Congratulations, fellow basketball fans! We have received one of the greatest possible gifts that many of us could have hoped for leading up to the 2016 NBA championship. A Western Conference Finals matchup between two of the game’s most explosive teams in the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder. May I add that this series will feature the one-time MVP in Kevin Durant; a back to back and current MVP in Stephen Curry;  this season’s triple-double leader in Russell Westbrook; a deadly sharp shooter in Klay Thompson and this season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, Draymond Green. Put into better perspective, this series include 4 of this season’s top seven Most Valuable Player vote getters. Really?! Hollywood can only dream of creating drama that is this exciting.

This match up was not supposed to happen. The Thunder got embarrassingly ran out of the AT&T Center in game 1 of their second-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs dominated the Thunder, to coast to a 124 to 92 win, behind 38 points from their newly acquired, five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and 22 points from former Finals MVP and running two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard. The sports world immediately began to analyze what appeared to be an inevitable collision between the defending champion Warriors and Spurs in the Conference Finals. Despite the Thunder’s dismissal of the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks in 5 games in the previous round, no one seemed willing to give Oklahoma City more than a puncher’s chance to advance. We all know what happens when you make assumptions, though, right? The stepchild-like beating taken by the Thunder in game 1 may have served as the catalyst for the Spurs undoing, as it lit a fire under the relentless force that is Russell Westbrook and 2014 MVP, Kevin Durant. The dynamic duo of KD and Russ went on to lead their team to win 4 of the next 5 games to send the five-time champions packing in what may have been our last glimpse of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan on the court.

Golden State’s arrival to this moment, on the other hand, was never really in question. After winning a blistering, NBA record-setting 73 regular season games to follow up last year’s championship run, the Warriors were expected to mostly cruise to the conference finals. Reigning two-time MVP Steph Curry was otherworldly while nailing a jaw-dropping 402 three-pointers. That number was 116 more makes from 3 then he made from the previous year, which means that he broke his own record. The baby-faced assassin didn’t stop there, taking home the scoring title with 30 points per game while joining the exclusive 50-45-90 club. For those not familiar with that stat, it means a player shot at least fifty percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the stripe. He became the first scoring champion to do that, despite sitting out 17 fourth quarters and playing a modest 34 minutes each night. Needless to say, the former Davidson Wildcat shot and sideline-shimmied his way to a rarefied offensive stratosphere that may have never been reached before.

The Warriors suffered a couple scares during their first round matchup with the Houston Rockets, introducing a sliver of doubt in their quest to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy again. First, their prized point guard sprained his surgically repaired right ankle in the second quarter of game 1. He was subsequently held out of the following two games while his teammates kept the train steamrolling forward by building a 2-1 lead over the hapless Houston squad. At the end of the first half of his game 4 return to the series, Curry slipped on a wet spot on the floor created by a sliding Donatas Motiejunas seconds prior and landed awkwardly on his right knee. Warriors’ fans were left to fear the worst as reports surfaced of him crying on the sidelines before heading to the locker room, ending his game early once again with what turned out to be a MCL sprain. Fortunately for Oakland fans, the Warriors’ roster also includes the owner of the third best three-point shooting season ever, in Klay Thompson, the versatile runner up for DPOY Draymond Green, and last year’s Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. The depth of this team was simply too much for the Rockets to overcome and they would fail to win another game, losing in 5 – the same fate suffered by the Portland Trailblazers in the following round. Portland was not sent home before Curry came back to erase any concerns about his health. The sharpshooting splash brother scored an NBA-record 17 points in overtime on his way to a total of 40 points during his game 4 return, fully restoring the team’s confidence that helped bring them to this juncture.

The Western Conference Finals presents a number of intriguing elements to consider as we work towards predicting the outcome. The matchup boasts two of the NBA’s best point guards, though their playing styles are vastly different. Stephen Curry is arguably the best shooter in NBA history, doing his damage with long-range sniping and a dizzying array of dribbling moves, rivaled only by the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving. Steph is exceptional in creating his own shot and driving to the basket, however, Russell Westbrook is one of the fiercest competitors the game has ever seen. Russ comes equipped on the nightly basis with a motor that seemingly runs in the highest of gears at all times. Unlike Steph, the 2015 scoring champion in Westbrook is barely cracking 30% over the course of his career from long distance, yet his sheer will to leave an imprint on the game led him to rack up a record number, 18 triple-doubles during the regular season. This feat obviously puts him into the conversation as one of the best rebounding guards to ever play the game. The five-time All-Star is the definition of versatility as he averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists,  7.8 rebounds and 2 steals. That is truly eye-popping stuff.

