Let me start with something you probably already know, but I can confirm: The NBA playoffs are an entirely different level of basketball.
This is the time of year when teams play with an energy that’s generally sorely lacking at times during the regular season. Every single player is completely dialed in.You have no life outside of basketball. Your friends know not to call you. Your wife gives you space. And in most ways you completely check out of your normal routine.
Every player takes it incredibly seriously because we all fully understand just how difficult it is to make it this far. Some guys go their entire careers without ever playing a game in May. I played in my first NBA Conference finals in 2012 with Miami. It was my 11th year in the league.
A lot of pundits might get concerned about fatigue at this point, but that’s not actually an issue. Your body might be nicked up, but nobody’s tired during playoff time because there are limitless sources of juice: You’re playing in sold-out arenas on national television against the best teams in the world. This is the fun part. It makes all of the ice bags and 4 a.m. flights worth it.
And this Western Conference finals matchup is the reason you watch basketball.
Athleticism and skill.
I can’t remember a series (or even an NBA Finals) where both teams possessed both qualities in so much abundance. This matchup might produce the most highlights of any series in NBA history. Between these two teams, you have five All-NBA caliber players.
That’s a serious talent pool. You cannot win big in the league without this type of talent.
All respect to the Spurs, who had an unbelievable regular season, but they won in a different way than the Warriors and the Thunder. The Spurs played beautiful team-oriented basketball and some of the best defense this league has ever seen, but they did not have the horses that OKC and Golden State do.
Basketball is at its highest level when you have skilled athletes in space making tremendous plays. That’s the bread and butter for both of these teams, and it’s the reason why, if you call yourself a basketball fan, you should watch every minute of this series.
While everyone will focus on the tremendous star power in this series, I don’t think that’s going to be what tilts it in either direction. Once you get to this level, you tend to know what the stars are going to do. You know Steph is gonna shoot well. You know KD is going to have a couple of 30-point games. You know Westbrook is going to throw in a couple of triple doubles.
The variance for their performances isn’t going to be that great. They’re elite players, and they’re going to light it up.
This series will come down to the play of the guys who support the stars. Which role player is going to pop up and bite the other team for 15 points? Which guy is going to make the four or five three-pointers that tilt the entire series? Who gets the key loose ball?
For that reason, the player I’m most interested in watching is Dion Waiters. He’s an explosive player and at times he’s the best guy on the floor — for both teams. If you’re the Thunder, that kind of wild card is petrifying. He’s definitely the Western Conference’s J.R. Smith.
Waiters gives the Thunder a dimension on offense that nobody outside of Durant and Westbrook can give them. If we see Good Dion this series, the Thunder have an excellent shot at advancing.
For the Warriors, I’m excited to watch one of my favorite players, Andre Igoudala. You know that I love glue guys. Well, Andre is the glue guy. If he starts making threes, I think you’ll see players on the Thunder start throwing up their hands in frustration. You have to account for Steph and Klay lighting it up, but when Draymond and Iggy are hitting from deep with consistency, Golden State might be the best team in NBA history. They’re pretty much unbeatable.
Kevin Durant is a mismatch for every team in the league, and the Warriors are no exception. Ultimately, Durant is a guy with limitless range and an unblockable shot. If you’re playing against him, just… try your best out there.
From my experience, the most crucial thing when you’re guarding KD is to not give him free throws. He’s 90% from the line. If you hack him, count it. During any game, he’s going to take and make a ton of ridiculous shots. He’s one of the best ever, that’s just going to happen. So you simply cannot give him freebies at the line, because that’s only going to warm him up more.
As much as you can, you have to run KD off the three-point line. That’s doubly true in Oklahoma City. He can really get it going there, and while the Warriors’ crowd gets a lot of love, it’s basically impossible to win (or hear yourself think) in OKC when the 3’s are falling for the Thunder. The best way to guard KD is to force him to put it on the floor and to guard him extremely tight on pick-and-roll coverage. Limit his airspace and contest his jumpers. Those nights when he puts up insane shooting numbers are generally a byproduct of loose coverage on the pick-and-roll. Interestingly, pick-and-roll coverage is one of the only slight weaknesses in Golden State’s D, so I’m interested to see how that plays out.
The Thunder will be trying to pull off an upset, and to do that they have to understand what beats you and what doesn’t. Against the Warriors, your discipline on offense is going to be your best defense. You cannot take bad shots or turn the ball over against this team. If the W’s get in transition, they’re going to extend the lead by three points most of the time. That’s so demoralizing.
Discipline is key, but the most important attribute you need to beat the Warriors is awareness. Everyone on the team needs to know where Golden State’s shooters are at all times. Steph Curry is live as soon as he crosses half-court. The Thunder learned this lesson the hard way last time the W’s played in OKC. Golden State is so fluid on both side of the floor that a lot of teams will get into a panic when they play against them and then deviate from their game plan. That’s when it’s over. The Warriors will wax you with their efficient offense if you wander from your defensive principles.
For that reason, I don’t think OKC has a shot in this series if they have to play small to match up with Golden State. The Thunder bludgeoned the Spurs with their size and athletic bigs. They need to utilize their big men in this series if they’re going to win. It can happen. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams are both coming of age at the perfect time. Not many people are talking about Serge Ibaka, but he needs to put pressure on the W’s outside of his long jumpers. If Oklahoma City plays large, I think they can have some success. But if they try to conform to the Warriors style and slide Durant to the four, I don’t think they have the firepower to match up.
Oklahoma City might very well be the team to knock off the Warriors. It’s totally possible. This is the toughest playoff match up that Golden State has faced to date.
But in the end, I think that unless Durant and Westbrook can combine for 60 points every game, the Warriors are too skilled, too disciplined and too confident to be overtaken.
For that reason, I have to take the Warriors in six amazing, must-watch games.