Can Thunder Strike Twice? Previewing the Western Conference Finals

The Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder will meet in the playoffs for the first time since the Seattle SuperSonics defeated Golden State 3-1, 25 years ago. The two teams have taken vastly different routes to get to the Western Conference Finals; the Warriors defeated the Blazers in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and the Thunder defeated the Spurs for the second time since moving to Oklahoma City. The first time they toppled San Antonio, the Thunder seemed destined for a basketball dynasty. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all on one team, all 23 or younger. But then fate intervened, James Harden left, Serge Ibaka regressed, injuries struck and this team still hasn’t reached the pinnacle. Meanwhile, Golden State – who didn’t even make the 2011-12 Playoffs – have not only won a championship, but have set the all-time record for regular season wins. The two teams are intrinsically different stylistically, with Golden State playing small, fast, spread basketball that highly prioritises shooting. OKC, on the other hand, play a much more traditional game, with size and length at every position and two big men down low.

Against the Spurs, Oklahoma City were able to play lineups with both Enes Kanter and Steven Adams on the floor. Against this lineup, it didn’t matter what the Spurs did, OKC had the advantage. When they went big with Duncan or West, the Thunder big men would dominate them down low, with neither of these guys being quick enough to guard the athletic Thunder duo. When they went small with Kawhi or Diaw at Power Forward and Aldridge at Center, Oklahoma City had such a big advantage in the post and on the boards that the Spurs had to revert to playing big. Against the Warriors, however, playing these super big lineups could be an issue. In the regular season series, the only time OKC played Kanter and Adams together was for 4.4 minutes alongside Cameron Payne, Kyle Singler and Kevin Durant (per same combo outscored the Spurs by 27 points in the 66 minutes of action it saw in the Conference semis.

The Warriors, on the other hand, will go small in the big moments by employing Draymond Green as a pseudo Center. The ‘death lineup’ was their fifth most used during the regular season and outscored opponents by 4.5 points when it was on the floor. So far in the playoffs, it has out outscored opponents by 6.7 points. In 172 minutes of action, this lineup outscored opponents by 47 points per 100 possessions, 22.8 points per 100 possessions better than the next best lineup in the league. In the regular season matchup with OKC, the Warriors used this lineup to make a gargantuan fourth quarter comeback in the third game of the series. This lineup gives the Warriors five shooters on the floor and forces teams to be quick enough to guard five players that can handle and shoot the ball. This leads to impeccable ball movement and plenty of open looks, which have resulted in an effective Field Goal Percentage of 72.3%. Defensively, this lineup has been excellent as well, keeping opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions (a mark which would lead the league) due to all five players being above average defenders.

Photo Credit: ESPN

The Thunder will try to stay big when the Warriors go small, throwing out lineups with any combination of Ibaka, Kanter and Adams. Offensively, this should result in some easy baskets, due to the mismatch of Kanter or Adams against Barnes or Iguodala down low. Defensively, however, this lineup forces Oklahoma City to put either Ibaka or Kanter on one of the GSW wings – usually Iguodala, due to his lack of Pick and Roll ball handling. It also means that Billy Donovan can’t use his preferred defence of KD on Draymond, which allows the Thunder to switch the Curry-Green pick and roll. Adams will likely be left defending Draymond, which will result in either Adams defending Curry from the Pick and Roll or Curry being left with an open lane or room to shoot – none of which are desirable outcomes.

Despite this, OKC aren’t going to ‘out-small’ Golden State, they could try Kevin Durant at the 4, but that only exaggerates OKC’s weakness on the wing. They have to stay big if they want to win this series, and for them to be able to do this, they must ensure that they dominate the offensive glass and get as many chances to score as they can. If they don’t, the Warriors small ball machine will torch them.

Photo Credit: Fansided

In game six of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, OKC kept the Spurs to just 31 points at half time, with just 12 of those being scored in the second quarter. The Thunder were manic defensively, closing down every passing lane, forcing bad shots and stopping the Spurs ball movement. This resulted in OKC conceding just 99.1 points per 100 possessions against a Spurs team that scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season.

Throughout the series, Andre Roberson and Kevin Durant tag-teamed to nullify Kawhi Leonard’s influence – especially in the big moments. This was a major factor in the Spurs lack of ball movement, as the Thunder effectively turned Leonard into an isolation only player. Roberson will once again have a huge task on his hands, matched up with either Curry or Thompson, but as long as he can stay on the floor offensively, he’s good enough to quell their influence. However, the Thunder could run into trouble if Dion Waiters is forced to defend either Splash Brother down the stretch, especially after seeing Klay light it up when Steph was hurt.

Against the Spurs, we also saw Serge Ibaka show the defensive chops that once made him a DPOY candidate. Along with swatting shots, Ibaka was closing out on shooters (both in transition and halfcourt sets) and defending LaMarcus Aldridge at a near perfect level – especially in the final three games of the series. Ibaka played physically on Aldridge – who dominated games one and two – often forcing him to the baseline and contesting every shot. Ibaka led the Thunder defensively in that series, just as he will need to do against Golden State.

