After a brilliant Semi-Finals performance against an All-Time San Antonio defense, I have no trouble seeing the Thunder taking a game in a raucous Oracle Arena.
The only problem there is you can all but guarantee the Warriors winning at leaaaast one in the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
At this point it almost seems like a waste of time to build an argument for Golden State winning the series. When healthy, these guys are heavy favorites to win this, and any, matchup afterward. They’ll have homecourt advantage through the rest of the playoffs and somehow seem to boast both a more dominant starting five and a deeper bench than any of the other “Final Four” remaining teams. While the health question isn’t fully 100% answered (even with Curry going ballistic after coming back from his knee injury, both Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut got a little nicked up in that game 5 Portland victory), these guys will have had five days off to rest up before hosting Game 1 on Monday night and should be more than ready to go. I’ve heard everything from Warriors in four (!!) to Warriors in six, and I would guess most Golden State fans would be happy they got to avoid Poppovich en route to the Finals. Let’s not waste any more gassing these guys up. We all know they’re great.
Instead, let’s do our best to construct a template that might give KD, Russ, and the boys a chance of stealing the second series in a row where they come in massive underdogs.
No Kawhi Leonard
No disrespect to Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala , but Kevin Durant’s offensive repertoire of scoring moves is on another level than Lebron’s in the Finals last year. At 6’6″ and lacking the incredible length and catcher’s mitt sized hands of Leonard, Durant should be able to simply shoot over Iguodala whenever he has the ball. In three games against the Warriors this year, Durant absolutely ROASTED them for 36-12-6 on almost 50-40-90 shooting splits. He should be able to do the same this time around, especially when you consider any secondary defender the Dubs will throw at him will also be a huge downgrade from the minutes Danny Green fought him in.
Westbrook putting Curry to work
With the exception of one game this offseason against Damian Lillard (a game in which the Blazers put up 121 by the way), Curry has yet to D up All-Star level competition this post-season. I know he hasn’t played many minutes period but OH YEAH, last playoffs were also marked by a distinctive lack of top level point guard play for Curry to contend with. The Warriors were rightfully pissed by everyone cheapening their championship run with injury talk and “could have beens” so they might be looking forward to proving it against more elite players, but the fact remains that Westbrook will be a much tougher matchup than anyone Curry has gone against in his two MVP seasons.
Hell, Westbrook is a tougher matchup than just about anyone outside of Curry at the point guard position. The dude is relentless, plays 90 miles an hour downhill, and racks up triple doubles like Draymond Green. The Spurs made it a point to try to force Westbrook to beat them with long jumpers in games 3 and 4, and Russ adjusted masterfully, amping up his pick and roll game with Steven Adams and getting the Thunder role players involved and scoring.
Westbrook is a polarizing figure to be sure. Even in his transcendent Game 5, going for 35 in a huge road win in San Antonio, the dude had 8 turnovers, a -4 net rating, and shot well below 50% from the field. It can look like this guy is taking too many shots, or even moving too quickly to finish at the rim, but at the same time this is a top 7 player whose speed and athleticism presents a real problem for a Warriors defense that has not looked nearly as dominant as last year’s playoff squad. This dude played well enough for Poppovich to switch Kawhi onto him for segments of last series and should be a nightmare for Curry, or Klay Thompson to keep up with. If he can keep these guys sweating on the defensive end, or force Kerr to give more minutes to Shaun Livingston, they may not be their usual world beaters on the other side of the court.
Thunder Big Men
Much like the last series, how the Thunder big men play might just end up being the decisive factor in this contest. Russell and KD should be exceptional, as usual, but the Warriors’ quickness and penchant for going small should make it much more difficult for Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to stay on the floor than against a Spurs team that prefers playing two traditional bigs. Kanter, in particular, held up surprisingly well in the post against gigantoid Tim Duncan and Lamarcus Aldridge, but may be exposed while defending in space against a team that runs a lot more pick and roll with the best player on the planet at running pick and roll.
The Thunder may be gambling that Adams’ and Kanter’s presence on the boards might just be more valuable than the occasional defensive miscues they give up. Billy Donovan has already stated the importance of not getting sucked into a 3 point shooting contest with the Warriors and may try to take an example out of Cleveland’s ISO ball and offensive rebounding strategy from last year’s finals. While I think it would be very unlikely for us to see much of that twin center lineup that smoked the Spurs in the previous round, both of these guys are bigger, scarier rebounders than Andrew Bogut and should be able to beat Golden State up inside if they can stay on the floor defensively.
The other big question mark here is Serge Ibaka, who had a quietly down year before riding the bench in favor of those twin tower lineups that helped upset San Antonio. I always thought Ibaka would be a good counter for those Draymond Green at center death lineups, due to his speed and outside shooting, but Serge has really failed to develop as a playmaker or really any kind of scoring threat outside of simple, stand-still catch and shoot three pointers. Ibaka needs to have a better series in order for the Thunder to be competitive, but if he turns it up, the Thunder will have another dangerous interior presence and the versatility to throw out smaller lineups with Durant at power forward.
None of these things are impossible on their own, but the Thunder will need all of them clicking simultaneously to hang with the world champions. They’ll need explosive, efficient scoring from their superstars, strong rebounding from their bigs, and contributions at the margins from guys like Waiters, Roberson, and Foye. They’re going to need to steal one of those first two games in Golden State and keep their home crowd as rocking as it was during those Spurs games. And even after all of that, they’ll likely also need a little help from the Warriors with a couple of bad shooting nights if they want this one to last long.
I’m not sure they can do it. I picked these guys against the Spurs and will be pulling hard for another upset, but it’s a steep climb ahead. It’s hard to pick against Russell and KD, but even with all of these factors coming together, the Warriors may just be unbeatable this year. Even if that’s the case though, we should be in for a hell of a series.
Warriors in 7.