durant and Westbrook.
OKC is a monster, but 73 wins, a 3-0 regular-season mark (asterisks notwithstanding) and a both-ends level of dominance the Thunder can't match give Golden State the edge.
Warriors in six.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.