NBA Playoffs: Thunderstruck

9577095_G73-9. 24-0 to start the season. Unanimous MVP. As a Warriors fan, all that stuff is looking pretty hollow right now. The Thunder have taken a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Warriors and the Dubs are left with the harsh reality of having to beat a team that has dominated this match-up three straight games. Fortunately they’re heading home to Oakland where they’ve lost only three times all season but, truthfully, this series looks over.

So what happened? How does a team that went 73-9 get manhandled to this degree? Many will say it’s because the Warriors crumpled, that Steph has been injured, or even that they really aren’t that good. Oh, and my personal favorite: karma. That’s going to be my number one excuse if the Dubs fail this year. Joe Lacob and his goddamn hubris. Moving on… All this is frustrating because it not only diminishes the excellence of Golden State, it also craps on the Thunder – a team that is playing at a historic level in its own right. They’ve already dispatched another historically great team, the 67-win Spurs, and they are primed to do the same on Thursday night in Oakland. It’s common knowledge that the Thunder were expected to out-FT and out-rebound the Warriors. But here are the others things that have allowed the Thunder to level up and become the best team in the NBA:

  • Billy Donovan. He has faced Rick Carlisle, Greg Popovich, and Steve Kerr. That’s a murderer’s row of strong coaching. As the playoffs progressed he has consistently made the right decisions to give his team the best chance to win. Staggering the KD and Russ minutes so that one of them is always on the court. Playing both of them over 40 minutes a game – a huge reason why the Thunder are a scary playoff team. Playing Kanter big minutes against the Spurs and then having the confidence to bench him against the Warriors. Adjusting Andre Roberson’s role off the ball to “un-Tony Allen” him. And the coup-de-grace, unleashing the new Death Line-up of Westbrook-Roberson-Waiters-Durant-Ibaka. He’s been brilliant.
  • Speaking of Andre Roberson, he has stepped up in a big way during this run. It’s not his newfound shooting stroke, it’s his newfound aggression. Playing with KD and Russ affords him space and up until the playoffs, he had not taken advantage. However, he’s playing with a confidence that has allowed him to use the gaps the Warriors are giving him. His rebounding and playmaking have helped unlock a new ceiling for the Thunder.
  • Steven Adams. This man is a robot. He’s been nut-checked twice. Rolled his ankle. His hand is probably fractured in eight different places. Yet somehow a 60% free throw shooter is shooting over 80% for the series and his length and athleticism is killing the Warriors on the glass, on the perimeter, and pretty much everywhere he is. Steph may not be 100% but his ability to keep the MVP in front of him on switches has neutered Golden State’s bailout offensive attack.
  • Beating the Warriors at their own game. I mentioned the new death lineup. Westbrook-Roberson-Waiters-Durant-Ibaka are similar to the GSW’s “death lineup” because they have length, athleticism, and playmaking. The problem that Thunder have always presented to the Warriors is that they have more of the length and athleticism than the Warriors do. The Dubs are used to using their ability to switch with their “small lineup” by leveraging the fact that all the players on the floor have length to deal with height mismatches. The Thunder’s lineup trumps them on that front and this series has been about those 2-3 inches that the Warriors usually have against the 28 other teams in the league, that are getting eaten up by the likes of a 6-11 Kevin Durant, or a 6-7 Andre Roberson. The recovery ability of this Thunder team is outrageous. The Warriors have gotten some “easy” looks that are swatted away because the Thunder are so long and fast.
  • Russell Westbrook. The key to beating the Thunder has always been about letting them beat themselves. And it all starts with Westbrook. After Game 3 in the Spurs series, something clicked. He has reined in his recklessness and has picked his spots to leverage his aggression and athleticism. Gone are the days of jacking up ill-advised threes. His learning to balance playmaking and scoring has allowed the Thunder to finally maintain offensive consistency. The Warriors are the best team at capitalizing off of a lack of discipline and Westbrook has leveled-up his decision making over the course of these two series. This man is a superstar.
  • Finally, and this is going to be overlooked, KD has become a two-way monster. While most will point to Westbrook as the MVP of the Thunder during this series, it is Kevin Durant that is taking the Warriors out of their game plan. And he’s doing it with his defense. Watch him erase lay-ups and close gaps against the number one offense in the league. On offense, his length and speed make him basically an unguardable, 6-11 two-guard. And now, he’s turned into a longer Draymond Green on defense. He sniffs out the action and covers up the openings created by the Warriors movement. KD has turned into the anchor this team needs.

If I’m the rest of the league, I’m terrified. The Warriors are an incredible team and will probably be the West’s number one seed for years to come. The Thunder cannot play at this pace for an 82-game season. Westbrook and Durant should not be playing over 40 minutes a game all year. But when the rotations tighten and it’s playoff time, they have a level that not even the Warriors can hit. What has kept them from hitting this apex historically has been inflexible coaching and poor decision making. With Donovan’s creativity and a locked-in group of players, the Thunder can run teams off the floor with their size, speed, and aggression. Even if Steph was playing at an MVP level (which he clearly is not), it’s hard to imagine them overcoming the gap in athleticism that’s emerged in this series.

The best way to break down that gap is looking at their two defenses. The Warriors defense takes away what you want to do by playing smart and giving up unattractive options to try to take away the other team’s rhythm. The Thunder’s defense takes away and swallows everything by being faster and longer than you are. The Warriors style is sustainable and gives you more margin for error. However, it can be beaten. The Thunder’s style is harder to sustain because of the type of effort it requires and it has often beaten itself with poor decision making and lack of focus. The Thunder have to beat themselves. And unfortunately for the Dubs and the rest of the league, it looks like those days are behind them.