While the entire NBA world awaited the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors to face off in the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder threw a curve ball by defeating Gregg Popovich and Co.
It truly was shocking to see the Spurs age that much in one series. Equally as surprising, the Thunder took advantage by defeating the Association’s second-best team during the regular season.
With Oklahoma City now slated to take on the defending champion Warriors in the conference finals, here’s a look at the top-eight storylines for what should be one heck of a series between these two ultra-talented teams.
How will the Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook dynamic play out? Can Oklahoma City run with the Warriors? Is Kevin Durant playing his last series for his current team? If so, is he playing against the team he might sign with during the summer?
So many stories, so little time. Let’s check out the best of the best below.
1. The Stephen Curry vs Russell Westbrook narrative
A lot of the talk heading into the conference finals has surrounded two-time reigning league MVP Stephen Curry going up against another top-tier point guard in Russell Westbrook. Who has the advantage here? How will each define his team’s offensive performance? How will the matchup play out?
The first thing we need to know here, and primarily why we should be calling it a narrative, is that Curry likely won’t be defending Russ all too much in the series. Instead, that task will likely go to the best on-ball perimeter defender in the NBA, fellow Splash Bro Klay Thompson.
When Thompson isn’t on Russ and either finds himself resting or matching up against Kevin Durant, that’s when we will see Curry on one of the NBA’s best guards.
Though, it must be noted that Russ will definitely be matched up on Curry for the vast majority of the series. As a substandard defender, this is where it’s definitely going to get interesting.
In Golden State’s three-game regular season sweep of the Thunder, Curry averaged 35.0 points while shooting 45 percent from three-point range, including the game-winning overtime shot in a thriller in Oklahoma City in the teams’ second game of the year.
Meanwhile, Westbrook averaged 25.5 points and 10.7 assists while shooting just 35 percent from the field against Golden State during the regular year.
2. Kevin Durant playing against his future team?
We have all heard the rumors, and they don’t seem to be going away. Durant, a soon-to-be free agent, could very well decide to bolt Oklahoma City during the summer. Multiple reports over the past several months have indicated that the Warriors represent one of his top options.
This may seem a bit absurd. Why would Durant want to go to a team that already has three All-Star players and the most popular figure in the Association? Why would the Warriors want to mess with such a good thing after the run we’ve seen from the team over the past two seasons?
There’s a simple answer to this. Durant loves the Warriors organization and gets along with the players on the team. Secondly, he fits exactly what Golden State does on the court. The team-first, ball-movement philosophy. Finally, Durant would be a marked upgrade over Harrison Barnes.
Should Oklahoma City come out on top in this series, that whole narrative can be thrown out the window. Though, there’s something to be said about a Warriors series win actually propelling Durant to Oakland.
Remember, Andre Iguodala first seriously considered Golden State after his Denver Nuggets were upset by the Warriors in the playoffs back in 2013. For the reigning NBA Finals MVP, it was all about the culture and environment in Oakland that sold him. Could Durant’s mind be brought to the same conclusion in this series, potentially his last in a Thunder uniform?
3. The inside game
As we indicated above, most of the talk here will surround the three All-Stars in the backcourt. That’s fine and dandy. But one area Oklahoma City might have an advantage is size. Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams could all present a match-up nightmare for the Warriors.
While Kanter is pretty much non existent on the defensive end of the court, he does a tremendous job nabbing offensive rebounds (4.1 average throughout his career). This was also a major issue for Golden State against the Portland Trail Blazers in the last round.
Though, the most interesting one-on-one here will be Adams going up against fellow Aussie Andrew Bogut. Both are about as mean and as physical as it gets. That’s going to be one ugly scrum in the low post.
We can also expect things to get testy between Ibaka and Green. Though, that’s a completely different dynamic. Both can step out and hit the three, and Green himself might be on Durant for a nice amount of the series. Still, that will be a rather interesting one-on-one.
4. Golden State looking to continue historical season
Regular season record 73 wins. Two-time reigning NBA MVP. Most threes for a team in league history. Best road record in Association history. NBA Coach of the Year. Three All-Stars. Longest winning streak to open a season in professional sports history. Yes, the now 81-11 Warriors have had themselves a stunning season.
Despite handling the Portland in five games last round, it’s safe to say the Blazers gave Golden State a heck of a series. This could have had to do with that up-and-coming team finding itself blistering hot from three-point range. It also didn’t help that Curry sat the first three games with a knee injury.
It was still rather surprising to see Portland put up such an outstanding fight against the Warriors.
One thing is clear here. If Golden State fails to play better in the conference finals, it might fall short of that ultimate goal of winning a second consecutive NBA title.
This will start on the defensive end of the court. Golden State’s ability to dominate the tempo of a game and get out in the open court relies heavily on its defense.
