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The road to a NBA championship, Part 2: Low-seeded threats to the Golden State Warriors

With the playoffs quickly approaching, there's a lot of talk about which teams the Warriors play well against and which matchups the team should avoid. Here we look at two teams that are always in the championship picture, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the two teams most likely to be a first round opponent for the top seeded Warriors.

Kevin Durant goes up against the tough Warriors defense
Kevin Durant goes up against the tough Warriors defense
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This season, the Warriors sit atop the NBA standings. For the first time since the team moved to Oakland, our gold and blue heroes have a legitimate shot at home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Playing four out of seven for every series in Roaracle Arena should be a priority for the Dubs, who boast the NBA's best record at home. The team also holds the best road record in the league, but the numbers show that Golden State outscores opponents 114.6 - 98.8 in front of the faithful fans at home. That's a 15.8 point differential, compared to a 5.7 margin of victory for road games at the time of this writing.

Playing more games at home can only help the Warriors, and securing the top seed for the postseason should very much be the regular season goal, regardless of the matchup.

The biggest drawback to winning the top seed is that the Warriors would likely face one of the best teams in recent history. When the 2013-14 regular season ended, there were just two teams in the league with a better than .700 winning percentage. Besides clinching the top two playoff seeds in 2014, they were the top seeds in 2013. And 2012. Truly the cream of the Western Conference crop, they are perennial contenders, and they have collectively represented the Western Conference in the each of the last three NBA Finals. These two NBA juggernauts are the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And they currently sit on the seventh and eighth playoff seeds.

How could this happen? Winning a top seed is supposed to get you an easy first round matchup. You're supposed to face an upstart team of talented but inexperienced future stars, or maybe some small market also-ran that sold the farm to squeak into the postseason and maintain their cycle of mediocrity. You're not supposed to be facing most analysts' preseason favorites for the NBA title. Not in the first round.

Sometimes, championship contenders are wrecked by injuries, like this season's Thunder squad. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant has already missed 33 games (and counting) this season for the Thunder, and Russell Westbrook, a contender for this season's MVP award, has also missed 15 games. I shudder to think of what the Warriors record would look like if the team missed Stephen Curry for 15 games this season, let alone 33.

Sometimes, age and NBA mileage just seem to finally catch up with players, like the defending champion Spurs. In NBA years, Tim Duncan is 85 years old, and Manu Ginobili isn't far behind (they're 38 and 37 years old, respectively). The team's French Connection, Boris Diaw and Tony Parker, are both finding out something I've discovered recently: it's tough to lose weight when you get older, and harder to get back in shape. Sprinkle in 18 missed games for last year's NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and voila! You have the recipe for the Spurs in seventh place.

"Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak." - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Let's take a look at how the Warriors have matched up against these two contenders. Don't let the records fool you; if these two teams are healthy, they can beat anyone in a seven game series.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City has had to weather a ton of injuries to their top players this season. As I mentioned above, they've missed both of their perimeter All Stars for extended periods of time, along with starting center Steven Adams. They've even had the newly acquired Enes Kanter miss a game, and he's barely been with the team for two weeks.  Rather than list all of the Thunder players that have missed time this season, I'll save myself some trouble and say that only defensive force Serge Ibaka has played every game this season, and the recently added Kyle Singler and DJ Augustin haven't missed any matches since coming over from Detroit. That's it. Everyone else on the roster has missed games due to injury.

They've had internal conflict with Reggie Jackson demanding (and receiving) a trade, and saw Kevin Durant uncharacteristically show frustration with reporters over both Scott Brooks questions and rumblings that he shouldn't be an all star this season. Despite all of the injuries and locker room frustration, the Thunder are on a collision course with the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

On November 23rd, the Thunder were reeling through a 3-11 start without Durant or Westbrook when the Warriors came to town. In possibly the ugliest game of the young season, the Warriors shot a lousy .392 eFG%, but the Thunder outdid that miserable effort by hitting their shots at a .372 rate. No Warriors starter shot better than .333 from the field, but Marreese Speights saved the day with an efficient 28 point performance off the bench. The Thunder held the rebounding edge 57-52 and made one more free throw than the Dubs, but gave up 11 turnovers while forcing just nine against the visiting Warriors. The low scoring affair came to a merciful end, and the Warriors were victorious 91-86, winners of five in a row. The loss pushed the Thunder's losing streak to a season high six games in a row.

The rematch promised to be better, with the Thunder finally at full health coming into Oracle Arena on December 18th. The replenished Thunder were on a seven game winning streak, their best run of the season. Kevin Durant was on fire, hitting 10 of 13 shots from the field (5-6 from downtown) in just 18:44. Then Durant sprained his ankle, and left the game with the Thunder down despite his herculean effort. The final result was another five point Warriors victory, 114-109.

The Warriors once again shot better than their opponents, this time (by eFG%) .574-.541. The Thunder outrebounded the Warriors 43-39, but the Dubs held the edge on the offensive glass 10-8. The Warriors also committed just 9 turnovers while forcing the Thunder to cough the ball up 15 times. The shooting advantage and extra possessions helped the Warriors overcome a 14 shot deficit from the line.

Scott Brooks' squad would have their chance for revenge a few weeks later. On January 5th, the Thunder stormed into Oakland and this time controlled the glass with a 59-54 edge in total rebounds and 20-10 lead on the offensive boards. OKC also held a slight 11-12 turnover advantage and took 34 free throws to the Warriors 32. However, the Warriors stifling defense contested every shot the Thunder hoisted up, and the Warriors held the visiting team to an anemic .332 eFG% while posting a respectable .551 in front of the home crowd. The final tally had the Warriors up 117-91 in one of their most impressive victories of the season.

