The Oklahoma City Thunder might have ended the San Antonio Spurs dynasty in Thursday night’s series-clinching Game 6, setting up a Western Conference Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors in the process.
On the surface, these Western Conference Finals seem to be a lesser-than option. For months, we’ve been looking forward to the seemingly inevitable matchup between the 67-win Spurs and 73-win Warriors. A 55-win Thunder team? What are they going to do against Stephen Curry and the world-beating Dubs?
A lot, actually.
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But it’s hardly a lesser-than matchup from the Warriors’ perspective. The Thunder have given the Warriors trouble every time they’ve played this season.
The Thunder made some key adjustments to turn around their series with the Spurs, and it’s unknown how many of those moves will translate to the Warriors’ matchup. But the team’s newfound ability to adapt will serve it well against the Warriors, who can throw a variety of looks at a Thunder team that had struggled to merge consistency in output with versatility in personnel.
But the bigger reason the Warriors are displeased to see the Thunder advance is that they will have to face Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant again, and both are puzzles the Warriors’ have struggled to solve.
No one can stop Durant. Kawhi Leonard, the Defensive Player of the Year, did little to slow the 2014 MVP in the Western Conference semifinals.
Durant should be even more productive against the Warriors, as he averaged 36.3 points in the Thunder’s three games with Golden State this season. Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green are all excellent on-ball defenders, but they’ll rotate the opportunity to take an L against one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history.
The bigger issue for the Warriors might be Westbrook. The Warriors (like most teams in the NBA) have trouble slowing down athletic, penetrating point guards, and of that style of player, Westbrook is the cream of the crop.
The Warriors struggled with Damian Lillard in their five-game Western Conference semifinal series, and have struggled to stop John Wall, have seen Reggie Jackson burn them, and lost a game to Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics. A penetrating, athletic point guard (who, if he can shoot the 3-pointer, is completely lethal) allows teams to match the Warriors possession for possession, even when Golden State pushes the tempo.
The Thunder might have lost all three regular-season matchups with the Warriors this season, but Oklahoma City was tied or led in the fourth quarter of all three contests. Add in OKC’s newfound ability to come through on offense in crunch time, and it’d be foolhardy to predict that the regular-season series would be repeated with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
The Warriors should be favored in the series, no doubt, but the Thunder are hardly the pushovers that many will peg them to be. They might not be as deep or as talented as Golden State, but the Thunder have the right combination to give the Warriors all they can handle in the Western Conference Finals.