OKC’s Golden Opportunity

“I bring the energy to this team, and I have not been that.  I think our energy goes as my energy goes, and I’ve been awful. … At the end of the day, I know I’ve got to be better.”

Draymond Green after Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals

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052216-nba-thunderwarriors11-pi.vresize.1200.675.high.14What if I told you that a 73-win team was on the brink of elimination? What if I told you that the play of the first ever Unanimous MVP of the league has been sup-par by anyone’s standards and expectations? What if I told you a college-turned-NBA-coach has all the answers to defeat the best regular season team in NBA history?

You’d probably tell me that I’m crazy and that’s impossible; yet, there we were, with the 73-9 Golden State Warriors down to the Oklahoma City Thunder three games to one. While no one expected the series to be a sweep, not many predicted that the Thunder would manhandle the team with the best regular season record the way that they did through the first 4 games.

Some speculate that the struggles of the Warriors are a consequence of fatigue from chasing the 72-10 record of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.  Others think their shakiness is the result of some odd karmic butterfly effect because the Cleveland Cavaliers are healthy this time around.

The answer is obvious after you strip away the narrative and approach the series in its simplest form: match-ups.  In any major sport, match-up disparities add fuel to competition and represent the controlled variables in the sports equation.  No matter what the sport is, some players don’t match-up well with others, regardless of their talent.

Take the NFL for example: the New England Patriots were potentially the best team in football history in their undefeated year. When unfavorable match-ups cropped up in the post-season, they fell to a New York Giants team who effectively made their super-star player uncomfortable and out of rhythm.

Great players dominate through fluid and consistent rhythm – if you take that away, it’s almost impossible for athletes to remain effective.

i-2The outliers are almost always athletes of the absolute highest caliber: enter Russell Westbrook, supremely athletic, with a motor like none other.  And he just so happens to be the point-guard playing opposite the unanimous MVP Stephen Curry.

When you breakdown the genetic/physical traits of the two super-stars, they differ in extreme ways. Yes, Curry has the functional advantages in his ball-handling skill, his uncanny touch around the rim, and, of course, his dead-eye shooting; but Steph lacks the athletic dynamism of Russel.  Westbrook has that IT factor: the motor and athleticism to constantly be in full-force attack mode.

Through the first 4 games, the stronger, faster, the more explosive player in the matchup was simply too overwhelming for his counterpart to overcome.  This post-season, the match-up appears to be heavily in favor of Westbrook, but it has nothing to do with which player is more “valuable.”  Curry lacks the physicality and tirelessness to consistently play at the level that the league expected him to play. The Thunder have done a magnificent job of beating Curry up as he rounds around screens:

The big bodies and constant grabbing is wearing on the MVP in conjunction with his exhausting defensive responsibilities on the other end.

Curry flourished this year with a tight, quick rhythm off the dribble that is rarely seen. Now, that rhythm is off.  You can credit it to injury rumors, but doing so slights just how great the Thunder have collectively played him through the first half of the series. They disrupted the rhythm of a great player, much like the NASCAR front line of the Giants on their destruction of perfection against the Patriots.

If the Thunder can finish the Warriors off at home in Game 6, the Thunder are well on their way to completing the most impressive post-season run in NBA history. Despite dropping a game to Coach Carlisle’s Mavericks, they won that series impressively.  Then, the Thunder exorcised their 4th quarter demons against the equally well coached San Antonio Spurs – a team which, by the way, finished with the 7th best regular season record of all-time.  If the Thunder finish this series off against the winningest team in NBA history, they will have beaten the two best teams in the Western Conference and pulled off an ultra-impressive route to the NBA Finals.  If the Thunder beat the Warriors at home in a game they are the favorite to win, the Thunder will have beaten two teams that combined for a historic 140 regular season wins; but they can’t falter against a team like the Warriors.

The Warriors finally lost two straight games, though it took them almost a full year to allow it to happen.  The Warriors will not lay down or pack it in on their quest to solidifying their spot in history with a championship (as if 73 isn’t enough on its own accord).  In an elimination game of this magnitude, the Warriors will have to get back to what made them such an unstoppable force this season.

Ball-movement is a key for any team, but for the Warriors, it is the glass that holds the water. Without precise ball-movement, they become erratic and turnover prone.  As a result, their defense lacks focus resulting in an avalanche too great against a team like the Thunder.  If the Warriors want to make a compelling run at the series, their key cogs must step up.  Though Steph finished game 5 with 31 points on 9-20 shooting, he needs to go super-nova in OKC for them to win on the Thunder’s home turf.

maxresdefault-2Draymond Green also needs to keep a steady head – though his play was greatly improved from his no-show in game 4, many remain unconvinced.  The biggest factor in the series is still the versatile forward Draymond Green plays. Green has been tremendous all year, showcasing his unique skill set and being rewarded with a place on both the Western Conference All-Star team and the All-NBA defensive team.  The former second-round pick however, has looked overwhelmed and out of place during this series.

In Game 4 he played like a second-round pick for the first time since the Kerr era began, losing his footing on the NBA mountain – in Game 5 he needs to catch himself from falling all the way down.  The engine that pushes the Warriors train died out:

Whether his struggles are the result of chasing the best record in regular season history, the pressure of being a catalyst for the death line-up, or more match-up problems with the Thunder roster, Green needs to prove his super-star status in Game 6.

But it all comes down to Steph.  His play will make or break the Warriors’ post-season.  He needs to find some of the Steph Curry magic that killed the Thunder during the regular season:

I would imagine Head-Coach Steve Kerr mostly using the line-ups that helped them win Game 5.  Leaning more on Bogut, who was stellar in Game 6 – and starting Andre Iguodala instead of Harrison Barnes may help shake things up a bit.

Game 6 can go one of two ways: the Thunder can make Playoff history en route to the Finals, or the Warriors can bring the series back to Golden State for Game 7, putting the pressure back on a reeling Thunder in the hopes of an improbable 3-1 series comeback.

By Allen Yates