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Matchup: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Season Series: 3-0 Golden State
Golden State’s Efficiency Rankings: Off: 1, Def: 4, Net: 2
Oklahoma City’s Efficiency Rankings: Off: 2, Def: 12, Net: 3
Golden State’s Playoff Efficiency Rankings: Off. 2: Def: 3, Net: 1
Oklahoma City’s Playoff Efficiency Rankings: Off: 3, Def: 9, Net: 3
Paths: GSW beat HOU (5) and POR (5); OKC beat DAL (5), SAS (6)
The Warriors–Thunder matchup in the Western Conference finals is extraordinarily and self-evidently juicy, featuring loads of star power, high-powered offenses, playoff-tested cores, huge personalities and plenty of volatility. There’s something for everyone, even those basketball diehards who are bummed to miss out on a Warriors-Spurs showdown for a second straight season.
Let’s start with the stars. There are five 2016 All-Stars in this series: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook. But these aren’t your garden variety All-Stars: All five should earn All-NBA selections and all five should make the final cut of Team USA's 12-man roster for the Rio Olympics.
Even better, Curry, Westbrook and Durant are the NBA’s three most recent scoring champs, and they finished first, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 2016 MVP voting. All three finished in the top 10 in scoring, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, and Real Plus-Minus, too.
It should be obvious already: this series is loaded to an embarrassing degree.
What’s truly great about this matchup is that both the Warriors and Thunder excel at translating their individual star power into firepower. In fact, Golden State and Oklahoma City ranked first and second, respectively, in offensive rating this season, marking the first time that the league’s top two offenses will meet in a playoff series since 2012.
But the Warriors and Thunder aren’t merely good offenses relative to their competition this season. On the contrary, Golden State (114.5 offensive rating) and Oklahoma City (113.1 offensive rating) both bring ultra-elite offenses to this series, turning it into the highest-powered matchup since the 1997 Finals between Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Stockton and Malone's Jazz.
The following chart shows the highest combined offensive ratings in postseason matchups dating back to the 1974 playoffs. Warriors–Thunder ranks fifth, trailing only matchups involving Jordan’s Bulls and Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers.
There are plenty of additional layers to peel off. Westbrook and Green excel at working the officials and the postgame podium. Curry and Durant have two of the prettiest shooting strokes in league history. Andrew Bogut and Steven Adams seem destined for war. Harrison Barnes and Dion Waiters are two of the most polarizing potential scapegoats. Andre Iguodala and Enes Kanter both drew plenty of attention in the Sixth Man of the Year voting. We could go on for days.
Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of this series, however, is that it will challenge the Curry/Green/Thompson core and the Durant/Westbrook core like never before. Indeed, the Warriors have never faced a tougher opponent than these Thunder during the Steve Kerr era, while the Thunder likewise have never faced a tougher opponent than the Warriors.
These charts help show exactly what these two teams are dealing with.
From the Warriors’ standpoint, the 2016 Thunder have a better regular season point differential and offensive rating than all of their opponents over the last two postseasons, including the 2015 Cavaliers. What’s more, Oklahoma City enters the West finals with significantly better health than Cleveland had last June.
On the flip side, the Warriors have a better point differential, record and offensive rating than any of the Thunder’s previous postseason opponents, including the 2010 Lakers, 2012 Heat, the 2012 Spurs, the 2014 Spurs and the 2016 Spurs. Keep in mind: three of those teams went on to win championships, and Golden State is clearly better, on paper, than all of them.
To boil this down: The Warriors and Thunder are two exhilarating, star-driven, explosive, proven, elite teams that will test each other in new and unpredictable ways. Let’s get this thing started as soon as possible.
The Case For: The Warriors
Golden State’s hopes are in reliable hands now that Stephen Curry, the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP, has returned to the court following ankle and knee injuries in the postseason. Without Curry, the Warriors managed to make fairly light work of the Rockets and Blazers, but they’ll need their starting point guard to stay healthy for the entirety of this series if they want to return to the Finals for a second straight year.
