Although everyone assumed the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs were on a collision course to meet in an epic Western Conference Finals, I say there is no need to worry because the Oklahoma City Thunder are more than a worthy alternative. However, there seems to be a consensus that the Thunder don’t have much of a chance to knock off the mighty Warriors. Many stats confirm this: ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Thunder a mere 30% chance of pulling an upset. Notable pundits are firmly in the Warriors corner as well. Skip Bayless, for instance, stated the other day on First Take that he likes the Warriors to win this series rather easily in four or five games.
I think the notion that Oklahoma City has little chance to beat Golden State is wrong. It’s not that I doubt the Stephen Curry and co. I simply have a lot of faith that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder can upset the 73-win Warriors. No, I’m not joking around. Let me explain why.
The Thunder are coming off a rather monumental upset (at least by NBA standards) of the San Antonio Spurs. Though they were overshadowed by the Warriors this year, let’s not ignore how good the Spurs were. They became the tenth team in NBA history with a point differential per game of +10 or greater, and their differential was only slightly lower than the Warriors’ mark (+10.8 vs +10.6). What this says is that if the Thunder can knock off a team like San Antonio, they are capable of defeating a similarly dominant team as well.
Of course, one of the first things you’ll hear when this series is discussed is “the Warriors swept the season series 3-0.” Since that was the case, Golden State must have Oklahoma City’s number and that means this series won’t be much of a series at all. Well, think again. Yes they lost each of the three games, but the Thunder had a fourth quarter lead in each of them. Although the final matchup between these squads wasn’t very competitive in the end (the Warriors ran away in the fourth quarter and won by 15), the first matchup on the eve of the Super Bowl saw the Thunder look very comfortable on Golden State’s home floor. Plus, assuming you all remember the game when Stephen Curry hit the half-court buzzer beater, you should also remember how lucky the Warriors were to take that game to overtime. Ultimately, my main point regarding the season series is that the Warriors have not yet proven they are significantly better by Oklahoma City by any stretch. It was pretty much good fortune that allowed them to win all three games.
Another reason to believe in the Thunder is that the Warriors have had little answer to Kevin Durant. In three meetings this year, Durant averaged 36.3 points per game and shot 52.0%. More specifically, Durant actually averaged his third highest points per 48 minutes total against the Warriors this year at 44.0 points per game, and the most against any team the Thunder met more than twice. Durant’s success against the Thunder dates back further than this year as well. For instance, he averaged 43.1 points per 48 minutes against the Warriors last year. This bodes extremely well for the Thunder because they can expect Durant to have monster point totals considering he should play nearly the entire game.
Since we’re on the topic of star players, are we sure Stephen Curry will continue to be 100 percent healthy? There’s no doubt he’s looked great since he returned from his knee injury, but given the myriad of health issues he has faced over the past few months, it wouldn’t surprise me if Curry becomes hobbled at some point during the series. I know that it sounds a tad unlikely, but it is another factor that makes the Thunder’s chances of an upset even greater.
There are two final elements I need to address, the first of which is that the Thunder’s ability to rebound must be taken seriously. Oklahoma City led all teams in rebounding rate during the regular season and they currently lead all postseason teams in the same metric as well. I felt the Thunder’s rebounding was one of the main ways they turned the series in their favor against San Antonio. In each of their four wins, the Thunder out-rebounded the Spurs, often by a wide margin, and in their two losses, the Spurs had the rebounding edge. Given that Golden State ranked even lower than San Antonio in rebounding rate during the regular season, I expect Oklahoma City to have a big advantage on the glass.
And lastly, it should be clear that the Thunder absolutely have the offensive firepower to not just hang with Golden State but beat them. I think this is important to mention because I’ve heard many arguments suggesting that the Warriors will simply hit too many threes for the Thunder to keep pace. Simply put, Oklahoma City ranked second in offensive efficiency in the regular season, right behind the Warriors. This notion that the Warriors are much better offensively is nonsense.
I will concede that the Thunder must have a lot of things go their way in order to win this series. In addition to Durant continuing his dominance, Russell Westbrook must play better after some shaky shooting performances against the Warriors this year. And though I think many people are overlooking Oklahoma City’s rebounding, the Thunder must prove that their defense can keep the Warriors prolific offense in check for what could be a six or seven game series.
Obviously Golden State can win this series. Again, I don’t want to doubt what the Warriors can do. But based on my arguments above and particularly on what we have seen from the Thunder this postseason, I can’t wait to see Durant, Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder prove the country wrong by upsetting the greatest regular season team of all-time. Yep. I’m officially on record. Thunder in seven in one of the greatest NBA playoff series you will ever see.