1. Let's talk about that second round series for a second. What was your main takeaway from how the Thunder played?
Brandon Jefferson (@DOTcom_2): The reliability of Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter. Both players have been a cause of concern for OKC during stretches of their time with the Thunder. Their acquisitions actually made people question the genius of the one and only Sam Presti (insert gasp). Much like the Thunder as a whole, these two key reserves have been inconsistent during the regular season. However, after two series--in the postseason debuts for both--they have combined to fortify the shortened rotation of Billy Donovan. If these two can continue their solid play then the Thunder become an even more dangerous team. Donovan used Waiters and Kanter along with Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to form their own Death Lineup to close out San Antonio. While their offensive contributions will be counted on its going to come down to their play defensively. Waiters was phenomenal in stretches against Kawhi Leonard and Kanter has gone from unplayable to an average defender. Finding the right matchup for Kanter will be crucial as the Golden State Warriors will surely single him out more than the Spurs did in their offensive attack.
R.K. Anthony: Growth. What I felt we saw was this team truly embrace what Billy Donovan and his staff have been stressing this entire season; a total commitment to playing team basketball. The Spurs represented the perfect storm when they embarrassed the Thunder in game one and through the next 4 games the Thunder survived wind and wave and then it all came together in game 6 when the Thunder flipped the script. The Thunder became the Spurs and unleashed the type of basketball that Donovan envisioned on that press podium the day he was introduced as the new Thunder coach. Trusting a player that had not converted a single 3 point shot throughout the playoffs to break the Spurs resolve was just one example, but it was a thing of beauty to behold.
J.A. Sherman: This Spurs series demonstrated how valuable a coach is when he finds a winning hand and stays with it. From game to game, every team is/should be hunting for an advantage that gives them a leg up and forces the other coach to adjust. So many people favored the Spurs in the series because they had at least 3: Kawhi Leonard turned into a top-5 player and arguably the best 2-way player since LeBron in 2013, the Spurs defense was historically great, and Gregg Popovich was/is seen as the best coach in the NBA. With all three of those working together, how could the inconsistent Thunder possibly contend? Here is how it happened:
Leonard started hot and was playing better than Durant, but over the course of the series, KD got better and better while Leonard had to cope with the combination of Andre Roberson doing his best Leonard impersonation while KD finished things up defensively in the 4th, leading to a worn-down Kawhi by game 6, where he was driving and chucking like the bad version of Westbrook.
The Spurs defense was fantastic all year long, and for the most part, were very good in this series. Never forget that the 4 middle games were all decided by a couple possessions, and their ability to keep OKC's offense off balance was a big reason why. But a strange thing happened; the Spurs ceded ‘best defense' honors to the Thunder around game 4, leading to OKC winning the final 3 games. In the end, it was the Spurs, not the Thunder, who were running ISO-heavy offense, looking for any good shot available, and giving up fast break points after bad misses.
Coach Pop had the winning hand as long as his players defended and OKC didn't. That idea flipped on its head, and when it did, we saw Donovan apply a choke hold with the one thing he had that the Spurs did not - great big man play from Adams, Kanter, and Ibaka. Once Donovan realized that the Spurs had no counter for the Adams/Kanter duo in 4th quarters, he stayed with it and never let up, which led to OKC's staggering advantage on the offensive glass and 2nd chance points without giving up too much in transition the other way. Pop never countered this by moving to get Kanter off the floor, and how could he? His only move was to go small and move Kawhi to the 4 so OKC would have to choose between Adams & Ibaka in a small ball line-up, but by doing that, he would be losing his best defender on either Durant/Westbrook, and we saw what happened in the 3rd quarter of game 6 - the Spurs had one of their best offensive quarters but actually lost ground because their defensive might had been willfully marginalized. Pop is a great coach, but Donovan found the upper hand in this series, and he never stopped playing it until OKC had walked away with victory.
