Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

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Oklahoma City won 55 games this season — most years that win total would have it entering the playoffs considered a contender. Plus, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. However, with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off both the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? What did we miss? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things that have propelled them within one game of the NBA Finals.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, ranked 16th. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors’ offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, and 98.1 in Game 3. It’s a change thanks to a focused energy and attitude, but also some technical steps as well. For one, they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating when they do. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. That combined with their athleticism lets them make up ground if they get a step behind, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes to create turnovers, and to challenge shots — the blocks and deflections have gotten in the heads of the Warriors, who have become tentative, second guessing themselves.

Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen from them before. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Throughout his four NBA seasons, Waiters has never come close to playing as well, as consistently  as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a different player. Waiters had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, something has clicked with Waiters. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role on this team. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team (as noted above), his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last playoffs — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted. Memphis could never figure out how to deal with that and lost three straight to Golden State once this strategy was employed.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars in Game 4.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around — the Thunder become so much faster and guys like Westbrook and Durant are impossible to stop in transition. The real key is despite going small the Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovan said postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

Turns out, yes there was.

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

More than that, Donovan has gotten buy-in from his players. They trust and are playing the system. The Thunder were never this focused and willing to sacrifice — Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, the defense was unfocused, and Waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, and it all starts with the players buying what Donovan is selling. After a season where he had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) were taken off his bench for long stretches — Donovan has figured things out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.