The current season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. The offseason acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, set sky high expectations for the regular season. After a rocky start it was painfully obvious the OK3 were having a difficult time learning to play together. Fast forward to February, and the Thunder’s team chemistry has improved by leaps and bounds and Paul George is looking more like a suitable Robin, to Russell Westbrook’s Batman. Tuesday night the OKC Thunder easily beat the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, improving their head-to-head record with the Warrior to 2-0. Despite OKC’s success against the defending champs, the Thunder still have to prove whether they are contenders or pretenders in the Western conference.
The Case For:
In the western conference it is nearly a guarantee the road to the finals with go through Oracle arena. Luckily, the Thunder match up extremely well against the Warriors. Paul George has enough length and athleticism to bother Kevin Durant, and force KD into contested shots. Offensively, PG13 is an established bucket getter, who will force Klay Thompson and KD to work on the defensive end of the floor. Paul George could also be used to cover any of the other elite guards/wings the Thunder could see later in the playoffs such as Jimmy Butler or James Harden.
In Tuesday’s matchup, the Thunder were able to secure plenty second chance opportunities, as the Warriors had no answer for Steven Adams attacking the offensive glass. Steven Adam’s offensive rebounds helped the Thunder control the time of possession, and delayed the Warriors ability to establish any type of rhythm on offense. Disrupting offensive rhythm is key to stymieing a team who relies on outside shooting, as much as the Warriors or even the Houston Rockets.
In both of the Thunder’s wins versus the Warriors, Russell Westbrook was hell-bent on getting downhill and putting pressure on the defense. The pressure Westbrook was able to put on the Warrior’s defense opened things up for his teammates in the half-court. Steven Adams was very active as a roll-man, making the Warriors pay for late switches in the pick and roll. Carmelo and Paul George were also able to get plenty of easy catch and shoot 3s, off of Russell Westbrook’s ability to drive and kick. Russell Westbrook attacking the rim and not settling for jumpers usually leads to a big offensive night for the Thunder, which they will definitely need if they stand any chance of representing the western conference in the NBA finals.
Billy Donovan has received a lot of undeserved negative attention since taking over as head coach of the Thunder. He’s led the team to the playoffs in each of his two season, and has made timely adjustments in key situations. In a potential conference finals matchup with the Warriors, I believe Coach Donovan’s rotations will play a massive role in the outcome. For the most part, he has done a good job of staggering the Big 3’s minutes, and making sure at least one of them is out there with the second unit. This would be very beneficial against the Warriors, a team who cut ties with nearly all of their second unit to sign Kevin Durant.
The Case Against:
Paul George seems to have fully accepted his role as OKC’s second option, and is starting to thrive. Carmelo Anthony on the other hand is still somewhat of a wild-card, which could come back to haunt the Thunder in April/May and potentially June. In big regular season moments, Melo has already shown the tendency to try and takeover, even though he is not the Thunder’s best closer. This is very confusing because Melo is more effective on offense taking rhythm 3s and attacking from the mid-post, within the flow of the offense. Hopefully for sake of the Thunder’s playoff aspirations, Melo will be able to temper his ego.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have one of the most solid starting fives in the NBA, however their lack of bench consistency is concerning. Outside of Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson the rest of the Thunder’s reserves have been shaky at best. Jerami Grant has shown flashes but needs to take the next step once the playoffs start. Alex Abrines is OKC’s most reliable three point shooter at 37.5% this season, but he will also need to step up come playoff time. Although the elite teams in the west have rather thin benches, the Thunder cannot afford meaningless minutes from anyone in their rotation, if they hope to compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Oklahoma City’s offense can become very stagnant and rely too heavily on isolation basketball. Against the stingy defenses, the Thunder are sure to face in the playoffs, this strategy could potentially lead to offensive droughts. Playoff basketball is also played at a much slower pace, which will make transition points harder to come by. Billy Donovan will have to draw up some half court sets to get his teams easy buckets, as they get deeper into the playoffs.
All things considered I believe the Oklahoma City Thunder have a better chance of beating the Warriors in the western conference finals than the Houston Rockets. Ultimately the Thunder’s likelihood of a finals appearance will be determined by: health, team chemistry, and bench contributions. Even if the Thunder do not make a deep playoff run, they will definitely be a tough out for whoever they matchup with in the playoffs.