Rustybrooks: The Thunder played as a team inspired to use their hustle in a way that affects wins. Offensive rebounding is proving key again and they go to that strength consciously during close games. It's almost as though they spent the regular season getting the 4th quarter demons out of the way to unleash a 3 point shooting Russ dropping daggers against the leagues best defense. They played like they didn't care about home court or the legends in front of them. They played as though their flaws and their youth didn't matter- Kanter guarding LaMarcus is effectively steering into a gigantic skid. They also dared to doubt supposedly "better" players. The second in MVP voting could arguably be better than KD and or WB and yet no one is saying that now. This no ****s given attitude suits them well down the stretch of games, on the road or at home. That's how they played in this series and that's how they should play going forward.
Bobby Chancellor: I believe that, when locked in on both ends, this team showed that they can win against anyone, anywhere. To beat San Antonio on their home court 2 out of 3 times was incredibly impressive to me, and I think that bodes well to having a shot at this series despite not having home court advantage. So, because of that, I'm going to go with something a little bit vague: team synergy. When we see guys working hard for each other, rather than approaching the game from an individual standpoint, this team is incredibly good. When the 4 guys who don't score on a possession work to get that 5th guy a good look, or when you see a big rotate over to help one of the guards recover on defense, the entire unit looks so much better than the individual parts.
Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY): I was wrong! I didn't think the Thunder had what it took to hang with the Spurs or the Warriors; they proved me wrong. Obviously, the Warriors are another step above the Spurs, but there's no taking away what they proved in the last round. Enes Kanter has improved as a defender. Dion Waiters can contribute without hijacking the offense. The Steven Adams rim-roll has catapulted into the pantheon of elite scoring options for the Thunder. Billy Donovan can adjust, at least a bit. These will factor into the series against the Warriors, and while I'm not sure yet exactly how much I trust the Thunder in this series, the threshold for what they can accomplish has been torn ajar. It's a good time.
2. How in the world do the Thunder defend Steph Curry?
Jefferson: In a perfect world the combination of Andre Roberson and Waiters would be able to corral him in similar fashion to how they tag teamed Kawhi Leonard last round. Yet, there are two big flaws with that idea. 1) Steph Curry is a completely different type of player than Leonard. His play on and off the ball make him a threat to score the moment he crosses inbounds from the sidelines. 2) Klay Thompson is on fire. Kevin Durant will most likely be the main defender for Draymond Green that leaves Westbrook/Roberson as the options to guard Curry/Thompson. Roberson has the length and defensive skill to play against either, but his height and length is better suited for Thompson. Whereas with Westbrook on Thompson he could easily raise above Russ on his shots and play out of the post. Curry is the MVP and he is going to get his regardless. The key for the Thunder is to make his shots difficult and keep him from getting in a rhythm. Keeping one Curry three from turning into three or four Curry threes will be a necessity.
Anthony: Physicality. Curry is a finesse player. In the Finals last season, Matthew Dellavedova showed in game 2 how playing Curry tight can throw him out of his rhythm. Unfortunately for the depleted Cavs, Delly ran out of gas and Curry eventually found his stroke. The Thunder aren't depleted and have a Russell Westbrook that never seems to run out of gas. Westbrook's defense has been much maligned the last couple of seasons, criticism he has brought on himself, but he still came into this league as the reigning Pac 10 Defensive Player of the Year and he needs to commit to that mindset this series. Roberson and Waiters will have their hands full with Klay Thompson so it will be up to Russell to take care of business on Curry and I know he can do it IF he puts his mind on containing the MVP.
Sherman: This is going to sound brilliant - let Westbrook guard him. Here is what will happen. In the early stages, Russ will get torched, just like he did in games 1 and 3 vs the Spurs. But then, he'll start to figure it out. He'll see the screens coming, get a better read on Curry's tendencies, and slowly but surely he'll start to chip away at Curry's wonderful game, not in total, but enough to reduce his effectiveness.
