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Why the Thunder can beat the Warriors

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Feeling optimistic? We've got a cure for that!

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

On first blush, it's easy to look at the upcoming Western Conference Finals and think they're going to be easy. After all, the Warriors won a historic 73 games during the regular season. They went 3-0 against the 3-seed, 55-win Thunder team. This should be easy, right?

In this article, we're going to take a dive down the nightmare rabbit hole. We're going to look at what could go wrong, why the Thunder are an extremely dangerous opponent, and why the Warriors might just flat-out lose.

A couple of caveats. I'm a sports pessimist. Blame it on growing up a Cal football fan: no lead is safe. I'm going to fully embrace that pessimism in this article. Also, as I've written many times, one of the most frequent mistakes a sports fan or analyst can make is over-reacting to the last thing that happened. Recency bias is a thing. We just saw the Thunder look great dismantling a historically-great Spurs team, while the Warriors looked out of synch against an overachieving Portland squad. Do those performances represent trends or anomalies?  We'll find out.

That being said, here are the reasons why the Warriors might lose:

The Thunder Aren't the Who You Think They Are

It's easy to say that a 73-win team should demolish a 55-win team. We'd expect a 60-win team to demolish a 42-win team, and if anything, this should be an even bigger gap. But there are reasons to be cautious.

First of all, the Warriors are, by pythagorean (estimated wins based on point differential, which is proven to be a better predictor of future results than actual wins) only a 65-win team. Meanwhile, the Thunder are a 59-win team by pythagorean. Six games of difference still suggests we're the better team, but the gap is much smaller.

But pythagorean analysis rests on the assumption that the team is today what they were all season. There are several reasons to think this isn't the case. Most importantly is that Kevin Durant missed 10 games. Now, sure, Steph Curry missed some games, too, but the Thunder are a more top-heavy team. They have less ability to success without their best player. Notice how, for example, the Warriors just appeared to be clearly better than the #5 seed Portland trailblazers even when they didn't have Curry. The Thunder without Durant, however, missed the playoffs last year.

The Thunder went 3-7 without Durant this year. They're better than a 55-win team. They're better than their pythagorean.

ELO-based analysis, which takes into account recent results and quality of opposition, give the Warriors a 59% chance of winning - not too much better than a coin flip. You take those odds if you're a Vegas casino and you're going to roll the dice 10,000 times. When you've only got seven spins of the wheel, though, bad things can happen.

Matchups, matchups, matchups

The Warriors are the best smallball team in history, and they're so good at it that they've made it almost impossible for teams to play big against them. Big teams get run into the ground, while small teams can't keep up. It's a game of lose-lose pick-your-poison for most opponents.

But maybe not for the Thunder.

The Thunder have a plethora of bigs they can throw at the Warriors. They FEAST on the offensive glass, leading the league in OREB% by a mile. (31.1%. The #2 team was at 27.7%. That's a bigger gap than there was between the #2 team and the #23 team!

Unlike most teams, however, the Thunder might be able to play big against the Warriors. This is because they have Serge Ibaka, who is a big who is fast enough to keep up with the Warriors smallball bigs, as well as Westbrook, Roberson, and Durant, who are all fast enough to help compensate for the lack of speed of Steven Adams or Enes Kanter.

The Warriors only faced a few minutes of an Adams-Kanter-Durant frontcourt this year, which is a lineup that saw real success against the Spurs - while still being too fast for them. Andrew Bogut looks likely to less than 100% for this series.

And if the Thunder want to go small, they can put Ibaka at center, Durant at power forward, and be just as fast as us. With a ton of athleticism up and down the roster, the Thunder are one of the few teams the Warriors can't simply out-run.

The Warriors are going to give Andre Roberson open shots. They're going to bait Westbrook into jacking up threes. If those shots go down, the Warriors are in trouble. As we saw against Portland, sometimes even a bad shooter starts knocking down those shots.

The best player on the floor is ...

There are only two teams in the league the Warriors can play where Steph Curry might realistically not be the best player on the floor over a seven-game series. The Cavs, with LeBron, are one of them.

The Thunder, with Durant, are the other.

No Warriors has even been particularly effective at slowing him down. Even the Warriors stoppers - Iguodala and Draymond - just make him work a bit harder. It is likely that, in the next few years, the generally accepted convention wisdom will be that the best two offensive players in the history of the league are Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.

There are some games when Curry is unstoppable, and no matter what happens, he's going to will the Warriors to win.

Kevin Durant is exactly the same. There are games when it just doesn't matter what the defense does, he's going to score every time.

Durant is the tiniest bit more defensible because he doesn't have the ball in his hands as much. You can try to deny him the ball, which is almost impossible with Curry. But when he does have the ball in his hands, he might be even more dangerous. You can play perfect defense and he can just shoot over you.

If Kevin Durant gets to that level four times in the next seven games, and Steph Curry doesn't, the Warriors will lose.

Injuries and rhythm

It's hard not to look at the Thunder and feel like they're figuring it out (warning: recency bias alert!). The following pairs of numbers, for example, should give Warrior fans pause:

19 and 15, 25 and 19, 31 and 18, 18 and 25, 27 and 21, 21 and 24.

