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Series Preview: Resilient Thunder must go big against legendary Warriors

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Can OKC's centers survive Golden State's small ball?

Russell Westbrook makes the best faces while driving to the basket.
Russell Westbrook makes the best faces while driving to the basket.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Just a couple of weeks ago, it appeared that the Thunder's biggest test might be against the Spurs in the second round. Stephen Curry was out for an indeterminate amount of time, and the Warriors looked bad without him.

But now, the true challenge has finally arrived. Curry's back, and the Warriors continue to be the team with the best regular season record in NBA history. The Warriors are also the returning champions, and beat the Thunder three times during the regular season. I couldn't imagine a more fierce or tested team than what the Warriors have right now. The Dubs have literally revolutionized basketball with their offense, and set three point records.

But the Thunder have two historically good players on their side. Durant and Westbrook are just beginning the peak of their careers, and are definitely two of the top five players in the league. Together, KD and Westbrook are the league's fiercest combo, no question. But the rest of the Thunder are going to need to step up in order for OKC to win. We saw some promising things during the Spurs series, but the Warriors will be an entirely different animal.

How OKC's strategy from the Spurs series must shift

The Spurs are a team that relies on bigs and ball movement. It's okay to stick to your man against the Spurs, because they don't really have a player that can destroy you in isolation situations on a consistent basis. But virtually every single player on the Warriors can destroy their player off the dribble. This same Warrior team saw a great deal of success going ISO-only under Mark Jackson, and they could certainly go back to their old ways if need be. One to one defense, on the Thunder's part, is simply an invitation for the Warriors to light it up.

Furthermore, the Thunder can't play Kanter at power forward against the Warriors. Kanter worked at power forward against the Spurs because he matched up well against David West and LaMarcus Aldridge. Kanter can defend someone if he just has to keep them from shooting mid-range and getting to the basket. But the Warriors will destroy Kanter in mismatches. I shudder to think of what Harrison Barnes could do matched up against Kanter at power forward. In order to succeed, the Thunder will need to stay lean. That means more minutes for KD at power forward, most likely.

Offensively, the Thunder will be more free to focus things inside. Andrew Bogut is more than a capable paint protector, and Festus Ezeli will get backup minutes as well. But the lineup that made the Warriors famous is the one with Draymond Green at center. The amount of versatility on the Warriors is insane, and I'd like to see the Thunder match up with no center at some point.

Of course, my whole plan seems to squeeze out Enes Kanter, who has been a valuable source of offense for OKC in the past. But Kanter, for all of his defensive successes in the playoffs so far, simply isn't versatile enough to be effective against the Warriors' wings. I'd estimate only 10-15 minutes a game for Kanter.

The regular season games, and what they mean for the playoffs

Feb 6 (L 108-116)

I'm not going to lambaste KD and Westbrook from their performances. By all stretches of the imagination, the duo did their utmost to push the Warriors to the brink. And if a few balls had bounced KD and Westbrook's way, they might have succeeded. But the Thunder must try to get better shots in these situations. KD is good at the pull up three, but it's still low percentage if his defender is ready for it both times. Also, the zone between mid-range and the basket is probably where Westbrook is at his worst.

Furthermore, I've got to call out the team for not going to Kanter on any of these three possessions. Going into this sequence, Kanter had 10 fourth quarter points. Kanter's most recent basket was a miraculous turnaround shot that tied the game for the first time since the first quarter. And to cap it all off, Kanter was being guarded by the 6'7" Draymond Green. If nothing else, Kanter earned the opportunity. But if you don't want to go to Kanter, then you have to have Adams on the floor for defensive purposes.

The good news is that both of these problems are fixable. OKC's lineup defense issues will be easily solved by the impending return of Andre Roberson. And in late games, we know Russ and KD can handle their business. Russ and KD have just got to continue to trust their team, and find easy shots for themselves.

By the way....Waiters and Ibaka had 0 shot attempts in the final 18 minutes of the game. Easy shots for KD and Russ will come if either of those guys is at least slightly involved!

This was the problem with using Kanter in critical situations against the Warriors. Kanter was fine enough when scoring points against the Warriors bench, but was disastrous on defense when getting time in the final seconds. And there's just no way KD and Westbrook are going to give Kanter a lot of touches at the end of the game. So there's no real reason to give Kanter crunch time minutes.

