The moment we've been waiting for all season has finally come and the Oklahoma City Thunder have totally spoiled a historic matchup of two of the best regular season teams the league has ever seen.
The Thunder have crashed a party that too many people expected them to miss, beating the San Antonio Spurs in the second round to advance to the 2016 NBA Western Conference Finals to face the top-seeded Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors may have the 2016 NBA MVP and homecourt advantage, but the Thunder look like a team ready to continue to upend expectations. In fact, despite the inevitable claims that the Warriors are lucky to have avoided the Spurs, the Thunder might be as tough a postseason opponent as any the Warriors have faced in the Steve Kerr era.
Thunder have best point differential & offensive rating of any Warriors playoff opponent during Steve Kerr era pic.twitter.com/uoS1YzHwhu— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 13, 2016
Can OKC compete with the Warriors at this stage?
The question now is how well OKC can match up with the Warriors. Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports writes that Russell Westbrook is the biggest problem the Warriors face.
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.
We all know the threat that Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook pose, but Matthew Tynan writing for Real GM rightly pointed out that the difference for them in the postseason has been at least partially the play of reserves like Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter.
During his team’s two-game winning streak (if you want to call two games a "streak"), the Thunder have been 24 points per 100 possessions better than the Spurs when Waiters is on the court, and nearly 10 points worse than San Antonio while he’s on the bench. He’s hitting timely jumpers and playing really effective defense, particularly against Leonard. Between the play of Waiters and Kanter, the OKC bench is outplaying San Antonio’s reserves; and it’s giving them an extra advantage they did not have on paper heading into the series.
The Dwight Howard interview: How OKC can beat the Warriors
Probably the most amazing thing that happened off the court this past week was Dwight Howard's nationally televised basketball therapy session on Inside the NBA following Game 5 of the Spurs-Thunder series. It was an amazingly candid and unusually emotional interview — both on the part of Howard and Charles Barkley — in a world of canned or entirely disinterested public statements from athletes.
The whole interview is worth watching and Dave Leonardis of Today's Fastbreak has posted the video and a summary of the key points. But just prior to things getting real deep, Howard-the-analyst also offered his thoughts on how the Thunder could beat the Warriors, as summarized by Sean Pendergast of the Houston Press.
He thought that Golden State's ability to play "small ball" sucked other teams into thinking that they could and should do the same, but that if he were coaching OKC, he'd play to the Thunder's strengths with their size — Westbrook and Durant being long and athletic at their positions, with Kanter and Adams as bulk underneath — against Golden State's finesse. I'm not sure if it's a winning strategy, but it was actual basketball analysis delivered thoughtfully and clearly, which is light-years ahead of what you normally get in that chair from Shaq.
There was a ton of dismissiveness of small ball during the interview, but Howard's comments actually reflect a stunningly spreading line of reasoning that Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are going to be the Warriors' kryptonite.
Howard redeemed himself by calling Steph Curry Bruce Leroy.
Dwight is just on FIRE tonight: calling Steph Bruce Leroy?!?!?!? . Video: https://t.co/W36kGlilnI— Nate P (@NateP_SBN) May 11, 2016
I now take back every negative thing I've ever said about him.
Steph Curry won the 2016 NBA MVP award
There were a ton of articles about Steph Curry's greatness this past week and I'm sure you've been reading most of them so I won't rehash them at length. But if you read just one today, Grant Hughes of Bleacher Report captured my feelings about the reigning MVP better than most while describing that ridiculous 17-point overtime period.
Even after missing so much time, and even with no real reason to think Curry could channel his usual level of divinity, there was something almost mundane about the way he torched Portland when it mattered. If nothing else drives home the point about Curry shifting expectations and paradigms, that should...And as much as Curry's gravity and free-wheeling chucking from long range inverted NBA courts in novel ways this season, shifting the emphasis away from the rim and onto a threat 30 feet away, it's the inversion of expectations that truly made Curry special.