Curry was simply spectacular against the Blazers, scoring an NBA record 17 points in overtime of Game 4 to seal that win before finishing off Damian Lillard and company with a pretty step-back three-pointer late in Game 5. The greatest shooter in league history is the central figure in the NBA’s best offense and most reliable late-game team. The Thunder found that out the hard way, when Curry hit a career-high 12 threes, including one from near half-court to sink them in overtime earlier this year.
Golden State was the NBA’s best team in the clutch this season, posting a 30-4 record and a +3.2 differential in crunch time situations. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, famously struggled in late-game situations, going 22-22 with a -0.5 differential in the clutch. The Warriors should feel comfortable going down the stretch of close games in this series, given that they have been the best clutch team in the postseason with a +5.3 differential. The Thunder, however, should enter the series with some extra confidence after going 3-1 against the Spurs in games that involved clutch situations, including two wins that featured controversial officiating decisions.
So far during the postseason, the Warriors rank first in both assist ratio and True Shooting %, suggesting that their commitment to ball movement will hold up better than the Spurs’ did against the Thunder. Unlike Golden State, San Antonio lacked the dynamic scoring threats and dribble penetrators to exploit Oklahoma City's defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors match up better with the Thunder’s size and athleticism than the Spurs did, too. Although Golden State doesn’t have any individual defender that’s long enough to truly bother Durant (who does?), the champs can rotate the likes of Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and others onto him in hopes of contesting every shot and exhausting him. The Warriors also have athletic rim-protectors to discourage Westbrook’s forays into the paint and, theoretically, to limit the damage done by Adams and Kanter on the offensive glass.
Golden State has advantages on the fringes too. One-way players like Andre Roberson should also find it much more difficult to stay on the court against the Warriors, who are merciless in cheating off of non-shooters. The Warriors’ second-unit backcourt options (Iguodala, Livingston, and Leandro Barbosa) are far preferable to the Thunder’s slim pickings (Randy Foye, Cameron Payne), which will likely lead Donovan to ride Westbrook for heavy, heavy minutes.
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Green’s ability to play center could also loom large. If he’s able to maintain control of the paint defensively, Golden State’s five-out lineups might force Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan to downshift from his most effective second-round lineups (which featured two bigs). Any time a series downsizes and spreads out, Golden State’s chances of breaking the opposition’s defense improve significantly.
Lastly, the Warriors bring the confidence of a deep, versatile and adaptable champion with an extraordinary home-court advantage. Under Kerr, the Warriors are 15-2 at home during the playoffs, they’re 5-0 in Games 5 and 6 (once they’ve had a chance to make their adjustments), and they’ve never needed a Game 7 to win a series. While the Thunder represent this group’s toughest challenge yet, it’s important to note that the Warriors have more or less aced every challenge to date.
The Case For: The Thunder
The Thunder's brain trust really can’t ask for anything more than what they have received from this roster in the postseason to date. Both Durant (27.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.6 APG) and Westbrook (25.5 PPG, 10.8 APG, 6.8 RPG) have been consistently excellent, game-changing presences. Both Adams (10.2 PPG, 9.9 RPG) and Kanter (11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG) have exceeded expectations inside, often dictating the terms of the frontcourt matchups in the second round. And Waiters, often a wildcard, has settled into a productive, useful role as a shot-maker and physical perimeter defender.
The Thunder made the Spurs, a 67-win team, look old and slow as their defense turned San Antonio’s offense into a choppy mess and their offense simply overwhelmed with athleticism and physicality. That’s saying a lot.
Oklahoma City’s gameplan will start with getting Durant firing on all cylinders. This season, he averaged 36.3 PPG and 12 RPG on 53% shooting in three games against the Warriors. Those monster numbers didn’t produce a single regular–season win, but they could easily be the foundation of a playoff series upset.
