Five numbers to set the stage as the Thunder prepare to take on the Warriors tonight, in what Oklahoma City hopes is a preview of this year’s Western Conference Finals:
That’s the number of times Terrance Ferguson has shot the ball since becoming a starter. Seriously, he’s shot the ball four times in 5 games. He’s 0-4 on those attempts, plus he’s gotten to the foul line once, where he did at least manage to hit his free throws. He’s thrown only one assist in those 5 games. The Thunder might have the most experience in the league at playing 4-on-5 given how limited Roberson’s offensive game was, but Robes still averaged 4 field goal attempts per game. If Ferguson is going to start, the Thunder need to do something to get him involved on offense. If he’s too much of a liability to get more touches, he shouldn’t be starting.
The Thunder had 15 steals against the Warriors in the first meeting this season, and came away with a total of 33 fastbreak points. Suffocating defense is the only way to have a chance against Golden State. For all of OKC’s talent, they can’t win a shootout against that team. Turnovers end the Warriors’ offensive possessions (GS is second-worst in the west, committing 15.4 TOs per game) without a shot and ideally lead to easy transition opportunities.
However, OKC needs to be careful; when these two teams last faced off, they still had Andre Roberson. Having such a smart and athletic help defender allowed Paul George and Russell Westbrook to gamble more on steals; without Roberson, that becomes a far riskier proposition. Every time you gamble for a steal, there’s a chance for a highlight transition play, but there’s an equal chance you give up an easy look, and the Warriors will make you pay for those mistakes more than any other team in the league.
Without Roberson to clean up on failed gambles, George in particular may need to be more conservative on defense. The Thunder have the talent to be a great defense even without Roberson, but how they achieve that great defense might need to change- more good contests and forcing the Warriors to use the whole shot clock, rather than forcing turnovers (Not that the Thunder won’t be able to generate any turnovers- Golden State, for all their success, still fails to take care of the ball at times. The rest of their game is just so good that it usually doesn’t matter).
The Thunder’s defensive rating since Andre Roberson went down is 109.5, meaning they give up about 109 points every 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Their rating on the season as a whole is 104.5. That’s the difference between being 4th in the league and 24th; the difference between being elite and being in the bottom of the league. To make a run this year, and to have any chance of knocking off the Warriors tonight or in May, The Thunder need to recover that elite defense. That’s hard without Roberson; when Roberson played with the other starters this year, the Thunder had a defensive rating of 96.2; with Abrines or Ferguson in his place they’ve posted defensive ratings of 108.2 and 120.5, a truly atrocious mark.
The Thunder rebound a ridiculous 30% of their own missed shots, making them the best offensive rebounding team in the league. Meanwhile, defensive rebounding is one of the only things the Warriors aren’t elite at; they rank 27th in the league in allowing offensive rebounds. OKC’s offense, even with the firepower of Westbrook, George, and Anthony, will never outscore the Warriors if both teams have the same amount of possessions — dominating the offensive glass, along with forcing turnovers, is how the Thunder can overcome that disadvantage.
Russ is the heart of the team and Paul George is the best two way player, but Steven Adams may just be the most important player in this game and a hypothetical series against Golden State. If Adams can dominate the glass and bludgeon Golden State’s big men, that’s a huge edge for the Thunder. But if Golden States goes small, Adams will struggle on defense against their speed and shot making, just like almost every other big man in the league. If he isn’t able to make up for that by owning the glass, the Warriors will have made the Thunder’s third best player a negative.
9 is the number Jerami Grant wears. Since Roberson’s injury, Grant has played the 5th most minutes on the team (behind Westbrook, George, Carmelo Anthony and Adams obviously), and been quietly efficient, shooting 60% over those 5 games. His plus minus is -4 during that time, which is actually the third best mark on the team over this miserable stretch. The only two players with a positive plus minus during that stretch are Alex Abrines and Patrick Patterson. Grant is the most versatile defender of those 3, the only one with a prayer of defending Kevin Durant. While I’d still like to see Billy Donovan try out the ultra-big lineup of Patterson plus the four starters, Grant’s defensive skills probably make him the best choice to play alongside the Fab four in crunch time if this game comes down to the wire. How well #9 plays could be one of the keys to the rest of the season and the playoffs.
The Thunder come into this on a 4 game losing streak, but with dreams of facing this same Warriors team still on their mind. Westbrook said after the teams’ last loss that he loves adversity, because “it gives you an opportunity to bring your teammates together, bring everybody together.” Tonight we find out if the Thunder has had enough adversity to come together, or if more difficulty lies ahead.