The road back has been messy and unpredictable, full of downside risks that could have decimated the franchise, but the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the precipice of a roaring return to the NBA Finals. The team the organization envisioned has finally arrived, and it has rampaged to a 7-3 postseason record against two historic juggernauts that entered their respective series against the Thunder with a collective 152-26 record during the regular season and postseason combined.
The league's competitive and financial landscape has changed so much, so fast, since 2012 that it's almost impossible to recreate the conditions leading to Oklahoma City's fateful October surprise: the trade of James Harden, last year's MVP runner-up, to the Houston Rockets. Since then, the Warriors conjured a champion, the Spurs were re-born without dying, LeBron James went home, Indiana rose and fell, and the salary cap leapt high enough that Oklahoma City would have been able to max out Harden without suffering too much luxury tax pain.
There were dozens of competing variables swirling around that deal; we don't need to rehash them again. Whatever you thought of it then, now, or two years ago, it was a massive gamble. More than anything, it was a bet on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant being so damn good, the Thunder didn't really need Harden -- provided they could replace him with role players who fit. Regardless of everything else, flipping Harden meant Oklahoma City could spread his money around to three or four different guys. Depth and continuity would trump stardom; the Thunder wouldn't have to churn through aging minimum guys every season to fill the last six roster spots
Whether the Thunder really accomplished that is up for debate. Jeremy Lamb, once a key return piece in the Harden deal, is gone. Mitch McGary, the bounty from one draft pick that came in the deal, never plays. The quirky Josh Huestis pick has paid zero dividends in two years.
Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters are essentially taking the salary slot the Thunder had earmarked for Harden. Kanter improved his defense, and he has excelled as a space-clearing, rebound-munching mooch. The value of my condo on Waiters Island has never been higher.
But no one trusts Waiters quite yet, and Kanter can't really play against these Warriors. There is no universe in which paying Kanter a hair more than Harden is a net-win -- not even if Harden's ball dominance makes him semi-redundant with the Thunder's centerpiece stars. Given that Westbrook, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams stand to make at least $110 million combined when their next contracts kick in, it will be hard for the Thunder to keep even one of Kanter and Waiters on their roster beyond 2017. (And, yes, that sound you hear is the muffled weeping of executives in Houston, Boston, San Antonio, Washington, Los Angeles and other teams that dreamed of luring Durant away from a beaten Thunder squad).
The Thunder dealt Harden away in part to avoid a scenario in which four guys made so much money that there wouldn't be enough left to nurture other key long-term players. They may find themselves in that situation again soon -- the price of success.
Adams has become a magnificent player, and as the main direct Harden return still standing, he represents the core risk and reward of that Thunder deal. He is a smart, brutal, physical defender who has worked his butt off to become a legitimate threat offensively -- a mustachioed dunk machine on the pick-and-roll with an improving soft touch on hooks around the basket.
He is also just 22, coming into his own ahead of schedule, just as Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden did before him. That was part of the gamble -- maybe the scariest part: The Thunder ultimately flipped Harden for even younger players who would only be learning the NBA game in 2013, 2014 and 2015, as the holdover stars hungered to resume the title chase. The veterans who bridged the gap between the prime stars and the babies generally weren't good enough, and they either got old or left for different teams.
The roster mechanics may not have mattered had Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant been healthy at the right times over the past three years. They weren't, and the Thunder felt the void of a missing ready-for-primetime star.
The Thunder could look ahead to this season and hope it would all come together: Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka approaching their age-27 peak, the younger group grasping NBA maturity and everything clicking. There was no guarantee it would work out, especially with San Antonio and Golden State winning at historic levels, and if it didn't, the price could have been everything: Durant gone, Westbrook and Ibaka out the next season. Total franchise devastation.
But holy hell, has it worked out. Adams is ready. Waiters and Andre Roberson are 24 now, prepared to play the right supporting roles.
More than anything, Durant and Westbrook have crescendoed together. They are the most terrifying, physically dominant two-man force in basketball since prime Kobe and Shaq.
And they have never, ever been locked in like this defensively. The Thunder were mediocre on defense this season: 12th in points allowed per possession, unable to maintain focus and intensity over full games -- or even full shot clocks. Ibaka plateaued. Westbrook dazed through possessions, spacing out for a few fatal seconds, and then compensating with reckless gambles.
The bad habits persisted even in their 4-1 whitewash of the limping Mavs, and especially in their humiliating Game 1 no-show against San Antonio. I wasn't at that game, but that loss did something to the Thunder. They have honed in ever since on the sort of defense -- the precision, the urgency, the cohesion -- it will take to win the title.
Nobody is perfect against the Warriors. They have so much shooting, and they run you through so many screens and cuts that you will mess up a bunch of times every game. The old Thunder suffered a dozen or more hiccups in every Golden State game, and the Warriors, even if they capitalized on just half of them, could turn those blips of inattention into 12 or 15 points -- enough to swing a game.
The Thunder have cut those errors in half, at least, and the Warriors aren't punishing the ones that remain.
Mostly, the Thunder are doing stuff like this:
That is usually death: Draymond Green posting up as fellow All-Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson screen for each other. Other teams, including the Rockets in last season's conference finals, have tried the switch-everything gambit against the Warriors, but none have been able to hold their integrity as consistently as the Thunder have managed in this series. It's almost as if Green throws that pass to Thompson assuming he will be open, like always, without accounting for the fact that Westbrook has calmly sniffed it out.
