So far in the 2016 NBA Playoffs — and frankly during all of the 2015-2016 season — not one team has been much of a challenge to the Golden State Warriors. But in the Western Conference Finals, which begin tonight, the Warriors will face their biggest challenge yet: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
OKC defeated the Dallas Mavericks in five games in the first round. After an embarrassing showing in Game 1 of the semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder responded by taking the series in six games. Golden State, meanwhile, breezed through its first round matchup, defeating the Houston Rockets in five games. In round two, the Warriors got a tougher series from the Portland Trail Blazers. The Warriors still won in five games, but they were tested by the young Trail Blazers.
The Warriors swept the season series against the Thunder, 3-0. But Oklahoma City held fourth quarter leads in all three games. So what does that mean for the conference finals series ahead?
This Thunder squad might be the biggest threat to the Warriors since it has the offensive firepower to give Golden State a fight. The Thunder have arguably two of the top five players in the league, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Westbrook is a triple-double machine. He has averaged 25.5 points and 10.8 assists per game during these playoffs. Durant has likewise been an unstoppable force in these playoffs. He’s averaging 27.5 points per game, which leads the team. When both players are on, the OKC offense is very dangerous. But Oklahoma City will need increased production from its supporting cast. If Andre Roberson plays like he did in Game 6 of the second round, the Thunder could really make this a series. The biggest “if” for the Thunder in this series is their defense. The Thunder D was really able to put pressure on the Spurs during that series. But the Spurs are no Warriors. Oklahoma City will need to replicate that defensive pressure if it hopes to have a chance against Golden State.
Winningest team in NBA regular season history, and defending NBA champions. That’s a couple of things the Warriors have on their growing resume. Golden State is led by back-to-back league MVP, Stephen Curry. Because of injuries to his ankle and knee, he has played just four games this postseason. Yet he has still averaged 24.8 points per game in the playoffs. Stepping up in Curry’s absence has been his Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, who is averaging 27.2 points per game. Golden State loves to push the tempo, which could pose problems for the Thunder defense. Both offenses are pretty equal, but what separates the two teams is the D. Oklahoma City played well on defense in the semifinals, but they have been inconsistent all year. Golden State has been a lock-down defensive squad all year. Golden State also has many players to throw at Durant and Westbrook.
The Thunder have proven they can compete against the Warriors, as they have held three fourth quarter leads this season. But the Warriors defense should be able to slow down the high-powered Thunder offense. Oklahoma City will be able to hang with Golden State, but not for too long.
Golden State will take this series in six games.
Photos: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images (action, Thompson), Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images (Durant, Westbook, Curry)