The Oklahoma City Thunder were theoretically fatally flawed. But, over the season and inside the playoff crucible, they've theoretically evolved. Something "big" is happening in Oklahoma City, beyond the obvious "Big Two."
In sports punditry discussions pertaining to the Thunder, you'll hear plenty about "those two guys." Indeed, Oklahoma City's brand as contender is defined by "those two guys." And yes, whether or not you're defining superstardom by Mark Cuban's standard, those two guys are very important in this series.
But there are more factors than just, "Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook score a lot." There's an entire Thunder team whose supplementary effort can determine this upcoming series. Perhaps the team's most intriguing development is the growth of Oklahoma City's "Stache Brothers," Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Both impressed in the Spurs series and both are growing beyond the limits of recent reputations.
Adams, whom ESPN NBA Thunder writer Royce Young deemed Oklahoma City's third best player, is shedding his rep as one of the replaceable bodies exchanged for James Harden. Kanter is showing some value after many smart observers assumed he'd do little to validate his max contract last offseason. Together, along with the ever talented Serge Ibaka, they comprise one of the sport's more imposing big man rotations.
Battle of the boards
Offensive rebounding is where Oklahoma City could gain an advantage in this series. If you want to stop the Golden State juggernaut, then boring, old offensive boards might be the key.
In three games against the Warriors, the Thunder rebounded 29 percent of their misses for 45 total second-chance points. That outcome isn't shocking, considering Oklahoma City is, by a fair margin, the best offensive rebounding team in basketball. Apart from Westbrook's flying forays into the paint and Durant's unheralded glass work, the Thunder boast two players, Adams and Kanter, who rank top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage. Their offensive glasswork is augmented by Durant and Westbrook driving for the kinds of close-in shots that make for easier putbacks.
Billy Donovan ramped up that advantage by combining those forces against the Spurs, playing the two for spells alongside the not entirely short Durant. Over the 66 minutes the Thunder employed this look, Oklahoma City grabbed a devastating 45 percent of their own misses. While many a smart observer has wondered why the Thunder eschew going "small" with Durant at the 4, Oklahoma City found an intriguing lineup by going the opposite direction.
It remains to be seen if it's a productive look against the Warriors. When asked about that particular lineup, Draymond Green was blunt, as he often is.
"Obviously it makes them really tough on the boards," Green said. "But if we clean up the rebounding, with that lineup, I don't think they'll be able to keep up with us." Basically, if the Warriors rebound well enough, they'll drown the lumbering Thunder lineups in fast breaks and 3s. It's what happened when the Warriors went to their "death lineup" of Green-Barnes-Iguodala-Thompson-Curry, which outscored the Thunder by 17 in 17 minutes over the season series.
The Warriors spent their time off going over film and demonstrating when and how perimeter players gave up rebounds (Golden State won the Feb. 27 overtime game, despite claiming 30 fewer boards, a fact they and reporters have brought up repeatedly). In media sessions, Steve Kerr has stressed, "staying in the play," after the ball goes up, believing his team coughed up some second chances against the Thunder due to inattentiveness.
For the Warriors, there is the concerning matter of Andrew Bogut's status. Bogut, a fine defensive rebounder, is "questionable" for Game 1 with a strained adductor muscle. This sets the stage for Festus Ezeli, Warriors savior. Perhaps that's hyperbolic, but this really could be a series where the backup big man proves crucial.
It's hard to be underrated on a much-hyped 73-win team, but Ezeli very well could be that. He's the rare big who rebounds on both ends, protects the rim, and, as an added bonus, runs the floor like a wing. Not only can he help stave off Oklahoma City's offensive rebounding assault, but he can snag some second chances of his own on the other side. He's still finding his form after knee surgery, but appears to be getting within the flow.
Ezeli did not play in any of Golden State's games against the Thunder this season. Of the narrow overtime win in Oklahoma City, he said, "That was one of the games where I felt like I could have helped and it's going to be crucial for me to go out and get some boards."
The Warriors obviously did not need Ezeli's services to get their desired result, but they'll likely need them for this series. Bogut or no Bogut, Golden State will need another big to help counter Oklahoma City's behemoths.
It's also fair to remember, as Kerr is wont to remind, that this series isn't really a matchup of big vs. small. The Warriors' "death lineup" does include Green at center, but that's a look they'll use situationally. For the vast majority of the game, a large, traditional big will man the middle. In a battle between teams known for perimeter stars, the tilt between centers should be a big deal.