As enticing of a matchup between these two could be, the Thunder are doing the Warriors a considerable favor by starting Andre Roberson at Shooting Guard. Roberson is averaging a mere 3.4 PPG this playoffs but the guard has proven the ability to knock down the long ball here and there. While, Westbrook could potentially abuse Curry in the post and with his dominating athleticism, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr would be wise to hide his floor general on Roberson and allow the bigger and better defender, Klay Thompson, to deal with Russell. Thompson usually takes the task of guarding the opposition’s best guard so that should not change in this series. The 2016 Coach of the Year, Steve Kerr appears to have discovered a solid plan in mitigating the scoring damage that Westbrook can do, as his team has held Westbrook to 35% shooting during their regular season matchups. Oklahoma City will need to find ways to get more efficiency from Russ if they are to advance to the NBA Finals. The Thunder dropped all three games in their season series matchup against the Warriors.

Defensively the Thunder will seek to find an answer to slow down Steph Curry. He is averaging a scorching 35 PPG against them this season, while knocking down 6 threes per game. Need a reminder of how detrimental this sort of production can be to their title aspirations? I implore you to revisit the overtime thriller between these two teams that occurred on February 27th. During that game Curry hit a 32-foot bomb with less than a second left before dancing off the floor, capping an epic 46 point performance that included an NBA-record-tying 12 made three pointers. One adjustment the Thunder may have to consider is going smaller at times to avoid the mismatch often created by the deadly Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll. That pick and pop play is ran so well that it tends to leave the likes of Steven Adams or Enes Kanter on an island with Steph. This outcome is clearly not favorable if the Thunder, are to better contain his scoring. The problem with going small is that it forces Oklahoma to rely on shooters like Dion Waiters to make a positive impact, though if their series with San Antonio serves as any indication, perhaps this won’t be too tall of a task. The mercurial guard has increased his shooting efficiency by almost six percentage points from the regular season to the playoffs while showcasing a decrease in turnovers and a visible increase in defensive effort. It remains to be seen if this newfound level of productivity will continue for Waiters.

The Thunder have a nuclear weapon of their own in four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who lit up the Warriors this season to the tune of 36 ppg, while shooting a sizzling 53% from the field. Listed at 6’9” (though many would argue that he is closer to 7 feet), Durant presents a serious matchup problem for any team, as his length coupled with his silky smooth jump shot makes him nearly impossible to defend. He and Westbrook presents one of the best dynamic duo’s that the NBA has ever featured as they account for 52 points ppg combined in this year’s post-season. With questionable spacing on the floor, the Warriors may opt to throw a second defender at Durant and dare Roberson or power forward Serge Ibaka to punish them from the perimeter. Sure, the Thunder could put someone like Anthony Morrow on the floor to address the spacing issue, but he would undoubtedly get abused on the defensive end until OKC coach Billy Donovan is forced to park him right back on the bench. The first-year NBA coach has proved his mettle to an extent thus far in the playoffs, making the necessary adjustments to get his team past the longest tenured coach across all major sports in Gregg Popovich.

One of the biggest factors in the second-round upset of the Spurs was the emergence of the Enes Kanter-Steven Adams lineup that obliterated their opponent on the offensive and defensive glass. Per Dan Feldman of, that lineup was +27 over 66 minutes in the series while the Thunder were otherwise -30 in all other units over 222 minutes. This was a very subtle part of OKC’s success against the vaunted Spurs and will likely be less effective against a Warriors squad that is much better equipped to punish bigger lineups with their speed and long-distance shooting prowess. The minute Steve Kerr decides to run his small “death” lineup that features Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green at inserted at Center instead of Andrew Bogut, the Thunder will be in trouble. During their regular season matchups, per, this lineup was Golden State’s second most used unit and we saw in the NBA Finals last year just how lethal it can be in neutralizing an opposing teams’ big man.  This is mostly made possible by the marvel that is Draymond Green. The first-time All-Star possesses a unique set of skills that mostly prevents a defense from trapping Curry on pick and rolls. When teams throw a double team at Curry, he easily finds Green, who is fully capable of draining the long range shot or penetrating to the paint by putting the ball on the floor. If a defender rotates in an attempt to cut off the paint, the problem of a wide-open Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, or Iguodala materializes and we have all seen how that usually ends. Green’s playmaking skills have allowed him to terrorize opponents in the playoffs so far with averages of almost 18 PPG, over 10 RPG, 7 APG all while serving as the heart of the team’s defense with over 2 blocks per game and 1.6 steals nightly.

Ultimately, the Thunder will have two of the best three players on the court, and that potential in itself cannot be overlooked. The question is: will they receive enough help to overcome the depth that the Warriors bring to the table? After all, the backup PG on the Warriors is only 6’7” Shaun Livingston – a player who may have very well been a star in his own right if not for a gruesome leg injury early in his career. Add to that the fact that the series kicks off the first two games at Golden State’s Oracle Arena, where the Thunder could very easily find themselves down 2-0 as the Warriors set an NBA record for most consecutive home wins in history earlier this year. The series kicks off this coming Monday at 9pm on TNT. 

As a fan of the game, I really hope that we get a seven-game, nail-biting series full of scoreboard explosions that I can one day recount for my grandchildren. However, smart money says that while this will be a very entertaining matchup, the Warriors have just too much firepower for the Thunder to overcome.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

Be sure to return to this blog for the ECF preview.

~Malik Wiggins

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