Furthermore, it's going to be on KD and Westbrook to keep integrating everyone else offensively down the stretch. To beat a team like the Warriors, your offense needs to click on all cylinders.

Feb 27, (L 118-101)

In what was definitively the most heartbreaking Thunder loss of the year, Oklahoma City has lost to the Golden State Warriors, 118-121. The Thunder held the lead through the entire game, save for a short stretch at the end of the third. In fact, OKC's lead was as big as 11 with 4:50 to go in the fourth quarter. But the offensive onslaught of the Warriors couldn't be stopped, as Curry scored 8 points and dished an assist in the final four minutes. That outburst caused overtime.

In overtime, OKC took quick advantage, attacking the paint against the Warriors small lineup. But KD fouled out about a minute in. Singler replaced KD, and had a number of defensive failures. This allowed the Warriors to outscore the Thunder the rest of the way, with everything being capped off by a miracle Curry three at the buzzer.

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The Thunder had 22 turnovers, 15 of which were live ball steals from the Warriors. The Warriors got into transition way too often, and that's what killed the Thunder in the end. Guess who might alleviate a turnover problem....Payne, a real point guard, at point guard perhaps? Even Foye would have helped out in the second half. Singler, though he doesn't create turnovers, creates problems because defenses don't respect him. Every time Singler touches the ball, it's just as a conduit to get it to someone else, or as an absolute last resort.

I know, KD and Westbrook were responsible for 13 turnovers. But when you stagger their minutes, forcing them to play with new lineups, what do you expect?

So, obviously, we should not be giving Kyle Singler minutes in this series. Singler is an acceptable defender when all he needs to do is cover a three point shooter. But if someone is going to take Singler off the dribble, it'll be lights out for our defense.

This game was the beginning of staggering KD and Westbrook's minutes. It was particularly bad at the time, because both KD and Westbrook weren't used to playing without each other for extended stretches. Furthermore, KD was miscast in the point guard role. Nowadays, KD and Westbrook seem to really thrive when on the floor on their own. The Thunder do fine with Waiters and Foye handling a few possessions of PG each, finding KD as he comes off of off-ball screens.

This was the game that I really felt proved the Thunder's legitimacy against the Warriors. If KD wouldn't have lost the ball on the final inbounds, the Thunder would have won this game. And OKC was in a great position down the stretch. So certainly, the goal of beating the Warriors at least looks achievable.

Mar 3, (L 121-106)

The Oklahoma City Thunder were competitive through most of the game, but faded late and lost to the Golden State Warriors, 121-106. It was the Thunder's sixth game in nine nights, as well as the second night of a back-to-back. OKC's fatigue showed as the Warriors were able to blitz them for a 39 point fourth quarter. Steph Curry led an effective Warriors attack, scoring 11 fourth quarter points as well as 33 on the game.

Klay Thompson also had an effective night for the Warriors, scoring 21 points on 52% from the field. But Andre Roberson was actually an effective defender against Thompson in most situations. Klay scored over half of his points in transition, and most of his half-court points came in mismatches. I'm not trying to diminish Klay's accomplishments. Instead, I'm trying to clear Roberson's name.

But the real heroes of the night are Golden State's secondary offensive options. The Warriors had 33 team assists, four above their league-leading average of 29. Harrison Barnes had 14 points on over 50% shooting, with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Draymond Green had 14 points on 60% shooting, with 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Shaun Livingston had 11 points with 8 assists and 3 steals. Marreese Speights had 10 points on 80% shooting.

This was probably the most discouraging loss to the Warriors of the year. OKC had all of their players healthy, and seemed to play competitively. But the Thunder didn't have the resolve to make it competitive in the final minutes.

The key to keeping Klay from having an effective night is keeping Dre as his defender. Also, the Thunder need to do all they can to limit turnovers and transition opportunities for the Warriors. After all, the Warriors are by far the league's best transition team.

Also, the Warriors role players will step up in terms of scoring. This game wasn't about the Warriors destroying the Thunder in mismatches so much as the Warriors always finding the open man around the trap. The Thunder need to take care to play conservatively around screens, and protect the paint. Because the Warriors finished with 32% from three in this game, but a ridiculous 67% from two.

Mar 3 (Cont.)