Here's the entire Western Conference finals, in one possession:
It starts with a Curry-Green pick-and-roll, the duo that piled up the highest points per possession of every high-volume pick-and-roll dance combo in the the league this season, per SportVU data. The Thunder have vaporized it by slotting Durant onto Green and having him switch onto Curry every damn time: no traps, no rotations, no Green galloping into 4-on-3s and dishing to open corner shooters. Only emptiness and frustration.
Golden State in the regular season scored about 1.22 points per possession on any trip that featured a Curry-Green ball screen, and they ran about 13 of those suckers per game, according to SportVU data. Green has only set about nine such picks per game in this series, and the Warriors are squeezing only one point per possession out of them. The Thunder have forced them to use other pick-and-roll combinations featuring screeners -- Festus Ezeli, for one -- who can't make drive-and-kick plays like Green.
But wait! Green pivots into a post-up against Westbrook as Iguodala and Curry get ready to screen for each other. Iguodala aborts the pick before reaching Curry, and he veers to the hoop -- a classic anti-switch tactic the Warriors have used effectively at times in this series. He's open! He's ahead of Durant!
And then, you see how fast an apex predator in his prime can close the gap on a 32-year-old with a history of leg issues. The Warriors have still opened gaps against the Thunder. They just haven't opened as many, and the Thunder can close them faster than anyone.
The Warriors have scored just 101.8 points per 100 possessions in this series, per NBA.com. That is a whopping, insane, unfathomable 11 points below their league-leading average. Only two teams, the Pistons and Celtics, held the Warriors below that level in regular-season matchups. In their three wins, the Thunder have allowed 98.1, 97.6 and 88.9 points per 100 possessions. They have turned the Warriors into the Philadelphia 76ers.
Durant has been a good defender for years now -- I voted him second-team All-Defense in 2014, his last healthy season -- but he has been special in this series. His double-jump block on Shaun Livingston on Tuesday night was supernatural. He has been one step ahead in realizing when he needs to fly into a switch on Curry, and he's done so without losing touch with his original assignment. Once on the MVP, Durant has overwhelmed him with length.
Late in the third quarter, Curry lost Westbrook, pump-faked Adams on a switch and drove into the lane. Durant watched all of it out of one eye, and he was already sliding away from Harrison Barnes, into the lane, before Curry even rose his arms to deke Adams. Curry drove, and Durant was already there, like an apparition. He spooked Curry, who didn't even notice Barnes wide open and instead threaded an interior pass to Ezeli in a crowd.
Do you believe Curry is "fine," as he said Tuesday night? I don't, really. He's struggling to drive past bigger players he torched in the regular season, and his juice at the rim isn't there. Green doesn't look like himself, either, after an ankle injury; the Thunder are just driving right at him, and they're happily laying the ball in over and around him.
Guess what? I don't care. Injuries are part of the game, and these dudes are healthy enough to play. I guarantee you someone on the Thunder is suffering from some nagging injury limiting him in some way. Oklahoma City is healthier, but no team is 100 percent healthy across the board as May flips to June. The Thunder just obliterated the Warriors twice in a row, and they held them to efficiency totals that seemed impossible.
You can lambaste Curry's 6-of-20 brickfest last night, a catastrophic performance for an MVP in a borderline must-win, or you can speculate -- without any real knowledge, mind you -- about whether the chase for 73 regular-season wins sapped Golden State's energy.
The Thunder are the real story. They are winning this, period.
That they are winning it with a small lineup featuring both Roberson and Waiters is a surprise, especially since that group looked bad for most of the season -- including in Games 1 and 2 in Oakland.
The Warriors have been roving off Roberson all series, and the Thunder deserve credit for leveraging that inattention against Golden State. They plopped Roberson into pick-and-rolls, had him set flare screens away from the ball and zipped passes to him when he slunk into profitable spots along the baseline.
None of that is revolutionary. The Grizzlies tried it all when the Warriors sprung the same tactic against Tony Allen last season. Memphis just didn't have Westbrook and Durant, two super-athletes who demand extra attention whenever they have the ball -- or, in Durant's case, even when they are just preparing to get it. Westbrook can drive past and through any player in the league. Durant can shoot over anyone fast enough to even try guarding him.
When you have guys who instill panic, who have the magnetism to tilt the whole floor toward them, you can absorb mooches like Roberson and Kanter. They can step into the empty space the stars open up. Hell, Ibaka sank a wide-open 3 late in the second quarter because the jittery Warriors sent three defenders to sandwich a Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll at the foul line.
The Thunder understood the power of their two stars better than anyone. They whiffed on some personnel moves, and they still don't have a proven two-way supplementary wing -- unless Waiters is in fact the real deal. There was no evidence to suggest they could defend this well, this season. I certainly didn't think they had it in them, and boy, have I been proved wrong. They kept believing, kept pushing, kept tweaking their rotations, and they discovered a new level.
Maybe this is all that matters: Durant and Westbrook are in their primes, more committed than ever, and the rest of a mottled roster is catching up just enough to drive Oklahoma City back where we once thought they'd be every other season.