And while people will point to that incredible overtime period as evidence of his greatness, John Cannon of The Comeback highlighted another aspect of Game 4 that demonstrates his impact well.
There will be so much written and said about the fourth quarter and overtime of Golden State’s 132-125 win over Portland, and it all should be. It was electric, seeing Curry pull up and hit threes from anywhere, just like the old times 23 days ago. But I want to hit on something else. He saved the Warriors in the very first quarter...While Curry was anything but smooth, his very presence was a calming influence on his teammates. They outscored Portland 13-5 the rest of the quarter, salvaging what could have been a disastrous start that might have made Curry’s return to the lineup a moot point. Curry had only four points, an assist and a couple of rebounds at that stage of the game, but he had made an impact on the defensive end.
ESPN's Tom Haberstroh also put together a great list of Curry's statistical accomplishments this season with plenty of pretty pictures to look at, not to mention being great to supply you with little tidbits to drop about Curry around the water cooler when nobody else can muster words to describe his game.
Damian Lillard is also awesome
Phillip Barnett of Yard Barker wrote an incredible piece on Damian Lillard in March that I think is even more relevant now that Steph Curry has won MVP and sent the Blazers packing. It's well worth the read now not only because Lillard is a fascinating figure in the league, but also because he begins to interrogate how we consume the game and how much the emotion a player evokes from us plays into how highly he's regarded.
Keeping that article in mind enhances the point Joseph Nardone of Today's Fastbreak made about the significance of Lillard's performance in this year's second round series against the Warriors: "Thing is, the story here isn’t only whatever Portland inevitably does or fails to do against Golden State, but in how Lillard has gone from a nice story a few seasons ago, to a legitimate second-banana last season, all the way to "HE IS A BUDDING — IF NOT ALREADY — SUPERSTAR.""
But regardless of what we think of Lillard, ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz wrote a similarly incredible article on Wednesday about how Lillard's personality off the court figures into Portland's effort to continue building on their success in this year's playoffs. The whole article is worth a read, but this is the crux of Arnovitz's point: "Damian Lillard is the guy you want to play with...Lillard carries himself with an uncommon combination of sturdiness and humility. He's both serious and accessible, the guy at the bar secure enough to nurse a drink by himself, but completely sociable if his solitude is interrupted. It's easy to imagine him inside a suite above Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills alongside owner Paul Allen, Olshey and Stotts, wearing either his black, gray or blue suit, pitching one of the league's most eligible free-agent bachelors."
Other news and notes
- CSN's Monte Poole wrote about the relationship between Festus Ezeli and Ron Adams last Saturday, focusing on Ezeli's awesome Game 2 performance. Poole reports that Adams is "like a dad" to Ezeli, so let's hope that factors into his contract negotiations.
- Tim Roye noted that five consecutive teams had fired their coach after losing to the Warriors in the playoffs and Miles Wray of Today's Fastbreak summarized the carnage. But maybe we should add a sixth to that list: the Denver Nuggets ended up firing George Karl after losing to the Warriors in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs. In any event, Terry Stotts figures to end this trend of being fired after losing to the Warriors.
- Steve Kerr gave Marreese Speights a shout out for his role in the Warriors' win in Game 4 prior to Game 5, which Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reported on in his pregame notes on Wednesday evening. From Kerr: "Mo Speights kind of saved the game for us."
- Michael Erler of Today's Fastbreak on Harrison Barnes: "In what’s been a running theme these playoffs, they were let down once more by Harrison Barnes, who shot 2-of-8 and finished -14. With each passing game, the idea of Barnes earning in excess of $20 million annually seems more and more preposterous, no matter how much the salary cap is set to spike...most disappointing of all, he hasn’t been any more assertive without Curry than with him. Barnes missed 16 games with a high ankle sprain, and tellingly the team didn’t miss a beat. They just replaced him with Brandon Rush in the starting lineup and continued winning. If some front office is really set to give Barnes a four-year deal worth over $80 million, then what would Aminu be worth in the open market?"