The first meeting between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder lived up to the hype on Feb. 6. With the game coming down to the final two minutes, the Warriors out-executed the Thunder to hold on for a 116-108 win.
That was Round 1 of three, and the second happens in Oklahoma City on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC and WatchESPN). The Warriors are closing out a seven-game road trip; the Thunder have come out of the All-Star break sputtering, losing two of three, including a blowout home loss to the Cavs and a deflating road loss to the Pelicans on Thursday.
The Warriors are continuing their march toward 73; the Thunder are trying to right themselves.
ESPN.com writers Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Royce Young follow up Part 1 with Part 2, looking at what the first meeting revealed as well as another peek at the underwritten storyline that is going to have everyone talking until July.
Strauss: I've mentioned it before and I'll say it again: A few people close to the Warriors peg the Thunder as Golden State's greatest, if not only, threat. So I want to hear your case for this, Royce. How do the Thunder beat the Warriors in a series? How would it happen?
Young: It does seem pretty remarkable that the big takeaway from the first meeting, an eight-point Warriors win, was, "Hey, the Thunder almost beat those guys!"
I do think, though, that game revealed some of the plan and procedure in which the Thunder would give the Warriors a push. The structure of the Thunder roster exists the same as it always has: Length, size, athleticism on top of length, size and athleticism. In the first meeting the Thunder used those three things to hold down the Warriors, who hit just 7-of-26 from 3. Now some of that was simply missing shots, sure, but the Thunder also influenced quite a bit of it.
But let's be honest: It's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Two of the top pick-your-single-digit-number players in the world have the ability to win a postseason series on their own. Westbrook is a bull; Durant is a beast. And the Warriors have never really produced an adequate answer to either.
Now the current Warriors are a entirely separate thing and banking on a two-headed hydra to carry you against the Golden State offensive assembly line isn't entirely sustainable. It's probably enough to keep them competitive in the series, like a tag-team version of what LeBron James did in the Finals. The Thunder's advantage is that they'll have two of the best three players in the series. But that can't be the plan, to just hope to out-talent Golden State with two players.
Did you feel as though there was anything important to take away from the first meeting? Were you surprised by the impact Enes Kanter made?
Strauss: I was surprised by Kanter's impact. He had success against Golden State's second unit and very well could repeat that performance, given Festus Ezeli's continued absence. I think coach Billy Donovan would want to minimize his minutes with Curry on the floor, but we shall see. He has a nice little chemistry in pick-and-roll with Westbrook, and Westbrook's usually playing concurrently with Curry.
But, yes, the Thunder's chances are defined by the Durant and Westbrook duo. As Jeff Van Gundy pointed out in a recent podcast, their ability to draw fouls can halt Golden State's transition offense going the other direction. If OKC is shooting free throws, they're better able to set up on defense.
Also, in totality, Oklahoma City's galvanized length can theoretically disrupt Golden State's ball movement. That seemed to happen in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, when OKC's athleticism and energy ripped apart San Antonio's best-laid plans.
I also liked some of what Donovan did in the last meeting, specifically, his putting Durant on Draymond Green. That, combined with having Serge Ibaka guard Harrison Barnes, was a smart way to approach the Curry-Green pick-and-roll.
I still like the Warriors to win a hypothetical series but also believe Oklahoma City has put itself in position to be a threat. If would be helpful to the Thunder's chances if Andre Roberson develops a credible jump shot. Last season in these matchups, Curry defended him from 20 feet away.
Ultimately I think this is illustrative of what will sabotage OKC's savvy adjustments to GSW small ball: They're thin on the wings, save for that Durant guy. The thing about downsizing is that you need a wing to replace the big guy you're sitting. The other Thunder wings come with glaring flaws. Unless they're able to address that in the coming months, I believe they'll come up short in this matchup. Again, it's the matchup they're best suited to win.
Young: Within the Thunder organization they always felt Kanter could play an important role in countering matchups despite so many seeing him as an unplayable piece. Using some clever cross-matching to keep him on nonscreeners allowed him to stay on the floor and do what he does: score and crash the offensive glass. But then again he was effective in one game, and as we all know: one small tweak and things can change.
It will be interesting to see what adjustments play out on Saturday. The Thunder are acting as if they're not holding anything back for a potential future matchup, but they played a curiously small amount of small ball with Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4. Which seems to be OKC's best answer to the Warriors "death lineup." Donovan said he wanted to stay big "to see what that looked like," which suggests there was a lot of feeling out that first go 'round.
OK, we have to fill the Durant-to-the-Warriors quota: The chatter hasn't gone away, but what's overlooked is the crazy situation that's even made it possible. The lockout in 2012 was supposed to be as much about "player sharing" as it was revenue sharing, and because of that the Thunder had to break up their core trading James Harden. Now, with the rising cap and influx of money, the Warriors could potentially shred that idea entirely by adding Durant. You're on record as saying super teams are good for the league, but would Durant going to the Warriors really be in the best interest of the NBA?
Strauss: I think super teams are good for the NBA, but Durant going to the Warriors might be the exception. Why? Because the Warriors are already great and popular. They've probably reached a level where there are diminishing returns in terms of popularity. Adding Durant would do more to destroy a competitor than it would to augment their profile. And sure, people would be interested in the Durant Warriors, but at what cost? The Big 3 Heat actually had credible threats. I'm not sure that'd be the case here.
But I don't think the Warriors should focus on what's good for the NBA. They're tasked with winning, not doing commissioner Adam Silver's job. If they can get Durant without completely gutting their depth, they should. Their responsibility is to attempt to build a team so great that people question whether it's good for the league.
Young: The thing is, the premise of the 2012 lockout was this Warriors team shouldn't really exist to start with. But to not only be able to continue it, but also potentially add another max player, and that player being Kevin Durant? It just makes the thing seem completely disingenuous to me.
Like you said, every story needs an adversary, and the Warriors are already running out of them. To remove maybe the biggest one just waters down an already top-heavy league even more. The Thunder are a clear and present danger and not only that but they contrast in a way that produces darn fun games.