BDL's NBA 2015-16 Playoff Previews: Warriors vs. Thunder
How They Got Here
• Golden State: By knocking off both the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in five-game sets that featured similar scripts: stomp through a couple of games, come up short in a Game 3 without injured back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, author extremely impressive Game 4 wins keyed by monster post-halftime runs, and take care of business in Game 5 to advance. (One very important difference: the Blazers earned a ton of respect by going down swinging, while the Rockets largely laid down and died.)
In Curry's absence, Klay Thompson (who's averaging 27.2 points per game in the playoffs and shooting 47.5 percent from 3-point land on 9.9 attempts per game) and Draymond Green (17.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 blocks per game in the postseason, a line nobody's ever put up before) reminded everybody just how awesome they are and how big a load they're capable of shouldering, with or without Steph. Now, after missing four games with a sprained knee ligament, Curry is back — like, seriously, staggeringly back. The Warriors were the best regular-season team ever, and they've outscored their opposition by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. They're about to meet a much more formidable opponent, though, in what should prove to be the toughest test Golden State's faced since the 2015 Finals.
• Oklahoma City: By making liars of an awful lot of prognosticators, including this one.
After looking alternately discombobulated and dominant in a five-game first-round victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Thunder faced a much sterner challenge: a 67-win San Antonio Spurs team that boasted the NBA's No. 1 defense, and that had just swept through the injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies. San Antonio appeared to have the upper hand after a Game 1 blowout, but significantly harder, more committed and more active Thunder play — and, of course, the craziest playoff game ending in recent memory, featuring no fewer than five confirmed incorrect calls in the closing seconds — wrested home-court advantage away from the Spurs, serving notice that this was likely to be a much closer contest than the series opener indicated.
The Spurs got back on the good foot in Game 3, getting enough little things right down the stretch to regain the lead and instill at least a little concern that Oklahoma City's season-long struggles with fourth-quarter execution could rear its head again at an inopportune moment. The Thunder answered back with a reminder that late-game minutiae don't matter nearly as much when you vigorously smack your opponent around, riding 41 points from superstar Kevin Durant, a dynamite defensive effort and key contributions from Steven Adams, Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter to a Game 4 win.
Nuclear point guard Russell Westbrook starred in Game 5, leading OKC to a four-point win that, once again, featured some closing-seconds officiating intrigue (and, eventually, another mea culpa from the NBA). The Spurs entered Game 6 needing a stellar performance to stay alive; instead, the Thunder ripped their hearts out early, opening up a 24-point first-half lead behind suffocating defense en route to a convincing closeout victory that left San Antonio's legends contemplating their futures, and the rest of us wondering if this might really be the year that a healthy Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have enough help and firepower to make a return trip to the Finals. — Dan Devine
Head to Head: The Warriors swept the season series, 3-0, with all three contests coming in the span of a month on either side of the All-Star break.
There was the 116-108 Golden State win at Oracle on the night before the Super Bowl, which saw Durant pour in 40 points on 25 shots in 40 minutes but fall to a Warriors team featuring nine players who chipped in at least eight points, with Curry sparking a 12-4 fourth-quarter run to ice the game. There was the 121-106 Dubs win in March that saw Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka combine for 74 points, 22 rebounds and 16 assists, but still get buried beneath the weight of a 24-7 Warrior run that tilted the game.
And then there was the Feb. 27 game, which you might remember from this:
Two and a half months later, I still can't believe that shot went in ... until I remember that Curry was sitting on 43 points and 11 3-pointers before pulling up from the "R" in the Thunder halfcourt logo, and then I believe all over again.
While Golden State swept the season series by an average margin of 8.4 points per game, it's worth remembering a few things:
• that Durant ran rampant on the league's No. 4 defense, averaging 36.3 points, 12 rebounds and 6.3 assists (albeit against 6.3 turnovers) per game on 53/48/96 shooting splits against the Warriors this season, making more than half his shots against whichever defender head coach Steve Kerr and defensive coordinator Ron Adams threw at him;
• that the jumbo Adams-Kanter-Durant frontcourt shared the floor for just two minutes in one game against the Warriors, which could change after Billy Donovan watched it pulverize San Antonio on the boards, especially if Kanter can hold up as well defensively against Golden State as he did against the Spurs (which is very much an open question);
• and that Oklahoma City either led or was tied in the fourth quarter of all three of the regular-season games, before falling prey to both the Warriors' steamrolling excellence and the infamous late-game offensive stagnation and lapses in focus that led to the Thunder losing an NBA-high 15 games in which they led in the final frame.
