Why the Thunder can beat the Warriors

On the first Monday of May, I went on the Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today radio show on XM/Sirius with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson, and was asked to weigh in on the Thunder vs Spurs series. The Spurs had just beat the Thunder by roughly 100 points in the first game of the series, and Liss gave me an over-under of 5.5 games for that series. I took the “under”, that the Spurs would finish off the Thunder in five.

Yeah, not all predictions pan out.

So now, two weeks later, the Thunder have completed their unlikely comeback over the seemingly juggernaut Spurs, and are gearing up for a series against the even-more-invincible-seeming Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are the defending champions, they won an NBA-record 73 games this season, they continued to win even when unanimous MVP Stephen Curry got injured, and now Curry is back and doing Curry-like things. The Warriors beat the Thunder all three times they played this year, including by a combined 23 points in two games at Golden State. In a related note, the Warriors have home court advantage in this series.

So of course, when Ken Crites asked for my picks…I said Thunder in six.

Wait, what?

OK, hear me out. First, if you click on that predictions article, you’ll see that I led with this: “Part of this is being contrarian, as the Warriors would still have to be considered the favorites.” So I recognize that the Thunder winning this series would be a surprise, and that the odds are that we’re headed for a rematch of last year’s Warriors vs Cavaliers final.

But that said, the Thunder really do have the tools to pull off the upset. And one of the big reasons is that they absolutely believe that they deserve to be here. They have maintained all along that they were every bit as good as the Warriors or Spurs, despite their records, and they reiterated that position after beating the Spurs. While many were excited and calling it an upset, Kevin Durant was calmly stating “This wasn’t our championship” because, in his words, “We wasn’t in this position for nothing.”

Questionable grammar aside, he has a point. Before the Warriors and Spurs represented the Western Conference in the last three Finals, it was the Thunder that were playing on that stage. In 2012 the Thunder faced LeBron’s Heat in the Finals, and it was supposed to be the first of many to come. Instead, questionable personnel moves (letting James Harden walk?) and injuries to both Durant and Russell Westbrook in recent years have held them back. But the Thunder have played on the big stage before, and are utterly not intimidated in their quest to play on it again.

Second, the Thunder have the concentrated fire power to score with the Warriors, even when the Warriors are in video game mode. There are very few teams, including the Spurs, that could say that. But as far as pure scoring, Durant can look even Curry in the eyes as an all-court scoring threat and not blink at all. Similarly, as the Spurs have been the most recent to find out, Westbrook’s relentless attacking style just doesn’t let up. Which means that even when Curry and Thompson are knocking down treys like they’re water, they better hustle back on defense. While Curry and Thompson scored 52.2 combined points between them in the regular season, Durant and Westbrook were right there with 51.7 points scored.

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Third, the indivudal match-ups are also favorable for Oklahoma City. While both teams are solid against opposing point guards (the Warriors are 10th and the Thunder are 11th in limiting production to opposing point guards, according to DraftKings), and the Thunder are at least average against opposing shooting guards (14th) and power forwards (15th), the Warriors are absolutely terrible against opposing small forwards (26th in the NBA in production allowed to opposing PFs, according to DraftKings). Kevin Durant plays small forward. In a related note, in three games against the Warriors this year, Durant averaged a staggering 36.3 points on 53% shooting from the field in addition to 12.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.0 steals. Durant turned the ball over a lot (more than six TOs/game), but as far as individual production he was the best player on the floor when these teams played in the regular season. If he can continue to exploit this match-up, he makes the Thunder extremely dangerous to the Warriors.

Also, the Thunder feel like they have found something with their Steven Adams/Enes Kanter line-up that helped them dominate the Spurs. With Adams’ rugged physicality and Kanter’s floor-stretching scoring style, combined with Serge Ibaka’s shot-blocking and 3-point range, the Thunder now sport one of the most versatile front lines in the NBA. Add that to the fact that Durant is a 6-11 small forward that can slide to the four slot as needed, and the Thunder can send a variety of different looks at the Warriors. The Warriors normally have the advantage, with Draymond Green’s versatility giving them line-up flexibility that opponents can’t match. But if the last round is any indication, the Thunder may be ready for that.

Finally, every time the Thunder and Warriors have played this season, it’s been a slug fest. While the Warriors are 3 – 0 in those games, the Thunder had fourth quarter leads in all three match-ups. The Thunder showed an alarming tendency to lose the ability to execute late in games in the regular season, which hurt them overall and killed them against the Warriors. However, in the crucible of the playoffs, the Thunder seem to have re-found their late-game mojo as they played right with and eventually beat the Spurs in several late game situations. If it is indeed true that the Thunder are ready to play at high levels until the final horn, then they’ve already proven that they have the chops to stay with the Warriors down to the wire. And since the Thunder were able to go into San Antonio and win twice, after the Spurs only lost one game at home all season, they will not be intimidated by the Warriors’ also seemingly insurmountable home court advantage.

All told, this has the makings of an outstanding Conference Finals. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Warriors vs. Thunder is the strongest Conference Finals Match-up in Decades when compared by the numbers. And when you come out of the numbers and just look at the match-ups, you see two championship-tested teams that are both playing at a high level that seem to especially relish playing each other. When the regular season ended, I was disappointed that the Thunder ended up on the Spurs’ side of the bracket because I really wanted to see them get another crack at the Warriors. Their match-ups, all season, were just electric.

I didn’t think the Thunder could beat the Spurs, but now that they have and get their shot at the Warriors…no matter who wins, I expect it to be a classic, must-see-TV series that I already have my popcorn ready for.

Keeping up with the Professor

If you’re interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don’t forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210 on Mondays at 11:30. Plus, I’m doing DFS articles just about every day on the site. I co-host the Rotowire fantasy basketball podcast on Wednesdays, and co-host the TYT basketball show on the weekends.