The Thunder's biggest weakness is that Russel Westbrook, who would be the best offensive player on over 20 teams in the NBA, thinks that he's the best offensive player on the Thunder. Those numbers are his and Durants FGA in each game of the Spurs series, in order. Notice something? As the series went on, Westbrook started to "get it." He passed more than he shot in two of the final three games.

Westbrook can do more than any Warrior to slow down Durant. If he insists on shooting more than KD, the Thunder are in for a long series, it seems like just maybe the criticism he received early in the Spurs series finally sunk in.

The Thunder looked as good as I've seen them look against the Spurs. Their passing was crisp. They played fast. Now, some of that might be that the Spurs were old and slow (and at times Tim Duncan just looked finished), but it's still cause for concern. They appear to be, to quote a cliche, "peaking at the right time."

Meanwhile, it was hard to watch the Warriors against the Blazers and feel the same way, and it didn't just have to do with re-incorporating Curry.

The defensive communication seemed fuzzy. While I'm convinced that letting Harkless shoot from deep was actually part of the game plan, the normal, psychic-feeling "defenders on a string" that we've seen all season, with player effortlessly switching and re-switching, seemed off. I saw a lot more hesitation and miscommunication than I'm used to seeing, and that kind of error will be punished, brutally, if it involves guarding Durant.

Offensively, things seemed a little clunky and forced, too. In particular the interior passing seemed off. Guys who normally set each other up effortlessly having drawn the double kept fumbling the ball into the hands of the Blazers. Westbrook is one of the best players in the league at turning live-ball turnovers into dunks, so if the Warriors don't clean that up, it'll be a lot of free points going the other way.

Bogut may miss a few games. Even if he does play, he may not be 100%. This means more Ezeli, which is fine (and may even help) ... but it also means more Mo Speights, more Varejao, and more wear and tear on Draymond. These things matter.

Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is struggling. Despite hitting a huge shot in game four, he's definitely been off, offensively, for most of the series - he's hitting only .250 of his three point shots. This is on the verge of rendering him unplayable: if teams can leave him in the corner to help on Curry and Klay, the entire Warriors offense could be compromised.

He's going to have his work cut out for him against the Thunder's bigs, and he's going to have to raise his rebounding game, big time, against a team that feasts on the offensive glass. He'll be challenged in those areas, but the simple truth is that he also needs to hit his shots, and he hasn't done that recently.

Harrison doesn't have to be great for the Warriors to win, but he has to not be terrible. So far this offseason, he's been flat-out bad. If we were heading into a normal offseason, we might be talking about how Barnes had cost himself millions of dollars by passing up the extension last summer. He's been bad enough that it's not out of the question that he will end up signing somewhere for less than the $16 the Warriors offered him last summer. If he shoots below 33% from three, it's hard to see the Warriors winning. The Thunder are going to give him that shot. He needs to knock it down.

Draymond's Technicals

Draymond green has four technical fouls in the playoffs. He's a guy who gets fired up, and that's his strength ... but it's also his weakness.

You can bet a large sum of money that the Thunder will bait Draymond. They'll be happy to have Adams split a double-tech. They'll elbow him and cheap-shot him and get in his face, for one clear reason:

Seven technical fouls is a one-game suspension.

There's a non-trivial chance that the Warriors will be going into a crucial late-series game without their second best player - and even if they're not, if Draymond has to watch himself to avoid picking up a suspension, can he really play the way he loves to play?

The Refs

I want to leave this for last, because, well, it's not fun to talk about the refs. Nevertheless, it has to be said. The Thunder benefit from officials who let them manhandle people. They knock guys down. Grab. Clutch. Hold. Beat them up.

Game two of their Spurs series was a clinic. The refs let them get away with a ton, and it turned the series.

We saw in our series against the Blazers how the Warriors don't seem to get that kind of help. Draymond gets whacked at one end, no call. Going the other way, Lillard gets brushed ... foul. If the refs call this series tightly and evenly, that's a big plus for the Warriors. If they allow a lot of contact, that's a big plus for the Thunder.

If the Warriors jump out to a 2-0 lead, expect to see Scott Foster in game 3 or 4. If the Thunder jump out to a big lead, expect to see some very tightly called games. I hate that I have such confidence in those predictions. The Thunder-Spurs series showed us how one unfairly-reffed game (that'd be game two) can completely change the tenor of a series. On a certain level, we're at Adam Silver's mercy.

The biggest fear about the refs is that they'll do their normal "let's extend the series" thing, creating a best-of-3 or a game 7 that probably shouldn't happen and then something unpredictable will occur like Durant lighting the universe on fire.  e.g., the Warriors go up 3-1, the refs wipe out a supernova Curry game in gave five, OKC squeaks out a tough one at home in game 6 and Durant goes unstoppable in a game 7 that never should have happened.

I love the NBA. I hate that this is a legitimate fear of mine, but I've seen too many play-off series. (And, to be fair, this could work for the Warriors, as well. If the Thunder go up 3-1, no one will be allowed to breathe on Curry in game 5.)

In Conclusion

This analysis could all be wrong. There are questions about the Thunder, too. How much do they trust Roberson? How engaged is Ibaka? How exploitable is Westbrook's inability to play within himself? Can the Dubs just put Kanter in an infinite number of pick-and-rolls? And the Warriors have overcome dubious one-sided officiating before. I am categorically not predicting a Thunder victory here.

I am saying, however, that I will be shocked if this series is anything but very, very close.