The team performed at an extremely high level on defense during the Blazers series, holding that squad to 42 percent shooting form the field. However, offensive rebounds killed Golden State’s momentum on plenty of occasions.
All said, the Warriors allowed nearly 11 offensive rebounds per game to Portland in the conference semifinals. Going up against a Thunder team that boasts three rebound-minded big’s, this is going to be huge for the Warriors.
5. The Westbrook dynamic
When Russ shoots a lot, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Oklahoma City’s surprising win over the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals represents this to a T. Westbrook’s high-water mark for shots in that series came in Game 3 when he hoisted up an absurd 31 attempts. Needless to say, the Thunder lost that game.
What we have to look at here is more about just how much the guard utilizes his shot within the natural flow of the game. When he’s forcing them up from the perimeter without using his elite-level driving ability, it really does lead to Oklahoma City’s offense coming to a standstill.
More than how many points Westbrook averages in this series, we should look at how many points he averages per shot. With Durant in the mix and able to put up 30-plus consistently, that will tell us the larger story.
Westbrook averaged 1.3 points per shot with a .489 effective field goal percentage (both career highs) during the regular season. Compare that to his .455 effective field goal rate in 2014-15, and it tells us a story of a player that wasn’t forcing up as many shots.
This makes sense considering Durant was actually healthy for the majority of the 2015-16 campaign after missing 55 games the year prior.
It’s rather simple. Much like with what we saw from James Harden in Round 1 and Damian Lillard last round, Golden State would have no issue with Westbrook becoming a volume scorer. That would take shot attempts from Durant and limit the Thunder’s overall production on offense.
6. Golden State’s health
Golden State was likely quietly hoping for the San Antonio Spurs to extend their series against Oklahoma City to seven games. By virtue of the Thunder’s resounding series-clinching win, the Western Conference Finals will start Monday, two days earlier than if the Spurs had won on Thursday.
Stephen Curry will continue to receive treatment on his ailing knee, but it’s safe to assume he’s at or near 100 percent. Instead, the concern here is over both Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green.
Bogut suffered a right abductor strain (groin) in the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday and did not return. The center’s health for Game 1 on Monday will depend heavily on how his injury responds in the coming days.
Though, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr seemed a bit optimistic about Bogut’s status the day after Golden State clinched a spot in the conference finals:
“He was pretty good today,” Kerr said Thursday, via the Bay Area News Group. “He came in, and the injury wasn’t too bad. He’s going to test it tomorrow. We’ll practice tomorrow morning, and it’s great to at least have four days of rest before the next game.”
It’s going to be essential for Bogut to return to action soon with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter awaiting for Oklahoma City.
Green seemed to tweak his ankle later in the game on Wednesday, but he was able to return to action. As the catalyst for the Warriors on both ends of the court, they simply can’t afford to lose him for any period of time.
7. Proving MVP’s worth
There’s been a lot of talk about Curry becoming the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. There’s little doubt he deserved the award. The question, at least coming from LeBron James, is the true definition of the word itself. Either way, Curry can continue to prove skeptics wrong in this series.
He’s going to have to perform at an MVP level for the Warriors to fend on a Thunder team that’s riding high after upsetting San Antonio last round.
This means no cold shooting nights from beyond the arc. This means no turnover-prone mentality, something that did come to light at times during the regular season.
If Curry has a down series, it will only enhance Oklahoma City’s confidence that it can hand the Warriors a surprising loss in the conference finals.
While Golden State can surely come out on top without Curry playing his best basketball, the onus is going to be on the MVP to do just that. It’s the brightest stage the NBA has to offer. A series against a talented team, a series that could set into motion the next great dynasty around the Association.
This coming immediately after Curry won the MVP award, which itself came following him missing six games earlier in the postseason.
Not only can Curry cement his status as the best player in the world, he can help the best regular season team in history defend its title while continuing to prove naysayers wrong. The dynamic is real here, ladies and gents.
Golden State finished first in the NBA in points per game, offensive rating and offensive pace during the regular season. Oklahoma City finished second in points per game, second in offensive rating and was in the top 10 in offensive pace. Needless to say, this is likely going to be a high-scoring series.
In this, it’s all about pace. The Warriors have proved over and over again that it is almost impossible for teams to run with them. Those squads that have tried have failed against this season.
In fact, in games against squads that ranked in the top 10 of the Association in pace during the regular year, the Warriors put up a 24-1 record. In those games, the defending champs averaged 120 points per game.
On the other hand, Oklahoma City posted a 13-9 record against like teams.
If you are Bill Donovan and Co. what do you do here? The idea of slowing the game down makes no sense with the assets the Thunder have. Though, attempting to keep up to the Warriors pace has proved futile to teams around the Association. It certainly is an interesting dynamic to look at.