These are the top-10 things you may have missed between the Thunder and Warriors.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder's small ball tweak
After all of the copy written about the size of the Thunder being able to match up with the space and pace of the Warrior attack, Billy Donovan surprised us all with a tweak to his rotation. Sixth Man of the Year contender Enes Kanter has been supplanted by Dion Waiters as the first man off the bench for Steven Adams. While many have tried and most have failed to match the champs by downsizing, this length and athleticism that the Spurs witnessed is once again coming to the forefront. That’s not to say the super-size lineup isn’t still a factor. It’s only this Thunder wrinkle is one few forecast.
2. Role Players play better at home
While the Warriors’ role players are vital, coach Steve Kerr’s rotation and offense call on many to do more, in contrast to the eye of the Thunder’s storm being focused around Durant and Westbrook. When the role players like Waiters, Adams, Ibaka and Roberson deliver more than their usual M.O., it super charges the Thunder to levels witnessed in Game 3. Waiters’ play making, Adams’ defense against guards, Ibaka’s willingness to score inside and Roberson’s timely offense are all key. While proving capable of a road repeat of Game 1, their consistency regardless of zip code will decide whether their weather system cuts a path to Cleveland or Toronto.
3. “You can’t win anything with kids”
The 1995 statement by Scottish footballing pundit Alan Hansen may have been proven wrong by David Beckham’s youthful Manchester United side that year, but no premiership team has won the league in ten years with an average age younger than 27. That makes Billy Donovan's choice to bench rookie Cameron Payne in favor of the 32 year old Randy Foye pay dividends in the form of steady play, low turnovers, sound team defense and accurate shooting.
4. Cooking up a storm of a Curry
With the Thunder tendency to switch out onto the Warriors' guards, we’ve seen and heard plenty from the Thunder's bigs on their task at hand. However, as demonstrated in Game 3, big guys need to adapt from their perceived strengths to their opponents weaknesses. Traditionally, bigs think with their longer arms; swiping downwards at the dribble or upwards to the shot is the best defense of their opponent’s attack. But in Curry’s case, with his exceptional ball handling and lightning shot release, it’s simply not the case. He’s a master of motion in playing puppet defenders on a string and reacting to their actions within a split second. Reach left at the bounce and his crossover frees him up. Jump to contest the pinnacle of his jumper and he’ll up fake you out to create contact. So stay low, but not that low. Play his waist with your reach and reduce the range of your motion. By doing so, you remove a slight margin for him to expose you left and right, or up and down. Easier said than done against the Muppet Master, but stranded bigs must remember, even on that island, help should be just a step away.
5. Throttling shots below the belt
Both sides of the conference coin have shown an odd penchant for shots below the belt this year, with Cleveland’s Dahntay Jones and Golden State's Draymond Green both taking aim at the unmentionables. But we’re talking about it here, given the roasting referees have endured in this space of late. Their obsession with flagrant fouls above the shoulders has given rise to the evolution of the game downstairs. Two timely taps down south, in both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals have shown the need for officials to stay ahead of the game. Neither crew made a definitive in-game call and handed the responsibility over to the league after the fact. A cunning spin by the Association to leverage more air time and debate between games perhaps? Or an excuse me from the officials who now see any big call as one for a not-so instant replay? You choose. Just another example of the more rules you alter, the more changes will be required. Coaches and players are always ahead of the game.
6. Better to be lucky and good
The cries of the champions' luck have dampened over the course of the season. Attributing the 2015 title to good fortune was dealt a disarming blow by a record number of regular season wins. But the whispers are still there. Postseason success will see to that. Having skipped through last year’s playoffs having faced teams with a voodoo like injury bug, 2016 looked like lightning could strike twice. Houston’s point guard pit-bull Patrick Beverley took an early hit as did the Clippers, which offered up an unprepared Trail Blazers squad for the Warriors in the second round. But a fully-functioning Thunder squad is now bearing down on the Bayside Boys for their first (cough) real challenge. They've faced a 1-2 deficit twice before against the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers last year. Third time unlucky? Once your luck runs out, one thing’s for sure: you’d better be good.
7. The Thunder got the best of the Harden trade after all
"Idiotic!" as Reggie Miller proclaimed after Draymond Green’s foul of a jump shooter in Game 3. But the same sentiment cannot be shared here. Let’s get down to brass tacks and forget Kevin Martin (Spurs DNP/CD specialist), Cole Aldrich (Excellent but career backup), Jeremy Lamb (Stingless Hornet), Daequan Cook (Euro-Traveler), Mitch McGary (Cole Aldrich Jr.) and Lazar Hayward (D-Fender of the highest order). The trade came down to James Harden for Steven Adams and four rolls of the dice for the Thunder on the players above. Which, on present form, pits an overpaid ball hog incapable of making players around him any better with an underpaid fleet footed and fearless young seven-footer willing to sacrifice for success. Ask the Rockets who they’d rather have manning the middle. Think there’s any need to ask the Thunder? No. Me either.
8. The F8ful Eight is back
The Warriors’ success comes from the embarrassment of riches Kerr and Luke Walton have to choose from on any given night. The Thunder rookie coach has decided not to match or even attempt to align rotations, rather than cut his bench down to an effective eight as described in the Fateful Eight article of earlier this month. A multi-purpose wing in Waiters can slide over between the shooting guard and small forward, while having the ball handling moxie to help Kevin Durant when Russell Westbrook heads to the bench in bigger lineups. A combo guard in Randy Foye, who can slide between both back court spots, while never needing the ball to space the floor effectively and possessing the quickness to guard water bug points. Finally, a two spot big like Kanter who can play both four and five spots in a muscular front line. Similar in style to the Riley rotations of the pre-rest NBA, it's possible Golden State may have to answer by trimming their options to offer more minutes to Iguodala, Livingston and Ezeli.
9. Curry isn’t the only recipe for success
Don’t look now, but the Thunder may just have stolen the Golden State secret to success without anyone noticing. It became blatantly obvious during the Thunder-portion of the Conference Finals and the Warriors first round series against the Rockets. A well-known factor in the Warriors’ modern day success was the trade of their high scoring shooting guard for a Big Man From Down Under. Shipping out Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut began Golden State's journey to Silverware in 2012. Ignoring, as we do Ekpe Udoh (Superstar, in the Euroleague), Kwame Brown (1.9ppg for the Sixers) and Stephen Jackson (retired and golfing), the trade moved a volume shooter and ball magnet for a purposeful pass-first defensive anchor. Sound familiar? No? Come on people, join the dots back to #7. There you go. Given the same four years back to 2012 when the trade went through, there’s every chance that the 2013 draftee Adams will be having a similar impact as his mate from down under.
10. Tired of success yet?
It’s only human nature to want a change of scenery; a new outlook on life. We all did it, even during the reigns of the G.O.A.T in everyone’s generation. I tired of Michael Jordan's Bulls and admittedly found myself cheering for the Phoenix Suns in 1993. The same with the next snapshot of greatness when countless fans backed the Sacramento Kings in 2003 over Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant’s lake show. While seemingly never learning from experience, here we are thinking just how nice a fresh face for a Finals series would be, or at least the temptation to witness Dion Waiters take on the Cleveland Cavaliers for seven games. Do we really, honestly want the Thunder to roll through the Warriors' historic 73 win season? We did before. But it didn't make it so.