OKC seemed to solve, or at least mitigate, some of those execution issues in taking three straight from San Antonio. Whether that carries over into the conference finals remains to be seen. — DD
Likely Starting Lineups
The Warriors attack starts with Curry, who is thankfully healthy after playing all of 39 minutes over the team's first eight playoff games. Although Curry's knee is not yet 100 percent, his performances in Games 4 and 5 vs. the Blazers made it very clear that he's in good enough shape to decimate the rest of the league. Four days of rest before taking on the Thunder should put him at or close to top form, and it's safe to assume that he'll be one of the defining players of this series. It's great to have him back.
The rest of the Warriors proved in Curry's absence that they're plenty good without him. Fellow Splash Brother Thompson is probably the second-best shooter in the NBA and could very well take over a game if OKC's defense manages to slow Curry. Green is the team's third All-Star and its second-most essential player, an elite defender capable of scoring, rebounding, and setting up his teammates. His ability to depend every position on the floor will be a major factor against the Thunder's potent offense.
Center Andrew Bogut and wing Harrison Barnes round out the starting lineup, although it's arguable that top reserve Andre Iguodala will prove more important than either in this series. Bogut should play a key role in checking OKC big men Adams, Ibaka, and Kanter, but they were much better in the season series when they went small with Iguodala in his place and might not even have Bogut early if he cannot return from the right adductor strain he sustained in Game 5 against Portland. However, it's not easy to slot Barnes in more than 30 minutes per night given his postseason struggles (35.9 percent from the field and 25 percent on 3-pointers) and occasional tentativeness as a shooter. For that matter, Iguodala is easily the Warriors' best option to contain Durant.
The rest of the rotation is not as strong, although every team would have love to have Golden State's depth. Shaun Livingston started in Curry's absence and regularly scores over smaller guards from mid-range. Leandro Barbosa is usually the first or second guard off the bench and plays a major role in pushing the pace, which sometimes comes along with one or two boneheaded mistakes. Marreese Speights can hit a few open jumpers (sometimes 3s!), and Festus Ezeli figures to earn a hefty raise this summer. For now, he's a luxury as a productive backup center.
Everything Oklahoma City does starts with Durant and Westbrook. While various pundits have attempted to place the superstar duo in opposition to each other for years, results show them to be one of the most successful tandems of their generation and an absolute handful for all types of opponents. Yes, Westbrook often takes too many chances for his own good, but his hyper-aggressiveness is essential to his success. Durant also depends on him for much of his ideal shot creation — a point nicely explained by SB Nation's Tom Ziller here — and it's hard to imagine either player being as effective as he is without the other.
Ibaka is not quite as essential to OKC's success as he once was, but he remains a disruptive defender and dependable stretch four. Adams just had the best series of his relatively young career against the Spurs and will be asked to be a defensive linchpin again in this round. Shooting guard Andre Roberson almost never shoots — he had only made three 3-pointers once in a college or NBA game before Game 6 — but he will be key to this series as the primary defender on Curry and/or Thompson.
The Thunder have looked to have a limited bench for most of the season, but their play against the Spurs has changed that narrative for at least a few more days. Kanter was known as a terrific post scorer and offensive rebounder who ranked as one of the league's worst defenders, but he teamed with Adams to stonewall LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan in the key matchup of the series. Similarly, Waiters was a streaky shooter prone to over-confidence until he suddenly made all the right choices against the Spurs' slower backcourt. Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow, and rookie Cameron Payne will also get some backcourt minutes when the Thunder need more quickness and shooting.
Kyle Singler will be present, too. His best skill is being present. — Eric Freeman
• Westbrook vs. his most extreme tendencies: A great deal of Westbrook criticism suggests that he'd be a much better player if he only took fewer risks and allowed Durant to take a plurality of OKC's shots. That opinion is mistaken for many reasons, but it comes from a sensible place — Westbrook often tries to create plays where none exist over long stretches of games and can force more turnovers than buckets using that approach. The answer isn't to get substantially less aggressive, because Westbrook tried that in the first half of Game 5 and ended up committing six turnovers anyway. It's to balance that willingness to take risks with a sense of what can possibly work and what never will, like he did in controlling the second half of that pivotal win.
