It’s here: The Oklahoma City Thunder will host the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena in a legacy-defining elimination game that could ultimately shape the narrative surrounding this era of the NBA.
Here are four vital things to look out for during tonight’s war on the court:
1) The Thunder are not intimidated by the Warriors.
In front of the raucous Oracle Arena crowd during Game 5, Golden State had a chance to reclaim the momentum in the series and reinforce the recently-forgotten notion that the Warriors are the mighty Warriors – the record-shattering defending champions who just completed the best regular season in league history.
It didn’t happen.
Despite a legacy-saving win, Game 5 ended with the same sentiment we felt after watching Apollo Creed squeak out a split decision vs. Balboa in the original Rocky film – the champion is still the champion, but only on paper. After going down double-digits multiple times in the second half, the Thunder pulled themselves off the mat and counterpunched with a blitz of scoring, athletic dominance and resilience so impressive that they were seen celebrating their effort and moral victory as the final buzzer sounded.
The result? Any preconceived narrative that a Game 7 in Oakland is a “Formality Warriors Win” is dead. No matter what happens during Game 6 on Saturday night (short of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook being permanently teleported to another galaxy), the Thunder hold no stock in a sudden-death game at Oracle being impossible, let alone daunting.
Simply put: The Thunder carry themselves, as of this moment, like they know they are better than the Warriors. They treat the Warriors the same way the Warriors have looked at every other team in the NBA since the beginning of the 2014 season. And if the defending champs are going to accomplish a comeback that only two teams have completed in the history of the NBA, they are going to have to do it against a blood-thirsty roster of players who don’t care what the brand “Golden State Warriors” represents.
2) Who will get into foul trouble first: Andrew Bogut or Steven Adams?
Game 5: Steven Adams was assessed two personal fouls within the first three minutes of the contest. Whether you agree that these calls were warranted, the fact remains that the starting centers in this series are the X-factors. The Warriors’ small-ball “Death” lineup is getting absolutely annihilated in every aspect of basketball from the court to the box score to advanced analytics by the Oklahoma City “Mountain of Youth” featuring three seven-footers.
In turn, Andrew Bogut has reached unprecedented levels of importance.
(Row 1: Bogut IN Lineup, Row 2: Small-ball “Death” lineup with Bogut OUT)
(117 points-per-game average with Bogut on vs. 107.4 average with him OFF)
That’s right, when Bogut is on the floor with the traditional starting lineup, it holds a +3 net rating and is five points more effective (+/-) than the historically-awesome “Lineup of Death.”
In Golden State’s three losses this series, Bogut has posted individual +/-‘s of -9, -6, +7. In the two victories? +14, +3.
As for Adams, the statistics don’t support the same narrative associated with Bogut. However, it is clear his mere presence on the court is influencing the way the Warriors attack the rim. The moment Adams was forced to the bench with foul trouble in Game 5, Curry’s floaters started going in and the Warriors got to the line, and there is a general feel no statistic can quantify that traversing around the rim is less stressful.
While Bogut has become the most important player on Golden State not named Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, it is essential that Adams stays on the court to not only negate Bogut’s impact but do the Steven Adams things that have gotten the Thunder to the brink of glory.
3) What will the Warriors do with Andre Roberson?
Andre Roberson’s emergence as … dare I say … a somewhat productive offensive player has been the culmination of the Thunder locking their regular-season skeletons away in the closet for good. Say what you want about his game, but the fact remains that Roberson’s three-point shooting percentage has increased from 31.1 (regular season) to 36.4 (playoffs).
Although 36.4% is a long way from being a “threat,” his progression from being a “liability” to someone who actually needs to have a hand in his face is a significant reason the Thunder are where they are today.
With this said, the Warriors have no choice but to continue to force Roberson to make shots. I’m not talking about putting a hand in his face. If I am Golden State and my era-defining legacy is about to be incinerated, the only way I am able to sleep until next season is knowing that a basketball anomaly happened and one of the least efficient offensive basketball players in the entire league dropped 30 on us because we left him completely open.
Unless Roberson is within six feet of the rim, the Warriors cannot dedicate resources to defending him – Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are so good that a legitimate argument can be made that a WIDE-OPEN Roberson eight-footer is less detrimental to a defense than a long contested jump shot by one of these two.
If Golden State continues to dedicate the same attention to Oklahoma City’s starting swingman that it gives to the team’s perennial superstars, its fate has already been sealed.
4) Can the Warriors turn Russell Westbrook on Russell Westbrook?
Here it is, the biggest wild card of all: Russell Westbrook.
Whether you’re a die-hard basketball fan or new to the game just tuning into the playoffs, let me summarize Westbrook for you in one sentence: Russell Westbrook thinks he’s better than Russell Westbrook.
Outside of LeBron James, Oklahoma City’s dynamic point guard is the most impressive physical specimen who has played the game of basketball in recent memory. One broken face and three major knee surgeries later, Russell Westbrook somehow … someway keeps getting more athletic – and he knows it.
In years past, Westbrook’s self-inflicted Napoleon Complex has been a two-headed sword – for every unfathomably awesome thing he accomplished, something equally injurious soon followed as a result. We all knew Russ had the power of basketball immortality at his disposal, but, could he harness it into efficient, consistent production?
The short answer: yes.
Westbrook has evolved into a first-team All-NBA superstar, there is no way around this hypothesis.
However, like we saw after Game 5 when he threw blatant shade at his opposition…
…Russell Westbrook wanting to prove that he is basketball’s alpha male is the underlying narrative that won’t go away like that itch in the middle of your back you can’t reach.
Every time this man steps on the court, despite his brilliance, you get that feeling like you’re drawing a Monopoly chance card to determine what his mindset will be. More times than not you’re going to be instructed to pass GO and collect $200 — the distributing, attacking, super-efficient Westbrook. But there’s always that one “straight to jail” draw lurking at the most inopportune time — Russell’s third quarter of Game 5 when he’s turning the ball over at a ridiculous rate in attempt to single-handedly carry the team to victory.
Don’t let this undermine anything Russ has accomplished, however. If the Golden State Warriors want any chance of forcing this series back to Oakland for Game 7, they’ll have to figure out a way to bring out the Hyde from within Westbrook’s Jekyl.