By MICHAEL DAY
Finally, the NBA Western Conference Finals start tonight. Maybe it’s not fair to act as if no one wanted to see the Oklahoma City Thunder play the San Antonio Spurs another game, but the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors series was another story, and that was the series we got to see a Game 7. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Anyway, it is time to move on to the Western Conference Finals. Here is my breakdown and prediction.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Golden State Warriors
Stars vs Stars
The matchup that pits the Thunder’s duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s athleticism against the Warriors’ tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the best shooters of all time, with Curry garnering consideration as the best shooter of all time. For the sake of calibrating the outcome of this series, let’s assume that the two pairs of All-Stars play well and cancel each other out. Obviously, if one pair of All-Stars significantly outplay the other, then that pair of All-Stars, along with their team will win the series. I happen to believe that we will see great basketball from this set of players with no significant advantage either way. Of course, this theory doesn’t hold up if Curry is not healthy enough to significantly contribute, but let’s assume Curry’s health is not an issue. (Advantage: None)
OKC big lineup vs Warriors small-ball lineup
With the stars balancing each other, this leaves players like the Thunder’s Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter taking center stage versus the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes. One of the factors that tipped the OKC-Spurs series to the Thunder was the lineup of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter playing together against the Spurs. This lineup was able to take control of the paint, hold a rebound advantage, and seriously hamper the Spurs ability to score. However, this is the type of lineup that isn’t supposed to work against Golden State due to Golden State’s ability to spread the floor and hit three’s. If Golden State plays big with Bogut, then OKC’s Adams can play Bogut with no real issues, but when Golden State goes small and forces Adams to play Draymond Green outside of the paint, this will take away some of Adams’ effectiveness. Also, who is Kanter going to guard? His best case scenario is guarding a spot-up, three-point shooter instead of someone who has the ability to drive and kick the ball to a wide-open three-point shooter. Ibaka certainly has the athleticism to guard multiple positions, so perhaps OKC isn’t in terrible shape against the small lineup Golden State favors, but Kanter is going to get exploited at some point. For Golden State to counter OKC’s size, Barnes better hit three’s. If Barnes does not hit three’s, OKC will punish the Warriors with their size advantage with a less-than-normal responding three-point barrage. As the games play out, though, I’m not sure the OKC’s big lineup can stay on the floor long enough to turn the rebounding advantage into a significant point advantage. (Advantage: Warriors)
OKC bench vs Warriors Bench
OKC’s Randy Foye, Enes Kanter, and Dion Waiters versus the Warriors’ Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, and Festus Ezeli. Golden State has more lineup combinations. Depending on how Barnes plays, Iguodala could potentially see the court faster than normal. Livingston holds a distinct size advantage over most people who guard him. OKC’s best two offensive options are Kanter and Waiters. Kanter is more reliable than Waiters; however, Waiters is probably a little more critical in this series, because he must provide a reliable outside threat when Westbrook or Durant take a breather. Is it possible for Waiters to continue to provide the same outside scoring punch he did in Game 5 against the Spurs? Yes, but is it likely? No. The logical conclusion is that the Warriors bench will score and outplay the OKC bench by a slight margin. (Advantage: Warriors, slightly)
André Roberson added 14 points in Game 6 against the Spurs, which is well above his season scoring average. Add this extra scoring punch in with great defense, and Roberson is a potential game-changing wildcard in this series. Roberson scoring would force Golden State to actually guard him instead of letting, presumably Curry, take it easy on defense. Any extra movement forced on Curry is a good thing for OKC.
Stephen Curry’s health. Obviously, Golden State needs its best player to win against great competition.
Andrew Bogut’s health. Bogut’s absence does not hurt as much as Curry’s, but this is still a significant issue for the Warriors. Bogut is a much better offensive player than Ezeli, and we all know Golden State is a team that relies on making more shots, typically three’s, than the other team, rather than defending and forcing them to miss shots.
Dion Waiters is the ultimate wildcard. As mentioned above, he has to score to keep the second unit viable against the Warriors.
There are scenarios where OKC wins this series. They are a great team as evidenced by their impressive series win over the Spurs. Not many people thought that they would beat the Spurs after the Spurs ran them off the court in Game 1. For them to win, though, the big lineup must stay on the court long enough to make a difference, the second-team must not lose too much ground, and Durant and Westbrook must hit the mid-range jumpers available via pick-and-roll. It will also help if Roberson is viable on the offensive side of the court. The more likely scenario; however, is that the Warriors floor spacing, outside shooting, and overall team depth wear down OKC. Warriors win 4-3.
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