Never have we seen a defending champion elicit such potent tremors through enemy camps. The Cavs fired its coach, Blake Griffin punched an equipment manager, Doc Rivers the GM tossed freebies to a conference rival, and a historically great Spurs team might not be historical enough. At this point teams might be better off just grabbing a pint and waiting for this tsunami in The Bay to all blow over, as if it’s the freaking Winchester Plan.
Not even Jordan’s Bulls whipped up this sort of insecurity.
Of course, there is another team out West that once piqued similar distress signals across the Association; the Oklahoma City Thunder. In many ways, the Warriors are who we thought OKC would be three years ago: an ultra-aggressive, smart, athletic team capable of flipping big-to-small, abusing mismatches, and ultimately reimagining conventional NBA line-ups.
You generally need a top-five player to chase a ring, and the Thunder boast two. On the surface, the Warriors are a model that can’t be copied. But why can’t OKC be the team to deconstruct the model and add its own layers to it? It sounds insane to talk about a team that lost to Brooklyn in the same breath as the Dubs. It sounds even more looney when you consider there are probably three teams ahead of them in the NBA’s pecking order.
Even still, Durant is switch-proof and Russell Westbrook is capable of snapping the back of any rival point guard. Simply, these two dudes alone win you a bunch of ball games, and when Billy Donavan meets the stunning realisation that his team might just be better having one of its killers on the floor at all times, then this group can be damn right frightening.
Repeated post-season fizzles have magnified the Thunder’s flaws, and this perhaps feeds into the scepticism. Or maybe it’s just that they happen to share a conference with two freaking historic teams (although San Antonio has dropped off the pace recently). Any other season and they would be the prohibitive championship favourite.
Westbrook and Durant will rip through wins on their own individual brilliance. But is their duel combativeness enough to pin the final nail on the Spurs’ coffin and jack some daggers in the Warriors’ invincibility?
There has always seemed to be something in the way of the Thunder’s ring hunt. I mean, take your pick from Scott Brooks’ coaching, Fourth Quarter Derek Fisher/Kendrick Perkins, the James Harden Trade, untimely injuries, a shallow bench, clumsy late game execution or a tight-ass ownership group, as reasons for an empty trophy cabinet. And let’s be honest, the Thunder’s coaching situation hasn’t exactly improved in a tangible sense. Indeed, they’ve adopted a more conservative defensive approach, but its offense is as unimaginative as ever.
Yet, Oklahoma don’t need to whip the ball around the perimeter as much as the Spurs, or hell, even the Warriors, to establish a winning formula. Guarding Durant and Westbrook is exhausting. Listening to Durant’s soliloquies has been occasionally frustrating this season, but he actually has a point here:
“When you got a guy that can get into the paint, that’s what San Antonio wants to do, but they’ve got guys, multiple guys that’ll pass, pass, dribble, get to the paint. But we’ve got guys, Russell, myself, Dion, Cameron Payne, we can get into the paint, kick out or dump down for a layup,” Durant said last week.
“That’s ultimately what you want, get the defense off balance, drive, kick, make the right play. Simple basketball, but we just don’t make five or six passes before we do it sometimes. And that’s not a knock against us I don’t think. We’ve got dynamic guys that can pay and do different things on the floor, I think that’s to your advantage.”
The Thunder’s offense is already devastating and its defense has quietly ascended into the top 10 bracket over January. The problems arise down the stretch of games, where Durant and Westbrook still do all the heavy lifting. This is by design, of course. Only this time they have teammates that are ready to absorb possessions in the event they decide to offload the ball.
Versatility is a prerequisite to gutting your way through the Western Conference. In Curry’s NBA, you need as many gangly-armed perimeter freaks who can defend multiple positions and shoot threes. This is where things get dicey for the Thunder. Sure, Durant is one uber-freak, but who are the others? There is hope that Andre Roberson – once he returns from injury – can stand firm in the playoff waters. He’s part of OKC’s most dominant and used lineup.
Golden State doesn’t just sniff defensive weak links, they brutalize them. Enes Kanter has tried on defense this season - and yes, that is a good thing! - but he’s still mostly slow-witted in pick-and-roll coverage, sporting a near-vile 106.2 defensive rating. The Dubs will likely run him off the court as they have successfully done to others elsewhere (Here’s looking at you, Kevin Love).
Even still, Kanter deserves a lot of credit for fitting so snugly in the Thunder’s offense. He can be a tricky player to fit in a modern day NBA rotation: a power forward who isn’t nimble enough to track pick-and-rolls, shoot threes or defend the rim. Yet he provides a genuine punch to OKC’s second unit offense, and is an excellent rebounder. Sure, the big fella was a leaking tap last season, but his limitations have now been slightly overblown in the context of this Thunder team. His front-court buddies, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, are fast, alert, and capable of cleaning up some of his mess on defense.
No, Kanter is not the key to the Thunder’s championship run, but he might be able to force Golden State into more traditional lineups. He might not. The point here is that they now boast the sort of flexibility that the Durant-Westbrook era has previously lacked. They have more weapons and they own that same belligerent athleticism which has always given San Antonio almighty fits.
Windows in the NBA can slam shut in a flicker. Just ask Blake Griffin’s fist. The Thunder have endured an unfair rash of injuries since 2013, and they cannot afford another lost season, especially with Durant’s free agency on the horizon. OKC still have its weak spots on either end of the floor. Regardless, you can’t solve a healthy Durant and Westbrook with any funky scheming or individual defense. They’re the only duo that can potentially muzzle the Curry and Draymond Green combination. If OKC can dictate the pace and inflict a more traditional identity upon the GSW matchup, then KD and Russ could be the deadlier shark.
People are sleeping on the Thunder. They might not strike perfection like Golden State, but they’re perfectly positioned to ask the toughest questions of the NBA’s elite in May.