In Durant and Westbrook vs. Curry and Thompson and Green, there is potential for an all-time great series.
DON’T GET ME WRONG.
A showdown between the 73 win Golden State Warriors and the 67 win San Antonio Spurs would have been something special; two teams with a combined 140 regular season wins locked into a tactical chess match. The brash and unapologetic conquerers vs. the old guys who weren’t ready to hand over the throne.
The inevitable clash was all anyone wanted to talk about this season. But the Spurs, ushered out by the ‘F You’ look in the eyes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, did not keep their promise.
So in come the Thunder, rolling into Oakland with dangerous amounts of belief and swagger.
In perhaps the most star-heavy NBA playoff series since the 1980s, this Western Conference Finals will be all about five names. Durant, Westbrook, Curry, Thompson, Green.
The task for Curry and Durant will be simple: score. In the three regular season games between these two teams (The Warriors won all three), Durant scored 36.3 points per game. Curry scored 35 per game, including three of the most iconic points in a long time:
If those two players—the last two MVPs of the league—can more or less cancel each other out on the offensive end, that will be a win for OKC.
For Westbrook, the springy and unpredictable second half of OKC’s duo, the task must be to go at Steph Curry relentlessly. Drive at him. Post him up. Foul him hard when he drives to the basket. Get in his face. Hit him with an ‘inadvertent’ elbow. With Klay Thompson likely to draw the assignment of Kevin Durant (He guarded James Harden in the first round, and Damian Lillard in the second round), Curry will likely be matched up with Westbrook for most of the series. If Steve Kerr tries to pull a switch for Curry on defense, Billy Donovan needs to find a way to get him back on Westbrook.
As much of a tough and sometimes impossible cover Curry is, he will never physically break his defender down. He will do all sorts of dancing, he will hit marvelous 30-foot daggers, he will psychologically disintegrate a defender’s confidence, but he will never physically break a defender down.
That is the one advantage Westbrook has over Curry. He is a pit bull who can turn Curry’s feathery ankles into a real problem. In a nutshell, here is what OKC must do a whole lot of against Curry:
If they don’t find a way to smother Curry on the perimeter and force him to wander into the paint, he will prance around the three-point line and light the Thunder up game after game. During the regular season, Curry took about 11 three-pointers per game, and hit 45.4% of them. In the three games against the Thunder, he took 40 three-pointers and hit exactly 45% of them. It’s scary how consistent he is.
The obvious X-factor in this series is Draymond Green. The versatile point forward is a problematic matchup for every team he plays, and while Westbrook, Durant, Thompson and Curry will beating up on each other on both sides of the floor, Green will be given the opportunity to freelance.
When he is at his best (He is rarely not at his best), Green is a lightning rod who uses brute strength and an unusual type of finesse to intimidate on defense and innovate on offense. He takes pride in his defense, and often masks Curry’s turnstile stance by plugging holes like the Lakers’ big men did for Magic Johnson in the 1980s.
Look at this isolation defense on one of the best isolation players in the league:
Now look at him get low and defend the post on one of the most skilled and traditional big men in the league:
He is a true swiss army knife who routinely gives up two or three inches to the players he guards on a nightly basis.
On offense, he runs plays from outside the paint which lure shot blocking big men like Serge Ibaka away from the basket. With a defense’s rim protection out of position, it makes those highlight floater-type layups by Curry a lot easier. Just by standing on the floor, Green makes life so easier for the Warriors and their free-flowing style of offense. When he is slicing up defenses and finding intricate passing lanes, he makes his team nearly unstoppable. In the playoffs so far, he leads his team (and the league) in touches per game (96.3), passes made per game (75.6), and assists per game (7).
If OKC’s big men (Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams) cannot find a way to contain the wild mass of energy that is Draymond Green, they will not win this series. If Ibaka can pull through and become that shot-blocking, jumpshot-hitting complimentary third piece, a competitive series seems more likely. The continued emergence of Adams, who averaged a double-double and shot 70% against the Spurs, will also be crucial. But while OKC is hoping for reinforcement from a shaky and inconsistent supporting cast, the Warriors know what they have: a deep bench of veteran players who all score, pass, and understand the philosophy of the team.
In game one or game two, Durant or Westbrook, or both of them, will steal the show and steal a game from the Warriors, and it will be marvelous. Maybe they will defend home court in game three. Maybe they will even win two at home and force a decisive game seven.
But in this season, full of broken records and wins for the Warriors, this once in a generation combination of talent and cohesion will flex its muscles too hard for a two man team in OKC to handle.
Prediction: GSW in six games.