Thunder need Westbrook, Durant to be right to beat Warriors in Game 7
In order to reach the NBA Finals vs. Cleveland, OKC needs greatness from its stars
"Let Westbrook be Westbrook."
That's the battle cry for people who enjoy Russell Westbrook's game, and are happy to live with his mistakes because his other results are spectacular. Some say that's the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- going as far as Westbrook can take them -- but others look at the overwhelming ability he and Kevin Durant possess as the reason the Thunder are so dangerous to the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors have been one of the league's best defensive teams for a couple of years now, but even their versatility, adaptability and personnel can't really do much against Westbrook and Durant when they get their games going. Durant is almost a 6-foot-11 version of what Stephen Curry does for the Golden State Warriors, and attempting to corral frenetic Westbrook is like trying to stop Liam Neeson trying to rescue a family member.
Game 7 of the Western Conference finals is a chance at redemption for both teams. The Warriors can erase falling behind 3-1 and having their 73-win regular season dismissed as being overhyped. For OKC, it's a chance for make up for their final three minutes in Game 6 when they were outscored 12-2 at home and "Westbrook being Westbrook" became one shot attempt and four turnovers over that stretch.
We throw around "collapse" or "choke" when a team blows a lead, and maybe that phraseology often makes sense. But in this case, it may not be that simple. Let's break down the four turnovers Westbrook had in the final two minutes:
The first turnover is a great play by Andre Iguodala. On the second Westbrook, doesn't recognize Draymond Green closing in on his dribble in transition, or his teammates don't communicate that Green was on the prowl. The third turnover was charged to Westbrook, but it was really Durant's fault. The fourth was a great closeout by Curry on a desperation pass on the inbound.
Are these flaws bursting through like an alien out of Westbrook's stomach? How much do you discredit the Thunder vs. crediting the Warriors? It probably lies somewhere in between, but it's not always as dramatic as we make it out to be.
Westbrook demolished the Warriors for three quarters. But once Klay Thompson became an inferno of deep shots, the Thunder's miscues were amplified because they seemingly kicked away an opportunity to end the series at home. We put more weight into those late turnovers by Westbrook than we do the first three quarters when he was keeping the Warriors at bay despite Durant's horrid shooting.
In reality, the Thunder win most games Westbrook plays like this. Only four days earlier, Westbrook went for 36-11-11 with six turnovers in a blowout victory in Game 4. But, 28-11-9 with five turnovers? He failed in Game 6? It's all about how much the Warriors are able to absorb the punch of what Westbrook can do while hoping KD shoots poorly and the role players don't have big contributions. Westbrook doesn't need to change much in order for the Thunder to pull off the big upset. Just keep breaking down the defense, hope to get some help, and avoid big mistakes if and when the Warriors get hot.
How much can you play Andrew Bogut late in a tight game?
The Warriors received a monstrous performance from Andrew Bogut in Game 5. It was one of the few nights he's eclipsed 30 minutes in a game. His rim protection, screen-setting and rebounding were gigantic contributions in how the Warriors snatched control. When Bogut impacts the game like that, questioning how much he plays in a tight game appears to be silly. But not unlike the Westbrook issue, it's not that simple.
The Thunder grabbed 34 percent of the available offensive rebounds, which is an unacceptable rate for the Warriors' defense to allow. That turned into 25 second chance points for OKC. When you see stats like that, it really does make it seem confusing as to how the Warriors ended up with the victory. But that's just how it goes.
Golden State went small for most of their fourth-quarter rally to steal Game 6. And there was a real hesitation to play Bogut because his free-throw shooting tempts the Hack-a strategy to stall the Warriors' offense. If you can take them out of their flow, then it's just your best against their best. The Thunder's best are two of the most overwhelming offensive weapons of the past decade. You have to like those odds when those guys also keep getting extra opportunities to find points thanks to the offensive boards.
So the Warriors left with a decision late in games. How do you weigh the risk of using Bogut vs. the reward? Bogut protects the rim and rebounds, but is entirely unreliable at the line. We may have seen much more of it in Game 6 if the Thunder weren't already in foul trouble. If you take Bogut out of the game, the Thunder can feast on the offensive boards. Steve Kerr must find the right balance.
Andre Roberson vs. Klay Thompson
Roberson has gone from being a player you fear getting exploited by a team like the Warriors to being one of the most valuable role players in this series. He's essentially played power forward on offense while Serge Ibaka stretches the floor. Then he's tasked with hounding Curry and Thompson as much as possible. Clearly, Thompson got the better of the match-up last game because he set an NBA record for 3-pointers made in a playoff game (11) and he finished with 41 points.
For the most part, Roberson has done a good job of making Thompson exhaust himself for every shot attempt. Before Game 6, Thompson was averaging 22.2 points on 19.8 shots in this series. He made 41.4 percent of his field goals but only 29.5 percent of his 3s. Roberson is taking away his personal space like they're wrestling in a phone booth.
If Roberson bothers Thompson in Game 7, the Warriors need Curry to revert to his unanimous MVP form. If Thompson can shake free of Roberson and even force switches to have Westbrook guard him, he can move the defense and make life easier for Curry (it usually happens the opposite way). This might be the most important match-up of the night.
Hey, Kevin Durant, go be Kevin Durant
It's hard to correctly say he was bad in Game 6 because in many respects he was pretty awesome. His defense was mostly spectacular, and he had a huge positive impact. The problem was he didn't shoot the ball well, which ended up being the lasting impression. Was it just a bad night for him or did the Warriors really clamp down on him?
In Durant's 10-of-31 from the field performance, there were two big problems. First, he didn't hit 3-pointers, going 1 of 8. Durant was chucking early from deep, taking five of his eight attempts in the first 18 minutes. And four of them were bad shots. He tried to draw contact when there was none, rushed his shot or abandoned his normal motion altogether. That's easily correctable for him in Game 7.
The second problem was attacking the basket. He missed his final four layup attempts and didn't get a shot in the restricted area in the final 10 minutes. Half of those misses were wild attempts hoping to draw contact. Instead of just concentrating on getting the best shot, he got a bit lazy. That's not like Durant. Maybe it was nerves or maybe the ball just didn't feel right.
It's been tough for Durant to have a great rhythm scoring the ball the last two rounds because he's had to face Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes with elite help defense behind them. The result has been 42.5 percent shooting overall, 27.2 percent from deep. In four games in this series, he's been under 40 percent from the field. That can't happen if OKC hopes to win Game 7.
So what can we expect from KD? He's played 22 elimination games during his career. In those games, he's averaging 31.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.4 turnovers. He's shot 45.3 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from deep. His team's record? 11-11.
If he approaches those numbers in Game 7, the Thunder can shock the world. Otherwise, we could end up looking at this loss after being up 3-1 in the series in the same way we look at the Los Angeles Clippers' loss to the Houston Rockets a year ago.
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