If the Thunder had a bit more size in all of these situations, the Warriors might not have scored as much as they did. I will admit that the Thunder played good three point defense all night, forcing the Warriors to shoot just 32% from distance. But that's just a tad under Golden State's average of 41% from three. So the good three point defense really didn't make too much of a difference. Besides, the Warriors shot a ridiculously good 67% from two, and committed only 8 turnovers. By all measures, the Warrior offense was clicking, and the small lineup didn't do OKC any favors.

Nevertheless, it's hard to argue that OKC's centers were effective themselves. Steven Adams certainly helped protect the rim, but would struggle in mismatches. Offensively, Adams only had 3 points in 24 minutes of action. The Warriors loaded up the paint on the Adams-Westbrook pick and roll, disrespecting OKC's shooters. But Adams was almost always on the floor with Roberson, who kills floor spacing. So Adams didn't get much of an opportunity to score.

....

Really, OKC's offense didn't know what it was doing. Russell Westbrook's effectiveness was largely neutralized without Adams on the floor. Durant couldn't get the ball in ideal position. Ibaka couldn't get the separation he needed, because the Warriors kept pressuring the pick and roll. And Foye and Roberson weren't offensive factors all night long. Honestly, I blame a lack of familiarity with this lineup specifically. We haven't seen it too much before, as Waiters and Adams are usually the ones selected for late game situations.

So a KD-Singler-Roberson-Foye-Westbrook Lineup isn't a good idea. Anyone could have told you that. The Thunder simply don't have the personnel to go small with KD at center. And I really don't want to see it during the playoffs. OKC needs to use their bigs to their advantage. Adams needs to focus on protecting the rim, while Kanter needs to get consistent minutes with Westbrook.

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Players who could swing the balance of power

1. Steven Adams. Adams is going to be playing very critical roles on the offensive and defensive end. Offensively, it will be up to Adams to be enough of a roll threat to create space for Westbrook. If Westbrook has no space, his offense is less effective. Adams was a consistent double-digit scorer in the Spurs semi-final series, but was less successful against the Warriors in the regular season. Defensively, Adams will have to focus on protecting the basket. The Warriors are going to hit their threes, but they can certainly be stopped in the paint. Also, Adams will have to take care to not get caught in mismatches with guards. Stick to your man, or protect the basket.

2. Russell Westbrook. Westbrook makes our offense go, and his level of efficiency can fluctuate wildly. What's most important is Westbrook's effectiveness from mid-range, because it does so much for his inside game. The defense will never respect Westbrook's three, and Westbrook isn't ever going to hit threes at a great clip consistently. But when Westbrook gets the defense to commit to guarding his mid-range jumper, that's when things really start happening. Furthermore, Westbrook's role on the defensive end will be ultra-important. Whomever Westbrook's man may be, it will be up to Westbrook to stay locked in and focused for the entire game. Furthermore, Westbrook shouldn't torpedo himself on offensive plays and allow transition opportunities for the Warriors. Because they will always find the open man.

3. Serge Ibaka. The Thunder are going to need to rely upon Ibaka regularly to space the floor. If Ibaka can score and keep his defender honest, it opens up so much for the Thunder in the paint. Don't let Ibaka fade out! Furthermore, Ibaka's defensive versatility will be key when the Warriors go small at the four. Ibaka can guard most wings out to the three point line, and will need to prove his skills in this series. Hand in the face all day!

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Final Thoughts

A lot of things have to fall into place for the Thunder to win this series. OKC needs to get regular involvement from their role players, as well as offensive and defensive production from their biggest stars. Furthermore, the Thunder will have to figure out ways to keep their centers effective in the face of the Warriors' revolutionary lineups.

I don't think either team has an emotional edge at this point. The Warriors are historically good, and bonded a lot with Curry off the floor. The Thunder have been through a lot of personal tragedy and outside doubt.

But I do think that the Thunder have a great deal of post offense in Kanter and Adams. The Warriors don't have near the same kind of production with Bogut and Ezeli. It will be up to the Thunder to exploit their advantage in this area. The Warriors will try to counter with their superior shooting and ball movement. But I still firmly believe that bigs win championships in this league, and that the Thunder have enough talent to equal Curry's magic.

Prediction: Thunder in 7.

What do you think of this series? Drop a comment and let us know!