Eleven days later, the two teams would face off for the fourth and final time of the regular season. The Warriors headed into Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 16th, and this time the Thunder would emerge victorious 127-115. Durant put up 36 points (on .891 TS%!!!) and Westbrook added a 17/15/16 triple double. When those two play like that, the Thunder are damn near unbeatable. The Warriors got to the line more than the home team did, and both teams committed 14 turnovers, but the Thunder controlled the glass 54-43, and outshot the Andrew Bogut-less Warriors (by eFG%) .571-.505.

"I think that's what I was put on this Earth to do is to score," he said. "I can do everything in the game. I feel like I can play defense, I can rebound, I can pass, but what I do is score. Sometimes, you've got to remind people what you do." -Kevin Durant, 1-16-2015

The Thunder's expected starters are Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Durant, Ibaka, and Adams, with Kanter, Dion Waiters, Augustin, Singler, and Anthony Morrow as the key reserves. Nick Collison, Perry Jones III, Mitch McGary, and Jeremy Lamb are used when injuries and matchups require.

The Warriors have matched up well against the Thunder, and they hold a 3-1 record against them this season. The Thunder rank 13th in ORtg and 10th in DRtg on the season. Even though the Thunder hold the rebounding edge (they're the top rebounding team in the league), the Warriors' balanced scoring and ball movement offense seems to score efficiently against their questionable perimeter defense. Kevin Durant has been his usual unstoppable self, but Russell Westbrook has chucked to the tune of a .433 TS% against the Warriors this season.

San Antonio Spurs

On November 11, 2014, the Spurs rolled into Oracle Arena and handed the Warriors their second consecutive loss of the season 113-100. The Warriors shot an excellent .593 eFG%, and got to the foul line five more times than the visiting Spurs. The Warriors even outrebounded the Spurs 38-36, but they couldn't collect their own misses and tallied just one single offensive rebound against the defending champs. The Spurs showed their trademark carefulness, turning the ball over just 8 times while the Warriors gave up their possessions 19 times in the contest.

"They're a tough cover, you know. They're really moving the ball well. Steve's done a great job instituting his system, and, you know, it'll take time." -Gregg Popovich, 11-11-2014

Steph Curry posted a .389 eFG% to go with an ORtg of just 81. The Splash Brothers combined for seven turnovers, and Shaun Livingston was the only Warriors player to post a positive +/-. Harrison Barnes put up a very strong 22 point, 8 rebound, .799 TS% performance, but even he couldn't corral any of the Warriors misses to give the team any second chance points.

The game recap comment stream was full of criticisms. One poster claimed throughout throughout the thread that:

We need smarter players... Livingston was smart when he got here and became the opposite after the plague infected him... I still believe we're the dumbest team in the league... We're not smarter than the Knicks...

Another stated:

Andre really didn't appreciate being benched. Like, he took it really personally. So he's distributing the ball so heavily as an act of spite.

And lots of folks said things like:

I'm not liking Kerr messing with the starting 5. I hope when Lee is healthy he isn't relegated to the bench. I really like Green but at this point Lee is the better starter.

The sky was falling. Then the Warriors, with all of their dummies and spiteful passing and no David Lee, rattled off a franchise record 16 game winning streak.

On February 20th, the Spurs came back to Oakland. The Spurs, coming off a tough loss against the Clippers, hadn't had a winning streak longer than four games since December 1st, and they hadn't looked much like the defending champs since then. They even stumbled to a losing 8-10 record in December (their first losing month since April, 2013) before recovering with a 10-4 January record.

The Warriors, on the other hand, were firmly entrenched as the top seed in the West with a 42-9 record, and no games played since before the All Star break. Well prepared and well rested, the Warriors came in to the game ready to avenge their early season loss to Greg Popavich's team.

The results were very different this time around. The Warriors once again outshot the Spurs, with an eFG% .589 compared to the Spurs .519. The Spurs led in rebounding 44-40, but only grabbed three more offensive rebounds than the Warriors this time. The free throws attempted were close, with the Spurs edging the Dubs 20-18, but the Warriors led the dreaded turnover battle 16-12.

The Warriors took a 62-55 lead at halftime and stretched that lead to 21 points, leading 89-68 after three quarters. The garbage time bench mob allowed the final score to look closer than the game was, but the final result was still a 110-99 victory for the home team. The Warriors winning streak was at four games, while the Spurs were in the middle of what turned out to be a four game losing streak.

For the season, the Spurs are mediocre offensively but rank third in the league in DRtg. They get a lot of blocks, and are ranked seventh in the league in that department, but they are in the middle of the pack in free throw attempts both taken and allowed. They are an excellent passing team, currently ranked 5th in assists per game, though their turnover numbers are tied for 14th in the league and the Warriors are at 19th. However, since December 1st, the Spurs rank 15th in turnovers while the Warriors have improved to 6th in the league.

The Spurs starters are Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and any one of Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, Diaw, or Aron Baynes. Their other key reserves this season have been Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, and Patty Mills. They also have Jeff Ayres and Reggie Williams to sub in for garbage time.

To beat the Spurs, the Warriors will need to play smart, take care of the basketball, and grab as many extra possessions on the offensive glass as possible. And hope that the crafty defending champs aren't playing possum.

No matter which opponent the Warriors face, the road to a championship is never easy and eventually you have to beat the best if you want to be the best.