And then, there were four.
After months of seeding and then weeks of playoffs, the NBA field has been whittled down to just four teams and really, there aren’t any surprises.
In the East, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have cruised their way back to the Conference Finals, playing the best basketball of their season on route to back-to-back sweeps against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. For the first time all year, LeBron and Company seem like genuine threats to win a title.
In order to do that though, they’ll have to sneak past the suddenly resurgent Toronto Raptors. After a tough seven game series against the Indiana Pacers that saw stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen struggle mightily, Toronto once again had to fight through a seven game series, this time against the Miami Heat. While the basketball was far from pretty, the Raptors once again won a decisive game seven, this time with Lowry and DeRozan playing key roles. Cleveland may be the favorite in the series, but the Six will be well-represented and might be able to win some games.
In the West, meanwhile, things have also stuck to the script for the most part.
The heavy title favorites and defending champs Golden State Warrios won an NBA record 73-wins this season and have made it look easy in the playoffs thus far, beating both the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in five game series despite losing Steph Curry to a sprained knee for a few games. Steph returned and has lit it up in his two games back, and the Warriors seem primed to get back to the Finals.
Standing in their way is the Oklahoma City Thunder. After facing questions all season about head coach Billy Donavon schemes and star Kevin Durant’s future with the team, the Thunder have done nothing but impress in these playoffs. They clearly outclassed the Dallas Mavericks in the first round before toppling the second-seeded Spurs in fairly dominant fashion in the Conference Semi-Finals. Now, Russell Westbrook and KD will get another chance at making it back to the Finals and perhaps another showdown with LeBron James.
With the Western Conference Finals tipping off tonight in the Bay Area, Basketball Society will get you ready for the series by looking at three keys for both teams. And for all you East coasters, we’ll be back tomorrow to get you set for the Eastern Conference Finals as well.
Now, let’s do this thing.
Three Things for OKC
1- Keep Russ Under Control
Russell Westbrook is the closest thing to a run-away train the NBA has today.
On one hand, hey look at that train move very fast, that’s pretty cool! On the other hand, that train is moving really fast, oh boy.
There’s little denying that Russ is amongst the most athletic players to ever step foot on a basketball court. Through sheer speed and strength, he’s overpowered defenders for years now, despite not having a dependable jump shot or spectacular handle.
Just look above. Yeah, that’s a nice euro step, but Russ’ strength to go through first Mario Chalmers, then Marc Gasol, as well as his speed to carve through both of them, is insane and something we see on a nightly basis from him. It’s a motor that’s never turned off and for the most part, that’s a great thing for OKC, as it’s a motor few if any opposing teams can match.
The problem is, sometimes that motor can get a little wild.
Westbrook loves to take shots, and his absurd athleticism pretty much gives him the green light to attack whenever he wants. While he’s managed to reel it in as he’s matured in the league, Russ can still find himself playing out of control, which in turn leads to turnovers. And by turnovers, I mean lots and lots of turnovers. His 342 this year ranked second behind only James Harden, setting a personal career high in the process.
That increase in turnovers can likely be blamed on Westbrook’s increased role in the Thunder offense alongside Kevin Durant, but it doesn’t mean the Warriors won’t try to exploit the weakness.
In just three games against Golden State this season, Russ found himself once again playing out of control. He shot under 40 percent in each performance, as well as turning it over 13 times. Each time, the Warriors fast paced, borderline-out-of-control style would naturally bring out the full blown overdrive in Westbrook, as Russ essentially lost himself in the flow of the game.
Keeping Russ under control has been a constant goal for the Thunder since they drafted him, but it will be particularly important in this series. Golden State’s ability to score will likely exhaust the OKC defense, so they’ll need a more in-control Westbrook if they want to pull any type of upset.
2- Contain Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson may be the less-prolific Splash Brother, but he’s equally important to what the Warriors want to do, both offensively and defensively.
Thompson’s off-ball movement is amongst the best in the league, and in an offense that values catch-and-shoot 3’s too the maximum, that ability is everything. Already, we’ve seen him scorch OKC in all three of the games these two have played, shooting over 52 percent each time, including a notable 32-point performance on February 27.
Andre Robertson will likely be given the task of chasing Klay around throughout the series, a brutally exhausting job. Not much is asked of Robertson on the offensive end, so the good news is that he can devote a majority of his energy towards fighting through hard screens from Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, and Andrew Bogut.
Thompson is going to find a way to get his in this series on the offensive end, that’s just a given when you have as sweet a shooting stroke as he does. But if Robertson can get two or three really excellent defensive performance and force Klay to have a couple ugly nights, it would take away a massive weapon for the absolutely loaded Warriors.
