The Thunder recently did what most said they couldn't do – beat the Spurs twice in San Antonio en route to a series win in just six games.
Critics of the Thunder say that there’s not enough ball movement, not enough trust, not enough discipline, too many bad shots, no leadership and that they can’t close out games.
Those same critics have praised San Antonio for those same things since day one of the season, yet look which team advanced.
The Super Stache Bros. & the @okcthunder jumped past the Claw and into the Western Conference Finals. #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/5OUxgfZdrN— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 13, 2016
The Super Stache Bros. & the @okcthunder jumped past the Claw and into the Western Conference Finals. #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/5OUxgfZdrN
Sometimes talent trumps all, especially when that talent is operating at peak performance.
The Thunder will need a peak performance from every man on the roster if they want to clear their next hurdle, the historically great Golden State Warriors.
According to the record books, the 2015-16 Warriors is the greatest team of all time. Golden State won 73 games in the regular season, one more than the ’96 Bulls did with Michael Jordan and Co.
So what will OKC need to do to beat the team with the greatest record ever led by the league's first ever unanimous MVP?
I’m glad you asked. This series may just pivot on the axis that is the Super ‘Stache Brothers.
Who is pumped for #NBAPlayoffs ? pic.twitter.com/2Oo8mRkzaS— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) April 16, 2016
Who is pumped for #NBAPlayoffs ? pic.twitter.com/2Oo8mRkzaS
Just a few seasons ago, the Thunder’s center rotation was Kendrick Perkins and…nobody. While Perk could defend and set screens, his interior finishing skills left plenty to be desired. Fast forward to now and Oklahoma City has arguably the best center combo in the NBA. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams both rebound the position well, operate beautifully in the pick-and-roll and finish consistently around the rim.
Kanter and Adams dominated the Spurs’ aging front line, specifically torching San Antonio in pick-and-roll situations. But San Antonio plays most of the game with a traditional lineup – Golden State does anything but.
Expect Adams and Kanter to get plenty of layups and dunks as the undersized Warriors utilize their small lineup. But if OKC wants to spring this upset, it’s on the backboard where these two need to shine.
Here’s a look at what Adams and Kanter combined to do against the Warriors on the glass in the three meetings this season:
Game 1: 53 minutes, 23 rebounds, Thunder lose 116-108.
Game 2: 46 minutes, 14 rebounds, Thunder lose 121-118 in OT.
Game 3: 33 minutes, 6 rebounds, Thunder lose 121-106.
As you can see, Billy Donovan played the big guys less and less as the matchups unfolded. Donovan went smaller in an attempt to match up with the Warriors’ run-and-gun style, but the end results were about the same each time.
Looking ahead at the Western Conference Finals, will Donovan go small and try to match up? Or will he insert the ‘Stache Bros for heavy minutes and attempt to get Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes into foul trouble? And how will Steve Kerr react to these lineups? Does he adjust, too?
There’s no doubt that the Thunder offense would love to have these two on the floor all night, especially at times that Andrew Bogut is on the bench for Golden State. But it’s the defensive end that might prevent heavy minutes for Adams and Kanter.
Kanter and/or Adams would be forced to guard Green, Barnes or Andre Iguodala at many points in the game. All three of those players operate 20+ feet from the basket and move like wing players. They can all shoot it and they can all go to the rim.
But most concerning is that Golden State will look to set a high screen for Stephen Curry with whichever one of those players is being defended by Adams or Kanter – a nightmare scenario for the Thunder. Big men left on an island with Curry typically don't return in one piece, and the possession almost always ends in points.
So to relate this on the Super Smash Bros scale:
‘Stache Brothers on offense: Donkey Kong & Bowser.
‘Stache Brothers on defense: Princess Peach & Jigglypuff.
And that’s no knock on them as defenders. Golden State just happens to be a near-impossible team to defend with multiple bigs on the floor at once. Not only are the Warriors one of the best teams ever, they’re also one of the most unique.
"Every coach wants spacing," Donovan said. "But if you have a team that can't shoot, your spacing is never gonna be any good. They've got great shooting, they have great movement, good I.Q. and a good feel of how to play. And you're going to have to play against them in space because of the range at which they shoot 3s."
If Donovan does go big, OKC will need Adams and Kanter to own the offensive boards in order to outweigh their defensive liabilities. Offensive rebounds mean extra shots, extra shots mean extra points, and extra points could mean a trip to the NBA Finals.
The chess match begins Monday night in Oakland.