But here's the interesting thing - this really isn't the big problem. The problem with the Warriors offense, what makes it so lethal, is what Draymond and Thompson do with the ball. Their middle pick and roll is dynamite, better than the Clippers' because Green is more decisive and a better shooter from three than Blake Griffin. However, we've seen time and time again that when Green struggles, the Warriors offense stalls. Here is my solution - assuming Bogut plays, have Ibaka guard the center position (keeping Serge near the rim where he likes to be) and put Adams on Green. Adams is quick, deft, and strong enough to deal with Green's drives (and he won't put up with Dray's nonsense either, which should be delightful). He may give up the occasional three, but you can't stop everything. But bottom line, cut him off from getting all of those 2 on 1 situations after he catches the roll pass. Wear him down, and by the time the 4th quarter rolls around, slide Durant over to Green and really lock down on those passing angles.
Meanwhile, Klay Thompson? Meet Andre Roberson. For the second series in a row, Robes is part of the key matchup that everyone will need to watch.
Rustybrooks: Guarding Curry means making him play pick and roll defense as much as it means agreeing to stick with one man at a time on curry for the majority of the game. His passing and the skills of KlayDray make the Warriors more frightening as a team than simply Curry as a scorer. But Curry using his passing is devastating for the win column as much as his scoring. Ideally we let him get whatever he can get against Roberson/Waiters/Payne?/Westbrook/Durant and just live with it, knowing full well we doubled less than most would because we wanted to shut down his stellar supporting cast. That's what matters most to me, and although the players may feel that a Steph Curry 40 point night sure spoils the mood maybe it's worth it to see if he can keep that up for an entire series. If not, their grand machine may never get its motor running.
Chancellor: I'm a bit divided here. Part of me thinks that we should put Roberson on Klay Thompson for one important reason: Klay is by far a more important piece of Golden State's defense. With Kawhi, we saw that as he tired from being smothered on offense, his defense got a tiny bit worse. You saw in game 4 (I believe) when Durant went off in the 4th quarter, there was a possession when Kawhi completely lost KD for an open corner 3. That comes from being exhausted, and I think if we wear Klay out, Westbrook can break down their defense better.
My other option here is to have Roberson play ball denial all game. When Curry has the ball in his hands, he's going to make shots even if you play perfect defense. I think the key is to make him use all his energy just getting the ball in his hands. That means when the Thunder put up a shot, Roberson doesn't try rebounding, he goes straight to playing denial on Curry. This works well, because they will likely have Curry guarding Roberson. However, this means Russ has to defend Klay, and we know how slow he is around screens. Klay is great at getting an inch of space off of a screen and burying a shot. So I'm not sure, but I'd like to see them try both of these.
Yeung: This series has to be the one where Donovan decides to go small. I think there will be stretches where Adams and Kanter are viable - and maybe even, as a change of pace option, the two of them can be played together to disrupt the flow of the game - but for the most part, you'll want Durant at the 4 or even the 5. I think there's something to defending Draymond Green with Roberson and switching the Curry-Draymond pick-and-roll between Russ and Roberson. The Warriors have already found ways to circumvent that, by screening for the screener and other similar wrinkles, but you can adjust further upon that. The key against the Warriors is versatility, and against all odds, it's looking more like the Thunder have a fair bit of it.
3. The Thunder role players played a great series against the Spurs. How much are you buying in on Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter against the Warriors?
Jefferson: I am buying into both, however, I don't foresee the Death Lineup (OKC Version) having similar success against the Warriors as they did versus the Spurs. For Waiters it's all start on the defensive end. If he continues to be an above average defender he will see heavy minutes on the court. He must also continue to play within himself. Step back Waiters is a treat all NBA fans deserve to witness once in their lives. But with Steph serving as his likely defender it would be more prudent for Waiters to leave the step backs at home and attack Curry by driving the lane and finishing at the rim or getting to the foul line. With Kanter it's my belief that he and his ‘Stache Bro Steven Adams will not be sharing the court too often. Kanter needs to exploit the minutes when he's matched up against Festus Ezeli/Marreese Speights by being a beast on the boards and getting points in the paint. If he can keep up the stellar play I think we might even see him replace Adams in the Thunder's closing lineup as opposed to Ibaka.