On the other end, Klay will likely be asked to guard the always explosive Russell Westbrook. Thompson is as good a perimeter defender in the league and has done a nice job on Russ during the regular season, so Billy Donavon will likely try to find ways to get Klay guarding the offensively-inept Robertson in order to get the freakish Westbrook attacking Steph Curry or, even more preferable, Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala.
All three of those names are good, maybe even great defenders. Still, they each lack the natural footwork required to keep up with someone who has absurd lateral speed the way Russ does. That’s an ability that only Klay has and if they can get him standing in a corner checking Robertson, it’ll neutralize one of the best defenders in the game.
3- Let the Steven Adams Train Keep On Chuggin
It’s a shame Steven Adams looks like a hipster barista, or he would totally be the Thunder’s third best player.
The 7-foot Adams has finally grown into the basketball player many felt he could be after leaving Pitt (Eat Shit). His personal statistics might not be anything absurd, but it’s Adams’ impact on OKC that has launched him into becoming a vital piece of the team, particularly in these playoffs.
In the series against San Antonio and Dallas, OKC has scored 3.4 more points per 100 possessions with Adams on the court than with him off, as well as boasting improved rebounding percentages with the big man on the court. Equally huge? Opponents are scoring a full 2 points less with Adams on the court.
Just look above. While the play is from last season, the theme has continued into this year and these playoffs. Adams tips the ball three or four times before finally putting the ball in.
It isn’t glamorous and won’t get him on SportsCenter, but every team needs someone willing to do the dirty work. The Cavs have Delly, the Warriors have Draymond, and now the Thunder have Adams.
Three Things For Golden State
1- Make Sure Steph Does Steph Things
Golden State blew by the Rockets and Trail Blazers with almost no problem, despite missing their two-time reigning MVP for a bunch of games each time. With the Thunder on the horizon, they’ll need Steph healthy and doing Steph things to move onto the NBA Finals.
Luckily for them, Curry seems to be an OKC killer. After all, who can forget his pull-up game winner from half court? That shot was just one of many for Steph in his 46 point explosion against the Thunder back in February, a performance that included a 12-for-16 shooting mark from deep.
Still though, OKC found a way to slow down Curry in at least one of their games against Golden State, holding Steph to “just” 26 points on 10-for-26 shooting. The job can be done and with someone as athletic as Russell Westbrook matching up against Steph, it’ll be a fun time seeing what Curry can do here.
With his knee fully healed and Steph looking refreshed, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything less than great. Still though, this is basketball and sometimes guys shots, especially guys who put up the amount of insane shots that Steph does, abandon them. The Thunder are drastically better than Houston and Portland, and Golden State will need a fully locked in Curry if they want to get by them.
2- How Do You Limit Kevin Durant?
Kevin Durant is a lot like Steph Curry in that there is no real way to stop him, you can only hope to contain him. The problem for the Warriors is that there’s no clear answer on how to do that.
For someone that may or may not be 7-feet tall (honestly, nobody knows with KD), the Warriors don’t have a real answer for what Durant brings to the table. Despite having two elite defenders, Golden State lacks the type of player to successfully guard someone like KD.
Put Klay Thompson on him and you can take away his ability to drive, but Durant’s height will just allow him to shoot over the much shorter Klay.
Put Draymond on him and you have a better size matchup, but Green likely would struggle to keep up with the speedier Durant, plus leading to a mis-match of Harrison Barnes guarding Serge Ibaka.
The solution might be to simply double him. While having Green or Barnes act as the primary defender, Golden State can employ a similar tactic to what Greg Popovic and the Spurs did against KD by having someone like Steph sag off of Andre Robertson for easy and quick help defense when needed.
3- Trust On the Bench
On paper, OKC and Golden State matchup fairly evenly in terms of star power.
The Warriors have their big three of Steph, Klay, and Draymond. The Thunder have their two superstars in KD and Russ. You know what those five names are going to bring to the table and to some extent, their greatness almost cancels each other out. They’re all going to drop big numbers and be big stars and do their thing. Really, where this series will be won is everywhere else.
And that is where the Warriors have a distinct advantage — the bench. It’s deep, it’s excellent, and it’s about to send them to the NBA Finals again.
That is, if they can trust it.
In a series covered with star power, it’ll be easy for Steve Kerr to overplay his starters and get into a shootout with OKC. The play here though, is to insure his key players are ready to go and well-rested for the stretch run of games, an area where the Thunder have routinely struggled in all season long.
Led by Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, and Festus Ezeli, the Golden State bench has shown that they can carry the load for awhile, giving guys like Steph and Draymond time to sit and rest. Considering they’ll be matched up against the likes of Enes Kanter, DJ Augustin, and the always incredible Dion Waiters, the Warriors bench should be able to find plenty of holes to exploit when their names get called.