Here are three important stats to get us started:
- The difference in regular season record between the Warriors and Thunder is greater than the difference in regular season record between the Celtics and the Knicks.
- The difference in regular season point differential between the Warriors and Thunder is greater than the difference in regular season point differential between the Heat and the Magic.
- The Warriors had a better record on the road (34-7) than the Thunder did at home (32-9).
Now think about this for a moment. Would you predict a close series this season between the Celtics and the Knicks? Or the Heat and the Magic? Do you think any team would have much of a chance to win a series in which they wouldn’t be favored in their home games?
No, it’s common sense. The Celtics are far better than the Knicks. The Heat are far better than the Magic. And teams who can’t win home playoff games (the Thunder have already lost two!) probably aren’t primed for upsets. So why is the basketball watching public so excited that the Thunder made the Western Conference Finals? The Warriors are going to goddamn slaughter them.
The arguments for Oklahoma City are incredibly shortsighted. They seem to revolve around the fact that they just beat the 67-win Spurs, a team much closer to Golden State in record that had a nearly identical point differential. But the two are completely different opponents.
The Thunder were able to defeat San Antonio by going big, playing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter at the same time under the assumption Tim Duncan would be too slow to defend Kanter, LaMarcus Aldridge would stick to Adams to preserve energy for offense, and that they’d be able to get a disproportionate amount of offensive rebounds due to those mismatches on the boards.
They were right for largely the reasons listen. Tim Duncan was too old slow to make an impact and the Spurs didn’t have a viable backup big. LaMarcus Aldridge was too important offensively to give maximum effort as a rebounder or help-defender. And the pair rebounded well enough to offset the loss in shooting by benching Serge Ibaka.
It worked because the Spurs didn’t have the roster pieces to counter. They only had two players to defend Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and couldn’t take either off of the floor, and Tony Parker was the only Spur capable of creating good shots so he was necessary as well. Combine that with David West’s ineffectiveness and Duncan really had to play because the Spurs just didn’t have an alternative. They were locked into bad match ups on both sides of the ball.
That’s not the case with the Warriors. Draymond Green can defend any player in basketball. Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are both high-end Durant defenders, and Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and even Stephen Curry should do fine on Westbrook. They have more than enough playmaking to go without anyone for a significant stretch, as they’ve proven by getting this far largely without Curry.
That lineup adjustment the Thunder made against San Antonio? Cleveland tried it in the Finals last year. It doesn’t work against the Warriors. They don’t have aging slowpokes like Duncan that defenders can hide on. Kanter and Adams will have to defend in space, something neither is particularly good at (and Kanter is, in fact, miserable at). You’d expect that size advantage to balance things out on the other end, but Green is so good at fronting the post that the Thunder just aren’t going to be able to get Kanter the ball in mismatches.
That’s how the Warriors kept Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson from beating them in the Finals last year, and even if the Thunder could counter by running Kanter around screens and trying to get him the ball higher up on the court, their offense is typically too vanilla to do so anyway. Combine that non-creativity with their lack of spacing when two big men are on the court, and the Warriors just won’t have a problem defending those bigs.
Might Steven Adams get a few post ups against mismatches like Barnes or Thompson? Sure, but the Warriors will gladly give the Thunder all of the Steven Adams post ups they want. During the regular season he posted up only 44 times total and scored only 0.89 points per possession on such plays (per NBA.com). It’s not a efficient even with mismatches, especially since Adams isn’t a good enough passer to take advantage off of the help Golden State would surely throw at them.
With their big lineup seemingly ineffective, the Thunder are probably going to have to go small to compete with Golden State’s death lineup. But lineups that featured Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka without a center played only 182 total minutes during the regular season. Granted, they were enormously successful offensively (scoring over 115 points per 100 possessions, more than Golden State did as a whole during the regular season), but those limited minutes aren’t close to a relevant sample size and it certainly isn’t enough for the Thunder to maximize chemistry and experiment with different sets under those conditions.
Further, we still don’t know who the other two players would be in a crunch time small-ball lineup. Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson have played the most minutes under these conditions, but neither does much to space the floor. Golden State would ignore them entirely. The two best spacers on their bench, Anthony Morrow and Kyle Singler, played only 61 and 50 minutes in small-ball lineups with Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook, respectively. This doesn’t exactly bode well for the Thunder finding the shooting they need to compete with the Warriors at small-ball. After all, when the Warriors went to their death lineup during the regular season, they scored a seemingly impossible 141 points per 100 possessions.
So going big isn’t going to work, and there isn’t much evidence to suggest going small is going to work either. Unless there’s some magical strategy none of us are seeing, that means the Thunder have no viable way to attack a Golden State team that was significantly better than them during the regular season. This isn’t rocket science here people, the Warriors are going to win this series easily. Warriors over Thunder in five. That this isn’t a sweep is merciful.