For 82 games it felt like San Antonio was destined to be the final hurdle between the Warriors and a second straight trip to the Finals. Instead, it’s the far more athletic Thunder. You can bet the NBA’s broadcast partners are good with this outcome, but will it make a more interesting series? Here are five key things to consider:
1) Can Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder starters go off in this series? There isn’t a big secret here: the Thunder need both Westbrook and Durant to play at their peak this series to have a shot. They need more than that — a defensive performance like OKC had against the Spurs, role players stepping up — but none of it matters if KD and Russ are not the cornerstones. Durant has been a thorn in the Warriors’ side averaging 36.3 points per game on 53 percent shooting against them this season, in part because the Warriors have no good defensive matchup for him (unless they want to risk foul trouble on Draymond Green). Andre Iguodala had the most success and likely sees plenty of time on him, but put KD on your daily fantasy teams. Westbrook, on the other hand, shot just 34.7 percent against Golden State this season — that number must improve, and he must not have many turnovers this series, or it will be trouble for OKC.
It can’t be just the big two, the Thunder will need Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and others to step up. That said the Thunder starters have had success in this matchup. As noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Thunder’s usual starting five were a plus-23 in 32 minutes against Golden State, playing phenomenal defense. But when Billy Donovan went to the bench things fell apart.
2) Will the big Thunder lineup with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams work against Golden State? Going big won the Thunder the series against the Spurs — when Adams and Kanter were on the court together the Thunder out-scored the Spurs by 27 points in 66 minutes, the rest of the Thunder lineups combined were a -30 to the Spurs. But is that going to work against Golden State? Donovan is going to try it — he’s going to stay big this series because he doesn’t want to go small and try to out Warrior the Warriors — but when the Thunder roll out Adams/Kanter the Warriors will go small, spread the floor and expose the lack of foot speed those to have relative to Golden State’s guys. The Warriors move the ball better and are more versatile than the Spurs, and they can expose these kinds of lineups and carve them up.
3) Can the Thunder defend for a series like they did for at times against the Spurs? Give Billy Donovan and the Thunder credit: during wide swaths of the last series they defended as well as anyone recalls for this squad. They were locked in, used their athleticism, cut off passing lanes and preferred options, and sucked the Spurs into their game. The book on the Thunder defense was (and remains) that you can get them scrambling, you can force rotation errors and other mistakes, it just takes excellent ball movement. The Spurs showed that in Game 1 of the last round, but as the Thunder defense improved the Spurs ball movement did not and OKC was able to stymie San Antonio. Golden State is an entirely different level of test for Oklahoma City — the Warriors have great ball movement from nearly everyone on the roster, and they have high IQ players that make the right reads. Especially with the “death lineup” where Green plays the center. Sleep on one Stephen Curry pick-and-roll and you pay with a three — the Thunder plan is to show out and dare him to drive (and that will test his knee), but that is an area Curry has improved this season. The Thunder will make a commitment to running Klay Thompson off the arc, something true of all the Golden State players. This Warriors offense stretches teams and makes them pay for mistakes, the Thunder can’t afford to make many.
There is a corollary question here: Does OKC have an answer for the Warriors small ball lineups? This ties into the question above, but it warrants its own discussion. With bigs — Adams, Kanter, Serge Ibaka — playing significant roles for Oklahoma City, expect Golden State to counter with a lot of Draymond Green at center and small lineups. How are the Thunder going to handle this? No team has had a good answer yet.
4) Festus Ezeli has to step up for Golden State. Don’t expect to see Andrew Bogut completely healthy to the start this series, which means Ezeli will play a bigger role. This is not a bad matchup for the Warriors; he’s athletic enough to bang inside with Adams and he can get some points at the rim if the Thunder lose track of him. Ezeli has the toughness inside to have some real battles with Adams inside on the glass. The free agent will be put on a big stage with the chance to up his payday in this series.
5) Enjoy the shootout. Westbrook and Curry are going to trade off taking a lot of shots (and expect Donovan to put Westbrook on Curry for stretches). Durant is going to go off for some wicked scoring nights. Draymond Green is to be a brilliant playmaker. Expect (as always seems to happen) some role players for the Warriors — Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, etc. — to go off and help the big two nightly. There are going to be spectacular dunks and long-range shooting exhibitions. This series is going to be entertaining. Enjoy it.
Prediction: Warriors in six. I wouldn’t be surprised if this series is 2-2 after the first four games, but the Warriors versatility allows them to adjust and adapt better than other squads. Oklahoma City needs specific things to happen to win this series (and maybe they can push it seven games), but the Warriors will figure out what works and go on a run that gets them back to the Finals.