Anthony: Since I have bought into Waiter since day one, it would be disingenuous to jump off the wagon now that he is coming into his own. Since the passing of his little brother Waiters has brought a different mindset to his game and I don't see that changing. As Brandon pointed out, he will get the opportunity to attack Curry and he won't shrink from the opportunity. If we have learned nothing else about Waiters it is that he never lacks in confidence.
I thought Kanter proved his worth against the Warriors in the teams first meeting. I still feel if the Thunder had continued to find Kanter in that fateful fourth quarter they might have won that matchup and Kanter's defense is better today than it was on February 6th. Obviously it is still a work in progress, but I think Enes's defense has improved drastically in the last month and a half and with the team's new commitment to staying with spreading the ball around on offense in the fourth quarter the combination may prove to be the difference in this series. (spare me the crow comments about Kanter, I've been dining on blackbird since the halfway point of the Dallas series and believe it or not, with the right sauce, it's not bad :) )
Sherman: Here is the key for both - just ask them to do what they are capable of doing. For Dion, don't put him in a position where he needs to score 15 a night. Simply let him run the point on occasion, run some PnR, drive the lane for some AND-1s(!), and play good defense. The shots will present themselves, but just have him focus on those things.
For Kanter, he proved far more serviceable vs the Warriors than one might think, and the way Donovan got away with it was by having him guard Andre Iguodala in the corners. To be sure, Iggy is going to beat him one on one from time to time, but for the most part on offense Iguodala is going to be a designated spot-up shooter from the corners. He takes less than 6 shots per game - he isn't the offensive guy who will beat the Thunder. So if OKC can cede the random three from Iggy but be able to keep Kanter on the floor for his PnR and offensive rebounding, OKC can grab an advantage.
Rustybrooks: Kanter I can count on because he will hit threes when you least expect it- a must whenever we are down against the Warriors. If he is not doing that he is consuming boards by the truckload. We may not be able to play him at crucial points but that's where Dion comes in as a vital perimeter Swiss Army knife to ease the load on the stars. Both can be relied on to fill their roles and only that- once too much is asked and Waiters is clunking long twos or Kanter is out of breath keeping up with Draymond then we will have to pull the trigger on substitutions. But I am betting on those two continuing to surprise the world with their talent and contributing heavily in wins.
Chancellor: I think that they can have their uses, but Donovan needs to be very careful not to give up a huge run with them out there. If GSW is starting to get easy looks, he needs to be quick with a timeout and adjustment. We simply can't be giving up quick 10 point swings in this series. I think Waiters will be pretty useful, and I think Kanter can be. I just think you need to put Kanter on someone like Livingston, Iguodala, or maybe even Harrison Barnes. Someone who isn't going to set a lot of screens that force him to pick up Curry or Klay at the 3pt line.
Yeung: I criticized those dudes all the time during the regular season, so I think it's a good time to give them some due credit. I still don't trust Dion with the ball in his hands, but he's making good plays at a higher rate. I like him as a corner three-point shooter, secondary defensive option and bail-out guy off the bounce if you can swing the ball a couple times over to him. He'll play a big role in this series, especially if the Thunder go small. In a bunch of ways, Dion is to the Thunder what Iguodala is to the Warriors, which is crazy, but that's also part of the point.
Kanter, he might have a harder time fitting in this series, but he's improved markedly as a defender. Not enough to keep up with Curry and the ping-ping-ping ball movement of the Warriors, but he's gone from exploitably bad to just bad. That's enough of a difference to keep him on the floor for a little longer, when you might want his presence on the inside or on the boards to disrupt the game and prevent the Warriors from finding a rhythm against smaller lineups.
4. Which member of the Warriors are you saddling up with for the zombie apocalypse?
Jefferson: DRAYMOND GREEN. First off he's a #SpartanDawg (Tom Izzo and Michigan State have my NCAA rooting heart forever--no one say a thing about Middle Tennessee State unless you want to see me cry). Secondly, he brings the passion, fire, grit, confidence, and know how that I believe are all needed to ward off the undead.