Unfortunately for OKC, San Antonio and Golden State are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to offensive philosophy, and as such, defending them will be a different kettle of fish. The Spurs rely heavily on mid-jumpers and posting up and OKC was able to combat this with size. Golden State on the other hand, rely heavily on making and taking plenty of threes. For comparison, Golden State take 13 more threes and 10 less mid-range jumpers per game. During the regular season, OKC kept Golden State to 34.8% from deep, a number they’ll need to replicate if they’re any chance of defeating the Warriors.

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In the regular season matchup, OKC presented a huge challenge for the Warriors, with a Thunder capitulation and a Steph Curry 30 footer ended up being the difference in the final two games. Whilst the Thunder may still be prone to capitulating, many of those doubts were reneged after closing out three close games against the Spurs. Not only did they manage to score down the stretch, they also forced San Antonio into bad shots, which often came late into the shot clock. This sort of execution down the stretch will be pivotal in deciding this series.

The other takeaway from the regular season was the pace at which these games were played. In the regular season, Oklahoma City played at a pace of 99.4 possessions per game, a number that rose to 102.9 possessions against Golden State. The Spurs, on the other hand, played at a pace of just 95.7 during the regular season and against OKC last round, the pace was just 96.3. In the series against Portland, the Warriors played at 102.2 possessions per game; a stark contrast from the Thunder series. Whilst the Thunder are one of the most adaptable teams when it comes to pace, it will be a massive adjustment playing the Warriors.

One of the keys to the Warriors pace is the Draymond Green fastbreak, where Green will catch the defensive rebound and either lead the break or give an outlet pass down the floor. I spoke more about this play here, and deciphered that the best way to stop it is to crash the offensive boards. In the regular season matchup between the two teams, Oklahoma City outrebounded Golden State by nearly 14 rebounds per game, including six extra offensive boards. This will be a key once again for the Thunder, as it will force the Warriors to stay big and play Andrew Bogut extended minutes. Bogut is a solid role player at this stage and has been good this season, but he’s not athletic enough to keep up with Adams. This will be a big advantage for the Thunder, and it will only be exaggerated if Bogut is out with injury and Festus Ezeli is playing big minutes. If Bogut is out, GSW could potentially be giving up ten extra offensive rebounds a game – a factor that may prove pivotal.

Photo Credit: Sportal

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this series is that three of the top five players in the world will feature, and that neither team has an answer to the opposing superstar/s. During the regular season series, Kevin Durant averaged 36.3 points, 12 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game versing the Warriors. This is not an anomaly either, the Warriors have never had a way to guard KD, and to this day, they still don’t. Draymond Green is their best answer, but that leaves an Iguodala/Barnes type guarding either Adams or Kanter down low. During the regular season, Andre Iguodala got extended minutes on KD, but at this stage of his career, he’s not quick enough or long enough to stop Durant. The other problem for the Warriors will be guarding his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook. Klay Thompson is probably the best option here, but matched up against Westbrook, the Warriors would have to be concerned about Klay getting into foul trouble. During the regular season, Russ shot just 35% from the field and 17% from deep against GSW, which is concerning if you’re a Warriors fan, because of these misses, many were layups and mid-range jumpers he would normally make. If Russ can start making shots at a regular rate, those small margins by which GSW were winning will be closed up.

Conversely, the Thunder have a clear Steph Curry problem. Against the Thunder this year, he averaged 35 points, 6.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds whilst shooting 45% from deep. He also took over two games down the stretch, including an overtime, game winning three. This series, the Thunder will be relying on a mammoth effort from Russell Westbrook defensively to stop Curry. Westbrook has the athleticism to be able to go over screens set for Curry and close out the shot, but to do so, he will need to stay patient and not gamble. By going over, he runs the risk of an open lane for Curry, but as long as Ibaka is helping on the weak side and Russ doesn’t get too out of position, OKC have enough athleticism to smother the Pick and Roll. If they can’t, we may end up seeing a Steph Curry masterclass.

Photo Credit: Zimbio

Whatever happens this series, it’s going to be incredible to watch. This is the best team that plays with traditional big men that we have seen against the Warriors in a 7 game series and that in itself will make the coaching battle intriguing. Along with this, we have two best and most contrasting players at the Point Guard position go head to head, battling for supremacy. Add to this three more of the best 20 players in the league in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson and you potentially have an all-time great series.

Prediction: At the beginning of the season, I picked Oklahoma City to win the Championship, so I’ll back in my prediction.
Thunder in 7.

  • Written by Elliott Hoffmann
  • All statistics are from Basketball Reference unless otherwise stated and are correct as of 15/05/2016.

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