Westbrook, meanwhile, is sure to be the most scrutinized player in this series given the scintillating and erratic nature of his game. Look for the Warriors to try to turn him into an outside shooter, as he has shot a combined 4-for-19 on threes during the Thunder’s three postseason losses to date. Golden State will also look to run on his misses and turnovers, hoping to take advantage of his occasional mental lapses.
During the playoffs, the Thunder rank first in offensive rebounding percentage and rebounding percentage, thanks to the physical and relentless pairing of Adams and Kanter. Donovan’s ability to ride those two players together against San Antonio proved pivotal, and if the duo is able to get by on defense while controlling the pace and creating extra opportunities on offense, Kerr might finally be faced with a reasonable counter to his deadly smallball lineups.
Given Golden State’s relentless attack from deep, Donovan will need to find as many shooters as he can muster. Serge Ibaka has been a bit up and down overall in the postseason, but he has been red–hot from outside. Waiters, who is notoriously unreliable, also enters the series on a hot streak. Others, whether it’s Roberson, Foye or someone less utilized like Anthony Morrow, will need to step up too if a shootout breaks out or the series goes small.
Although the Thunder don’t hold home-court advantage in this series, they do possess a strong postseason record at home (30-14) during the Durant/Westbrook era. In other words, “Steal one early and close it out in six at the ‘Peake” isn’t a totally far-fetched approach.
As the underdog, Oklahoma City will surely be glad to cede the pressure to Golden State, which must deliver on its 73-win season. The Thunder will also enter the series with fewer major health questions: Curry (knee), Green (ankle), and Bogut (adductor) were all dealing with issues against the Blazers. Those issues, or new ones, could wind up as a major factor, especially because the Thunder’s frontline doesn't shy from contact.
There are other bits of good news when it comes to distraction. Donovan, viewed by many as overmatched against San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, earned himself some serious credibility by guiding the Thunder past the Spurs, especially after a terrible Game 1 performance. And Durant, dogged by free agency questions last round, should be mostly free and clear of that noise following his strong play against the Spurs and the series victory. The Thunder have always been at their best when basketball is the sole focus and topic of conversation. That should be the case here.
X-Factors: Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook
Although they play different positions, Green and Westbrook fill similar roles, acting as the heart, soul and engine for their respective teams. Both players naturally welcome the responsibility of providing a Kobe Bryant-like competitive edge, and both players regularly toe the line of taking things too far.
For Green, the key will be to stay out of foul trouble, protect the defensive glass and rim, and avoid losing his temper with the officials. He drew multiple technical fouls against the Blazers and inadvertently made contact with an official during Game 5. Green is simply too valuable, skilled and dependable for the Warriors to succeed while playing long stretches without him. Even if the series turns physical or contentious, he must maintain total control of his emotions.
Westbrook’s success will hinge on his decision-making. Live-ball turnovers are death against the Warriors. So too are forgetful lapses in transition defense. As is poor shot selection. Westbrook will need to settle into a healthy aggressiveness, being wary of the Warriors’ ability to draw charges and contest his running layups without backing off the gas too much. He will also need to prioritize keeping Durant involved, as the NBA's 2014 MVP represents the toughest individual matchup for the Warriors in this series.
The feeling entering this series is that the outcome will likely be dictated by these two players. If Green plays to his capabilities, it’s hard to see the Warriors losing. If he doesn’t, the door is wide open for an upset. If Westbrook plays to his full capabilities, the Thunder can beat anybody, including the best regular–season team of all time. If he doesn’t, the Warriors are surely headed back to the Finals.
The Pick: Warriors in 7.
This matchup has the makings of a potential classic that should be equal parts carnival, cage match and pressure cooker. As long as Curry remains healthy, the Warriors’ late-game execution advantage, offensive diversity and defensive versatility should be enough to squeak past the Thunder. Don’t be surprised if this one goes the distance.