After the Golden State Warriors' thrilling comeback victory in Oklahoma City back in February, Jared Stearne wrote an article entitled, "Golden State Warriors fans should still be worried about the Oklahoma City Thunder."
Bear in mind that this was at a point when everything in the NBA universe seemed to revolve around an almost inevitable Western Conference Finals meeting between the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, who still had a shot at stealing first place in an improbably historic Western Conference playoff race -- it's probably unreasonable to say anyone was dismissing the possibility of the Thunder playing the role of spoiler, but it might be fair to say they were seen as more of a caveat than a real contender for much of the season.
And yet, Jared summed up the reason to fear the Thunder rather simply, "If the two teams face each other in the postseason, the Thunder should have a blueprint to beat the mighty Warriors. The great news is that no one else in the NBA really has the same tools to use that same blueprint."
In talking to fellow Warriors fans about the regular season series with the Thunder, I've spoken to a number of people who seem to believe that the Warriors just trounced the Thunder in their three meetings this season. Unfortunately, that's just not true.
All three games were tied during the fourth quarter with Andre Iguodala's clutch free throws in Oklahoma City tying the game to send it to overtime. In all three games, the Thunder won the offensive rebounding battle, notably earning a 36.4% to 8% edge in that overtime thriller. The Warriors never found an answer for Kevin Durant. And, of course, the Thunder lost two of those games -- the Feb. 27 game in OKC and the Mar. 3 game at Oracle Arena -- despite taking a lead into the fourth quarter.
Jared summarized the Feb. 27 collapse that set up Steph Curry's heroics, highlighting the coaching mistakes.
With 4:50 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder were up 11 points, 96-85. Their offense was dominating possession with an absurd +30 rebounding advantage (more on that later). With the exception of Stephen Curry, no one in a Warriors uniform could find a way to score. Worse, no one in a Warriors uniform could figure out how to slow down Kevin Durant...Nevertheless, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan ordered his squad to milk the shot clock on every possession to close out the game...the equivalent of a football team, up 7 points, kneeling out its final fourth down to give the ball back to their opponent with plenty of time on the clock. This is an unacceptable strategy.
I bring up Jared's piece now because the main points that he made -- Thunder coaching blunders, the effectiveness of their big lineup, and the dominance of Kevin Durant -- have sort of remained as the defining keys as we look ahead to their upcoming Western Conference Finals matchup. But rather than rehashing those points from a Warriors perspective, I reached out to SB Nation's Welcome To Loud City for some insight and contributor Bobby Chancellor (who does film breakdowns for their site) offered some insight on those points from a Thunder perspective.
Q&A with Welcome To Loud City, Part I
GSoM: There has been plenty of talk about OKC's fourth quarter collapses this season. KD and Westbrook apparently don't like the idea of calling it a curse, but how would you explain it?
Bobby Chancellor: First of all, I think the statistic is overblown. When leading by five points or more going into the 4th quarter, I think OKC only lost five times or so. The only reason this statistic has been a thing is because of the blown 23 point lead against the Clippers right after the all-star break, when the team melted down in the 4th. Other than that, most of the "collapses" were one or two possession swings.
However, I think the real reason behind the Thunder losing so many 4th quarters was personnel and lineups. Donovan liked to start the quarters with a no point guard lineup, often with Durant playing alongside Foye, Waiters, Kanter, and Singler or a second big man. Durant struggles handling the ball from midcourt, and the result was that the offense would bog down, and turnovers would lead to easy points on the other end. By the time a legitimate lineup was on the floor, the bleeding was often out of control and the team would panic, reverting to bad habits.
Now that the lineup has been shortened, the Thunder is playing extremely well in the 4th quarter. In the playoffs, they are 4th with a NetRtg of +12.2, and that includes the disastrous final period of Game 6 (which was just letting off the gas when up 23, and struggling to flip the switch back on). I don't think this is something that will affect the series at all, though I'm sure if the Thunder leads going into the 4th, the TV announcers will mention it at least 1463234 times.
GSoM: Billy Donovan has gotten about the same amount of heat that Scott Brooks did, largely for appearing to do about the same things that Scott Brooks did with this team. And we'll probably hear quite a bit about how the Warriors have a clear coaching edge in this series. But it seemed like both he and the team were starting to figure some things out during the Spurs series. What are your feelings about him at this point?
BC: During the regular season, I was pretty down on Donovan, but not because he did the same things Brooks did. My problem was that he was underachieving compared to Scott Brooks, especially on the defensive end. OKC has always had one of the top offenses in the league, but they also had a top 5 defense most seasons. They spent most of this season in the 10-12 range on that end of the floor. Additionally, he made some perplexing lineup choices at times, playing guys like Singler and DJ Augustin minutes even when they were entirely unproductive.
However, he has really adjusted in the playoffs. He shortened the rotation to 7.5 players, and has done a much better job mixing things up to get the best results. The players have been much more vocal about his adjustments, and Danny Green said that the coaching staff was calling out San Antonio's plays for the defense, making it difficult for SA to get any good looks.
In the playoffs so far, Donovan has coached against Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich, two of the greatest coaches in the league, and has won both series. I'm inclined to think that it won't be a factor in this series. Now, if Kyle Singler trots out there in game 1, all bets are off.
GSoM: The Warriors were going to be the favorites in this series no matter who they faced due to home court advantage, if nothing else. But what advantages do you think OKC has that people aren't considering?
BC: I think winning two games in San Antonio is going to be a huge confidence boost going into this series. Yes, the Warriors have home court advantage, but for Thunder fans, that doesn't feel like it means anything at this point. Perhaps that is overconfidence, but everyone said that we would steal 1 game at most in SA, and we won 2 of 3 there.
One possible advantage that could ultimately decide the series is if our big lineup works against Golden State's small lineup. OKC has three great big men in Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter, and led the league in rebounding because of that. If OKC can dominate the boards without getting shelled from the 3-point line, I think they will present some matchup problems very few teams can. I'm just not sure how to not give up open threes against smallball lineups.
The last advantage that I think people have completely forgotten is just how good OKC's starting lineup is. In the playoffs, that group has a +10.9 NetRtg, which is significantly lower than the +17.8 of the regular season. If you look at lineups that played at least 20 minutes against Golden State, OKC's starting lineup was by far the best, with a NetRtg of +30.2. When the starters were on the floor, the Thunder not only outplayed Golden State, but they ran them off the floor. While I don't expect that to continue in the playoffs, I do think that OKC should be able to jump out to leads in several of the games. And with a much shorter rotation, if our starters manage even ⅓ of that margin, that is going to make this series much tougher for GSW.
For more of the Thunder perspective, check out Welcome To Loud City. For more of our analysis of the matchup from the regular season, check out our storystream with all of our recaps, analysis, and commentary on those three games.