The challenge for Westbrook in this series will be to keep that balance in the midst of what figures to be something of a shootout. While it's ridiculous to argue that opponents take the Warriors less seriously than they do the Spurs, San Antonio plays a style that makes maximizing every possession a priority. The same can be said of Golden State in general, but in practice a willingness to shoot early in possessions and take shots that most teams don't makes the game a little more freewheeling. That's the kind of contest in which Westbrook can thrive, although simply putting up big numbers won't be enough to beat the Warriors.
• OKC's big men vs. Golden State's quickness: As Dan noted above, the Thunder beat the Spurs in large part due to the excellence of a big frontcourt featuring Durant, Kanter, and Adams. The numbers are staggering — lineups with Adams and Kanter together outscored the Spurs by 27 points in 66 minutes, whereas all other lineups were outscored by 30 in 220 minutes. Yet the challenge of the postseason is often that what excels in one matchup makes no difference in the next. That could be the case here, because playing two big men against the Warriors is pretty much impossible. Any lineup with Green at power forward or center pulls the likes of Adams and Kanter from the basket and forces them to defend in space. Adams could be decent in those scenarios, but Kanter struggles in them.
It's possible that Donovan will consider occasional defensive breakdowns acceptable if Kanter and Adams dominate the glass at both ends. Anything else could be a big problem for the Thunder's ability to keep the Warriors offense from peak efficiency.
• Durant's defender vs. exhaustion: KD clobbered the Warriors in their three matchups this season, enough so that it's fair to assume he'll put up more superstar numbers for however long this series lasts. Keeping him from being too dominant will be a primary task for the Warriors defense, and Barnes and Iguodala figure to get the assignments at least in Game 1. A potential problem for Golden State is that both players can be offensive X-factors, as well — if they hit open shots the Warriors are pretty much impossible to stop. Guarding Durant saps players of lots of energy (and brings plenty of fouls), so both Barnes and Iguodala could have issues balancing high-level defense with acceptable offensive showings. If they can't, it could put more pressure on Curry and Thompson to perform against what should be a focused Thunder defense.
• Roberson vs. no defender at all: Roberson is an important player in this series if only due to his status as OKC's top perimeter defender. The Thunder will ask him to hound Curry and/or Thompson for long stretches, and it's hard to imagine that any other defender on the team could do as passable a job. These aren't San Antonio's aging guards — they're the league's leading scorer and a two-time All-Star who was a pretty terrific first option with the MVP in street clothes.
The problem is that, unlikely Game 6 showing aside, Roberson is barely a scoring threat. As he showed against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies last postseason, Kerr is willing to disregard a non-shooter if it frees up a top defender like Bogut or Green to help in more difficult in matchups and rove the floor looking to make high-impact plays. In a series that figures to feature plenty of scoring, the Warriors would hold a major advantage being able to guard four guys with five. Roberson needs to pose some shooting threat, however minuscule, to free up space for the Thunder's top scorers. — EF
How the Warriors Could Win:
Curry feels no aftereffects from his early postseason injuries. Thompson matches or nears his scintillating performances from the first two rounds. Barnes and Iguodala limit Durant enough to keep him from playing at their superstars' level. Westbrook averages five or more turnovers per game. The Kanter-Adams duo gets run off the court. Roberson doesn't have to be guarded. Bogut and Green rebound at a high level. — EF
How the Thunder Could Win: Durant and Westbrook dominate with efficient numbers. Ibaka plays Green to a draw or better. Adams and Kanter do a serviceable job defensively and give the Thunder lots of second chances on the offensive glass. Roberson makes a third of his 3-point attempts. Waiters doesn't decide he's going to match every Curry 3-pointer by himself. — EF
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 10 out of 10. Five All-Stars, including the four highest-scoring individual players left in the playoffs (Durant, Thompson, Westbrook, Curry) and arguably the single best all-around player in the game (Green). Three of the most electrifying and breathtaking individual offensive performers the game's ever seen. Two All-World offenses squaring off against defenses that have shown a capacity to clamp down against excellent opposition.
The Warriors coming off extra rest, and the Thunder locked into what looks to be a hellacious rhythm. Golden State playing for the chance to defend its title, become the ninth team since 1970 to go back-to-back, and cement itself as arguably the best NBA team ever. Oklahoma City playing for the chance to make what's gone wrong these last three years right again, to finish the job started against the Heat in 2012, and prove to KD that he's where he needs to be.
There's so much at stake here, and so many talented people who will be going 100 miles per hour to claim it all. It's enough to set a die-hard's heart to bursting. I can't freaking wait. — DD
Prediction: Warriors in 6.