The Oklahoma City Thunder lead the Golden State Warriors 3-2 in their best-of-seven Western Conference finals series. Game 6 is Saturday, and it may be the single biggest game of the NBA season. The Warriors won Game 5 to keep their hopes alive, but the Thunder have been in control of this series since the opening tip of Game 3.
The Warriors' legacy, the future of professional basketball in Oklahoma City, and the Western Conference champion will in all likelihood be decided in this game, with the Thunder's prospects of a Game 7 victory in Oracle seeming dim.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Golden State: Nothing big on the line here. Just the risk of their magical fairy-tale season coming crashing to a halt and their becoming the greatest disappointment in NBA history. I know, hot take. But there's just no getting around it. The Warriors had the best regular season in the history of the league, and are the defending champions. All year long they seemed invincible. Heck, ten days ago they seemed invincible. If the Warriors lose, especially to the almost-afterthought Thunder when just about everyone was predicting a Spurs-Warriors conference finals all year long, it will very much be the biggest letdown for a team ever.
Right or wrong, everything the Warriors have built will be questioned. It was a minority, to be sure, who questioned the Warriors' championship run last season, but they were vocal. If they lose this year, last year, in some very misinformed people's minds, will become largely invalidated -- a "fluke" built upon an easy road to the title marred with injuries for the opponents, a one-year flash in the pan. You would think 73 wins would erase any sort of consideration that last year was a fluke, but then, we consider the postseason entirely separate from the regular season.
Stephen Curry is at the tail end of arguably (and I would say surely) the greatest individual single season of all time. Efficiency, winning, impact, popularity, everything. His rise has been meteoric. But a failure in this series, despite his clear injury, will raise questions on if A) he deserved the MVP in the first place -- despite it being a regular season award -- and B) if it should have been unanimous --again, despite it being a regular season award. Curry's in line to be placed at the top of the pantheon of great players in NBA history, right alongside Michael Jordan. A loss like this is going to hold him back, or at least seriously postpone his ascent. That's how high the bar is.
Oklahoma City: Oh, you know, just the future of Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Even after beating the Spurs and pushing the Warriors, a collapse in this series could push Durant out. It's unlikely, it seems like they've done enough to convince him he can win a title in OKC, but then, there's also a sense that if he can't win when he's this close maybe he can't at all. It's tough to see him going to Golden State or San Antonio, but it still leaves the door open. A Finals appearance would likely end that conversation once and for all.
For Durant, this would put him back at the top of the NBA food chain, leaping Curry and Kawhi Leonard to reclaim what he feels is his rightful place in the conversation with LeBron James for the best player in the league, and should the Thunder win... well, let's cover that when we get there. Russell Westbrook faces the same situation.
This would be a collapse, to be sure, if OKC failed to move on. It's just hard to figure if this would be a real collapse considering it's the Warriors. If I told you before the playoffs that the Thunder would lose to the Warriors in the conference finals in seven games, wouldn't you think they had a great playoff run? Instead, because they were up 3-1, it will read as a choke job. That's tough, but that's just the way it is. When you're up 3-1, even against one of the best teams ever, you're supposed to close it out. Losing this game, and potentially the series in seven games, would be an emotional crusher that would follow OKC players and coaches for the rest of their careers. Even if they were to win a title, even next year, they would still look back with bitter disappointment. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take down the golden boys in their most golden season.
Teams up 3-2 in the conference finals at home for Game 6 are 19-10 all-time. They are 2-8 in a Game 7. Regardless of round, teams up 3-2 at home have won Game 6 63 percent of the time, and 73 percent of the total series, but the conference finals might be a better example. That follows the 2-2-1-1-1 format, and shows the level of teams that we're talking about here.
In short, history says that the Thunder are going to win Game 6. If they don't, history says the Warriors are going to win Game 7.
The Thunder have actually outscored the Warriors by 22 points in this series, a number that's pretty shocking considering how close Games 1 and 5 were, with a Warriors blowout thrown in the middle. The Game 6 line opened at Warriors (-2) but quickly switched to Thunder (-1) and as of Friday night, it's settled in at Thunder (-2).
SportsLine gives the Warriors just a 32 percent chance of winning this series, given how well Oklahoma City played in Game 5 on the road even if the Warriors push it to seven games.
|Team||Conference Finals Win Chance %||NBA Finals Win Chance %|
|Golden State Warriors||32%||20%|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||68%||28%|
A Kick To The Bogut: Andrew Bogut helped dominate inside in Game 5. The Warriors have to keep him out of foul trouble. Being able to overload the paint helps their perimeter guys stay home and clogs the lane, so that Durant and Westbrook can't get to the rim, and at the same time, can't kick to open shooters. It helps with disrupting Steven Adams on the roll. Everything changes when Bogut is able to play heavy minutes. The Warriors' small-ball lineup had more success in Game 5, but their big lineups have still been the most effective.
Chef Curry with the layup: Curry was much more aggressive (healthier?) in Game 5, and attacked the OKC bigs off the dribble consistently. He was still just 5 of 9 in the paint, however, and 4 of 8 at the rim.
Three players who have to win their matchups:
Steph Curry: They need the MVP to carry them back to the Bay.
Andre Iguodala: When Iguodala winds up in the positive for plus/minus, they've won the game in this series. Iguodala made 3s, stripped the ball, and generally made plays like he always has in Game 5. They need another strong game from him, and they have to win in his minutes on the floor.
Mo Speights: Speights came up huge in Game 5 -- his 14 points outscoring the entire Thunder bench. His plus-seven meant that his offense didn't cost them too much on the defensive end and as a result, the Warriors beat the Thunder with their starters and the bench. If role players like Speights can come up big on the road, they'll silence that raucous OKC crowd.
