OKC Thunder and Golden State Warriors Face Show Down In Western Conference Finals
by Jacob Russell
photo by John Russell
The Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, defeated the odds and won their series against the heavily favored 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in six games. However, can they replicate their championship level underdog performance against an even tougher opponent, the greatest team in NBA history, the 73-9 Golden State Warriors?
Maybe, but it would have to be one of the biggest underdog missions in the history of the NBA. OKC has two advantages against Golden State — rebounding and talent level. On paper, OKC is the most talented team in the league. No other team in the NBA can field two top five players in the league at the same time, and OKC has, typically the consensus, 3rd and 5th best players in the league. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Talent can take you very, very far in the NBA. This is displayed by OKC many times getting away with winning a game when they don’t run plays for the whole team, but rather call for an isolation possession from Russell or Durant and let them try to create offense out of nothing.
However, what separates the best teams in the NBA from the middling teams is the ability to properly gameplan to make sure that star players cannot simply win a game single handily and they must involve their teammates. For this reason and also unfortunate injuries, OKC hasn’t made it back to the NBA finals since 2012. You need a good supporting cast to win championships, and this year, OKC has perhaps their best supporting cast for Durant and Westbrook ever since the days when James Harden was on their team. OKC finally has their best team in years, but now they have to make it past the juggernauts that have had their way with them for some time.
The Spurs were the first of these juggernauts for OKC to face, and surprisingly, they beat them handily. OKC defeated the Spurs in six games by expert game planning by their coach Billy Donovan.
The popular way to play in the modern NBA is “pace and space”. This involves playing a fast tempo game with shooters in every position on the court, rather than taking the time to set up plays and slow down the tempo of the game. Golden State is the perfect example of a team like this, and they’ve used this style to dominate the league.
OKC however, doesn’t play this way, rather, they play big. OKC likes to play two seven-foot centers in Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. This allows OKC to have a ton of size down low to prevent points in the paint and to get a lot more rebounds than the other team. The weakness of teams that play pace and space is most notably on the boards. Since there are shooters all over the court, there aren’t many, if at all, opportunities for offensive rebounds and second chance points. This OKC lineup attempts to counter the small ball style that many teams play now and it has proved oftentimes effective.
In game one of the Western conference finals, OKC deployed this lineup to counter Golden State’s small lineups, and this worked. Kanter and Adams grabbed plenty of offensive rebounds and scored lots of second chance points, they also played exceptional defense in the paint, and made Golden State pay for going small. The Thunder dominated the boards and stole the game 108-102.
In game two however, the opposite was true. There is one problem with big lineups, they only counter the smaller lineups if you can take advantage of the mismatches that you have, and in game two, the Thunder failed to capitalize on their size advantage and ended up getting less rebounds than the smaller Golden State team. And when Golden State, Steph Curry, specifically, catches fire from three point range, there are no rebounds to get. Curry outscored the Thunder by himself 15-2 during a two minute span in the third quarter of game two, and personally made the game unattainable for OKC. It also didn’t help that Kevin Durant had 8 turnovers and Russell Westbrook couldn’t buy a basket.
If OKC wants to even have a snowball’s chance of winning this series, they’re not only going to have to dominate on the glass and in the paint, but KD and Westbrook simply cannot afford to shoot so poorly and turn the ball over so much.
There are plenty of opinions on how this series could go, so I asked Walkersville students what they thought the outcome of this series would be.
Senior Ashley Ritchie believes that “OKC has no chance of winning. Steph alone is better than everybody else on OKC and he can out score OKC alone just because of how good he is, no way they lose another game.”
Senior and OKC Thunder fan Jared Spriggs remained optimistic following Golden State embarrass OKC in game two; saying “I think that OKC can still win, it’s just that they’re gonna have to play perfectly to win. On the bright side, they’ve got their next two games at home and can get their thoughts together.”
Senior Jack Baroudi was humble in his prediction, stating that “I think Golden State is gonna win eventually, but I really wanna see this series go to seven games just because the other conference finals are so boring.”
Regardless of how the rest of this series plays out, we, as fans, are in for some extremely entertaining basketball between three of the top five players in the league. I’d love to see OKC defy the odds and manage to beat Golden State, simply because I love watching LeBron and Durant play each other and that finals rematch would be crazy. But you can’t go wrong with another rematch and see Steph take on LeBron again as he tries to exact revenge with a fully healthy Cleveland team to back him up now.