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Thunder vs. Warriors Preview: Do the Thunder Stand a Chance Against the Champs?

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We all want a classic, but a blowout is more likely.

William Bennett Berry

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have emerged from under everyone’s radar, thanks to smart deep dives from the Zach Lowe's of the world and sizzling rumor milling from the Adrian Wojnarowski's of it. Everyone has noticed what Thunder fans have been looking at for a while: a team that has it figured out enough to trash any mediocre team thrown at them, but with the real test coming as they face a murderer’s row of contender dotting their schedule from now through March.

Where They At: Golden State Warriors

Does "historically great" suffice? The Thunder are part of the league’s last line of defense to stop the Warriors from turning in the greatest season of all time. Steph Curry has basically wrapped up the MVP award and Draymond Green has gone from a "is he really a max guy?" last season to the second-most important piece on a championship defender (and he’s the most important Warrior on plenty of nights). The Warriors play blazingly fast, routinely flooding both the dregs and contenders of the league with the NBA’s best offense and plugging those foes up with elite defense. They good.

How the Thunder Might Win (Without Employing Tonya Harding):

Some combination of the following variables would produce a Thunder win, and it will probably take a majority of them to come out with a W.

  • Kevin Durant goes nuclear. He’s had a good share of reaping versus the Warriors in the past. He’s also the ideal defender to hang with the parade of lanky Warriors wings that rotate in and out of the front court.
  • Russell Westbrook goes assassin. "Nuclear Westbrook" doesn’t sound like a great option against the fine-tuned Warriors, but the triple-doubling Westbrook of late has been distributing better than anyone in the half court, and slicing to the rim every time the defense isn’t fully set before that. We know how competitive Westbrook is, which leads many to fear "Bad Russ" will be overzealous to win the one-on-one matchup with Stephen Curry. Don’t forget how intelligent Russ is, though; he’s become an offensive savant over the last two seasons, typically harnessing his intensity rather than letting in boil over in dumb plays. He will be up for on-ball defense, but his instincts off-the-ball are more important here, as the risk-reward for a key steal or an open three is as extreme as it gets with the Warriors. Most teams try to beat down Westbrook by running him through endless screens, but the Warriors aren’t most teams, and running a high pick-and-roll into the ground with Curry would be abnormal for them.
  • Stephen Curry goes cold. He’s shot below 40% from the floor six times this season, and under 30% from three seven times. That’s a lot more than I realized before looking it up.
  • Klay Thompson goes cold. He’s shot sub-40% a dozen times, and sub-30% from three thirteen times (three Warriors losses).
  • Multiple Thunder role players get hot from three. The Warriors make 13 threes a night, five more than the Thunder average. That gap really needs to close for the Thunder to hang—the Warriors have "only" converted 8.3 from distance in their losses, on average.
  • Get out in front early and never let off the gas. In three of the Warriors’ four losses, the other team had a 10+ point lead going into the half and won with an average margin of 18 points. While they’re very capable of closing that gap, it’s not automatic that the Warriors comebacks click on command.
  • Alternatively, stay close up to the end. In the other aberration of a loss, big plays by Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, and Dorrell Wright (!) were just enough to hold off the Warriors in the clutch. KD and Westbrook have those big plays in them, obviously (as does Curry).
  • Someone—Serge Ibaka, Kyle Singler, Durant, maybe—can hang with Draymond Green and stop the secondary wave of action that he’s so deft at triggering a step ahead of the defense.
  • The other Warrior 4's (Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes) have bad nights that allow for the Thunder’s true bigs to survive on D and thrive in the paint on both ends of the court. In Warriors losses, Iguodala has shot 29% from the floor and 14% from three. Barnes has been drain on offense and defense in the two losses he’s played in (88.6 offensive rating, 113.0 defensive rating).
  • Iguodala turns out to be a Thunder mole.
  • Dominate the glass. The Thunder are first in the league in offensive rebound rate and the Warriors are 14th worst at giving them up. Golden State is just fine living with that byproduct of a small, wide-open rotation most nights, which is why it would take a blip of a front-court poor performance for one of their only tradeoffs to backfire.
  • The Thunder uncharacteristically take care of the ball. Seventh-worst in turnover rate, getting sucked further into the Warriors’ breakneck chaos will do this team no favors.
  • The Warriors don’t take care of the ball. Golden State is just behind the Thunder at eighth-worst in turnover rate. An extra few possessions for the Thunder instead of Warriors can make a world of difference.

Without Andre Roberson in the lineup, some of these variables are likely off the table. Dion Waiters has played a lot better of late, but while he’s game for one-on-one defense, he’s not a plus team defender that can disrupt the Golden State warmachine; he’ll do well to run through that gauntlet and remain within 5-feet of his man.

Thunder fans would love to see Billy Donavan go out of the box with his lineups, punching (KD at the 5?) instead of counterpunching (going to non-Singler small ball when needing to catch up). He’ll likely throw some wrinkles in the Thunder’s vanilla defense, specifically with some doubling of Curry, something the Thunder don’t do much at all with other point guards. But really, regardless of what lineups mastery Donavan may or may not have in him at this juncture, it wouldn’t be wise to throw the kitchen sink at the Warriors. If Donavan can get his team to make a competitive showing with plan A, the bag of tricks can and should wait until a potential playoff series.

Prediction: Thunder 120 Warriors 104

LOL, right? This would be the most stunning outcome of the season, giving the Warriors their first L at home and a warning shot from a postseason foe. My thinking, aside from bold predictions being fun: I think the well-rested, super-duper-motivated Thunder are in a good place to take the game, and their blend of athleticism and skill matches up better right now than the coach-weary Cavs or Duncan-less Spurs did with the Warriors in their recent shots at the champs. And as much as I’m craving some haymaker trading from Durant and Steph down the stretch, the Warriors generally blow out their opponents or get blown out in their rare losses. I think a classic game will have to wait for now, regardless of who wins (and yes, I’m reverse jinxing as hard as I can).

2015-16 NBA Season Game 52
(Won 5)

(Won 8)
February 6th, 2015
ORACLE Arena, Oakland
8 PM Central Standard Time
TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma, CSN Bay Area
Injury Report: Andre Roberson (Out), Festus Ezeli (Out)
This Season's Matchups: N/A
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Stephen Curry
Dion Waiters SG Klay Thompson
Kevin Durant SF Harrison Barnes
Serge Ibaka PF Draymond Green
Steven Adams C Andrew Bogut