Mind Your Turnovers: Turnovers have been a huge problem for both teams. The Thunder gave up 17 points off 16 turnovers in Game 5, with Westbrook leading the way with seven giveaways. The Warriors weren't much better, at 16 points on 16 turnovers, and Curry had five on his own. OKC has to take care of the ball. They took the lead in this series behind pushing the ball and creating havoc. Allowing the Warriors to get ahead of them and push their aggressiveness is a recipe for disaster. This is always obvious, turnovers are never a good thing, but bear in mind how often the Thunder were stripped of their handle. It's not really passes getting picked off, it's the Warriors who turned up the pressure on OKC's dribble. It's harder to make reads if you're more worried about it getting stolen, so finding that balance will be part of the trick.
Survive the first swing: The Warriors are likely to come out with a burst of fire to try and settle the crowd down and get themselves feeling good. The Thunder may have to handle Game 6 like they did Game 1 and how they attacked the Spurs several times in their series. Survive the early onslaught, stay in range, and be in position to steal it late, much the way OKC did in Game 5 even if they fell short. OKC has to walk that line between urgency and panic, staying right on Golden State without letting them peel off a huge run, and yet not pushing so hard they pick up silly fouls or turn the ball over.
Try Kanter: Typically a must-win Game 6 would be prime "don't do anything cute," but every time Billy Donovan seems to try something, it's worked out for him lately. If Kanter can come in and make plays on the offensive glass, that's the kind of performance that can tip the scales. Donovan has to be careful with it, he can't go to the well too long, but he should at least see if Kanter might counter the Warriors inside to a degree. Just don't play him against the small-ball lineup.
Three players who have to win their matchup:
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook laughed at the idea that Curry is underrated as a defender on Thursday night. He's going to need to back up that slander in Game 6. Westbrook finished with eight assists in Game 5. When he has ten or more assists, the Thunder have lost only one game this postseason. Westbrook was due to have an average-to-bad game, he had it in Game 5. He can't afford to have another one.
Steven Adams: Adams got hit with two early fouls in Game 5 at Oracle. Much like Bogut, he can have a big impact, but, like Bogut, he has to stay out of foul trouble The Warriors started really crashing down on any passes to Adams on the roll. Westbrook has to force them off Adams and then Adams has to make them pay for that adjustment. More importantly, he has to establish control of the glass.
Randy Foye: I know, it sounds crazy, but Foye is the kind of player who needs to step up. Leandro Barbosa gave him all sorts of trouble in Game 5, and Foye needs to respond in Game 6 by knocking down open shots. If the Thunder get the 3-ball going, the Warriors' defense can't just collapse into the paint and that means Westbrook and Durant get more space.
There's a heavy sentiment that this thing is over. OKC has been the better team in this series, no doubt. They were right there in Game 5, and were dominant in Games 3 and 4 (both in OKC). But I keep going back to what happened in the first two games. The Warriors had outplayed them, holding the lead for most of those first two games, and all the trends were going their way. OKC made counter adjustments, and that, combined with great performances from Westbrook and Dion Waiters, and a terrible two games from Stephen Curry, led to the 3-1 lead.
However, we've seen this from the Warriors before. They find one adjustment (not guarding Tony Allen, layering defense vs. LeBron with Andre Iguodala) and when they find that, they ride it to victory. What if Kerr getting to Bogut and making him a central part of this series, the focus on keeping him out of foul trouble and going big overall, was the difference-maker this time?
There are too many outcomes here that hurt the Thunder. A crazy Steph Curry game where he just goes bonkers and there's nothing anyone can do. A sloppy game from Westbrook. A subpar game from Durant, who has to be on fumes the way he's been playing on both ends. Some sort of officiating snafu, only one that this time hurts the Thunder.
For two years, whatever the Warriors have needed to have happen, has happened. Part of that is their greatness and resiliency; most of it, really. But a small section of it has been crazy circumstance. Mike Conley's injury (and Tony Allen's, to a small degree). Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love going down. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin getting injured. Draymond Green not being suspended for Game 4. They've had to come back from adversity as well; Stephen Curry not being 100 percent is about as tough a break as you can imagine first and foremost for the Warriors. But truly special teams, really great ones, have a way where things seem to fall in line for them.
This is the team that won the most games in NBA history in one regular season. They redefined what basketball is for a lot of people. Steph Curry is the NBA's Golden Boy, the Warriors the toast of the sports world. The Thunder doing this would be just as much of a storybook ending. The underdog left-for-dead No.3 seed from the dusty Midwestern town comes out of nowhere and dismantles the big-market, big-mouthed big dogs from California. But in the end, despite the fact that the Thunder have been better in this series overall, we know that the Warriors are the better team. The Thunder have dragged every ounce of goodness out of nearly every one of their players, and they surely deserve credit for that.
But it has to happen again, against what has been an unstoppable force for two years. That's hard to believe in.
A loss in Game 6 breaks their spirit and breaks their composure. The Warriors needed to get Game 5, and they got it, even with OKC fighting them the whole way. In a lot of ways, this series has come to mirror that incredible game from January. The Thunder outplayed the Warriors throughout the game, Draymond Green went through a personal crisis in his locker room tirade, the Thunder were at home and it was right within their grasp.
And then Steph Curry took it all away. That may wind up being the microcosm of what happens in this series.
The Warriors are the champs, and the defining team of their generation. Until they lose four games out of seven, I'm always going to believe their victory is inevitable. They've earned that respect.
Warriors 111, Thunder 107.