For all the pomp and power at the top of the West and inside the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room, this year's march toward a championship quickly became a two-team conversation. The record-breaking, defending champion Warriors and close-behind San Antonio Spurs stood alone, together, towering over the field.
Every other so-called contender, including the Thunder, was just noise. That was the plan. Oklahoma City just doesn't care for it.
In pushing the Warriors to the brink of elimination, with the Spurs already in their rearview mirror, the Thunder are moving beyond the "good job, good effort, maybe next year" bracket. This could be their year—their time to defy odds, foil forecasts, dethrone kings and complete the most unlikely playoff stand in NBA history.
Historically Difficult Obstacles
For the record, it isn't as if the Thunder are coming out of nowhere. They tallied 55 wins during the regular season, finishing with the third-best net rating in the league, trailing only—you guessed it—the Spurs and Warriors.
Most years, Oklahoma City would have been considered a championship favorite. But Golden State (73 wins) and San Antonio (67 wins) were too ridiculously good.
Never before had two teams won at least 67 games in the same season. Just 10 different squads had ever cleared the 67-victory plateau prior to 2015-16. Eight of them went on to win a title, with the 1972-73 Boston Celtics and 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks being the lone exceptions.
Even when you consider the relative ease with which the Thunder cruised past Dallas during the first round, the Spurs and Warriors still made for the most daunting postseason path to date. As the New York Daily News' Ari Gilberg wrote:
If it seems like the Thunder have had a difficult path this postseason, it's because they have. In fact, if the Thunder finish off the Warriors (which is still a big "if") in the Western Conference finals, they will have overcome the most difficult path to the NBA Finals in league history. ...
The Thunder's opponents' .740 winning percentage trumps the previous mark held by the 1994-1995 Houston Rockets, which after the Western Conference finals was .736.
And this isn't even about those percentages. It's about how Golden State and San Antonio got them.
Led by two-time MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors championed a small-ball nightmare. They pushed the pace and obliterated opponents with unchecked versatility, pairing an NBA-record 1,077 made three-pointers with unprecedented efficiency. According to NBAMath.com's era-adjusted stats, Golden State deployed the third-best offense in league history. It complemented such firepower with a defense that ranked in the top five of points allowed per 100 possessions on the season.
Spearheaded by a frontcourt of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs found success with old-time constructs. They slowed down the game, dictating its ebbs and flows with a methodical offense and one of the stingiest defenses from the post-Bill Russell generation, per NBAMath.com.
Thus, by season's end, it was not unfair to crown these Spurs and Warriors two of the best squads ever. Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS) ranks teams according to their strength of schedule and point differential, offering even more cross-era context. Both modern-day powerhouses now rank inside the top 10 on the all-time scale:
Seven of the other eight teams on this list capped their runs with a title. The one that didn't, the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, fell in the conference finals to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who also appear in the top 10.
An Unlikely Favorite
On some level, Oklahoma City is lucky. San Antonio and Golden State's breakdowns have been self-manufactured in many respects.
San Antonio outscored the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City by 120 points through its first five postseason games—something only one other team has ever done. But the Spurs abandoned almost all traces of their usual offense against the Thunder after Game 1. Ball movement and off-action motion gave way to isolations and a lack of creativity unbecoming of San Antonio's years-long reign.
The Warriors' dissolution is even more inexplicable. They were outpacing opponents by 26.7 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry on the floor prior to the Western Conference Finals, giving him the best postseason net rating of any player averaging at least five minutes.
Now, they are shooting just over 34 percent on open and wide-open threes against the Thunder, which pales in comparison to their 42.6 percent clip on those same looks through the first two rounds. Draymond Green has gone ice-cold since Game 1, shooting 6-of-25 from the field (24 percent). And Golden State's transition defense and offensive decision-making are flat-out horrible.
Curry, meanwhile, has lost his flame-throwing magic. He is putting down an uncharacteristically low, albeit still respectable, 37.2 percent of his triples for the series. His success rate inside eight feet of the hoop has plummeted to 41.2 percent—a far cry from the 62.5 percent he shot from that same area during the regular season.
And he's still suffering from the ill effects of his sprained MCL, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. Many of these issues, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes alluded to, don't have a direct cause:
But the Thunder's role in the regressions of their esteemed foes cannot be ignored. Their athleticism and length doesn't stop coming. They break up passes. They are opportunistic in transition. They have two MVP candidates in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing their best defense of the season.
"I think the physical stamina, concentration, and ability of not only Russell but Kevin to play night after night and try to play at that incredible level is really, really remarkable," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after Game 4, per Ben Golliver of SI.com. "You're never going to, with either one of those two guys, ever say anything about their effort because their effort's always phenomenal."
It's not just them. Oklahoma City's supporting cast is rounding into form at exactly the right time, playing off and for one another.
Andre Roberson is holding opponents to sub-27 percent shooting from beyond the arc since Game 2 of the Spurs series and drilling 42.9 percent of his own treys during that same stretch. Dion Waiters is shooting almost 45 percent on catch-and-shoot threes for the postseason and playing enough defense to allow Oklahoma City's smaller lineup's extensive run.
Steven Adams' defensive stands are stronger than ever, and his progression as a finisher around the rim lets him stay on the floor for longer stretches. Donovan has countered Golden State's "Death Squad" with a variation of lineups, both big and small, that have effectively disrupted one of the best five-man units ever, per Warriors World's Sam Esfandiari:
In hindsight, this shouldn't be particularly surprising. The Thunder are more consistent and thorough in the execution of their game plan, but they are not playing at an unsustainable level.
To the contrary, this stretch of dominance against the two historical juggernauts bears striking resemblance to Oklahoma City's regular-season performance, only with a little more defensive flair:
|New Stakes, Same Ol' OKC?|
|Thunder...||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.||AST%||OREB%||DREB%||TO Ratio|
|Since Game 2 vs. Spurs||107.3||100.4||7.0||52.2||27.8||79.8||15.2|
There is nothing groundbreaking about how the Thunder arrived. They are merely doing what the Spurs didn't and the Warriors aren't: playing their game, on their terms, when it matters most.
That continuity has them on the verge of conquering the toughest-ever path to the NBA Finals. This persistence renders their next opponent, should they finish off the Warriors, almost irrelevant.
Never mind whether it's the LeBron James-piloted Cavaliers or the feisty Toronto Raptors. The Thunder will have already faced better and overcome worse, entering the NBA Finals not as long shots or hopefuls, but as favorites.
That's the new plan.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.