Anthony: I'm going to go outside of the box to answer an outside of the box pop culture type question that I am not entirely sure what it means but a zombie apocalypse sounds bad to me. If I am looking to the Warriors for help I want defense and I am grabbing defensive guru Ron Adams off Steve Kerr's staff to prepare my guys to defend against the carnage that lies ahead. I guess.
Sherman: Can I pick Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob? He's a long time venture capitalist who has invested heavily in science, tech, and energy. Not only is he rich, but his specialty is in all sorts of things that may not keep you alive if you're in a ground race vs the horde, but if you can get off the ground into one of his toys such as his (I'm guessing) floating city that hovers over Steve Kerr's home or his supersonic hoverboard, I'm sure that 28 days later I'll be sipping my preferred espresso shots while wearing a silk bathrobe and being served by Lacob's ninja robot butler, Kato.
Rustybrooks: Kerr is probably the best person for this- if a guy can take a punch from Jordan and win five rings then what can't he do? Sure he might have me running dribble handoffs against zombies but who am I to doubt the Coach of the Year?
Chancellor: This is tough. I'm probably going to go with the Australian Andrew Bogut. I figure living in the outback is probably as good of a prep for a zombie apocalypse as anything. I mean, rogue kangaroos, the undead. The kangaroos may be scarier.
Yeung: Anderson Varejao. I just like that dude.
5. So what's your series prediction?
Jefferson: I can say I was happily wrong about my prediction for the Spurs series. The Thunder showed that they have grown from the up and down team we knew them to be during the regular season. Their clicking at just the right time and with Russ and KD on the roster this version of OKC is the most dangerous one since 2013. And that was a long-winded way of covering my tracks. Warriors in 6.
Anthony: In all three losses to the Warriors the Thunder either led at some point in the fourth quarter or were tied and failure to maintain what had procured those leads, or that tie in the first meeting, and falling back into playing iso-ball lead to all 3 losses. I truly feel the Thunder turned a huge corner on that front in the Spurs series and KD and Russell found out that Dion can make shots, Enes makes big shots, Serge reminded them he makes shots, heck, even Roberson can nail the occasional 3. The Thunder superstars will always be the focal point as long as they are together and rightfully so, they are great. But when they trust their teammates and keep them involved and engaged, they are even better. Call it a homer pick if you wish, but I say OKC is going to the Finals, Thunder in 6.
Sherman: Logic, reason, and history says that the best team almost always wins. But what did we just see this past round? Among other things, we saw the underdog actually transform into the favorite by doing things we haven't seen all year long. OKC did not have the defensive focus vs the Warriors in the regular season that they do now. I think OKC might suffer early on, but their ability to adapt over the course of a series is remarkable, where they adopt some of the best attributes of their opponent. It is tough to pick the Thunder against a historically remarkable team with a paradigm-shifting MVP, but there is a pathway to victory. Can the Thunder find it? They've been making history all season and have proven me wrong up to this point.
Lastly, never forget that OKC has Kevin Durant. There is only one player in the league that can guard him straight up, and the Warriors don't have him. The Spurs did. If Durant can find similar offensive focus as he did in the last few games, stay aggressive, and not settle for too many 3's, he may have something special in store for the defending champs and the man who took his MVP award.
Thunder in 6. Why not??
Rustybrooks: Karma will give us a great seven game series in an ideal world where the Thunder emerge victorious while limiting Curry to 0/11 from three in the clinching game. But maybe only one of those things needs to come true for me to be happy. Either way, OKC IN SEVEN IN ROARACLE.
Chancellor: I've debated this in my head over and over again. My head is telling me to go with Golden State in 7. But I'm allowed to be a homer here, and my confidence is at an all-time high, so go to Vegas and put the house on OKC in 6!
Yeung: Good on you guys for having some faith. Warriors in 5.