Thunder-Warriors: Five things to watch for in Game 7 – ESPN

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Tonight is why we do this. Games 5 and 6 of this epic Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder represented peak playoff basketball — the perfect mix of beauty and grime. Watching a team play beautiful basketball for 48 minutes brings us close to euphoria, but it also means that team is humming — that it can exist constantly as the best version of itself. Life is easy.

In those two fingers-digging-into-the-armrest battles, neither team let the other reach that state. The strategies that got them this far were no longer good enough. When that happens, a team can either quake or search deeper for new ways to win. The Warriors and Thunder cut harder, tested the limits of shot-making against unyielding defenses, invented new tricks and played beyond exhaustion.

It was raw, improvisational and a little dirty. Only championship-level teams can impose that sort of degradation, and only championship-level teams can adapt well enough to survive it.

Whatever happens Monday tonight, both teams have proved their championship mettle. The Warriors are favorites, because the Warriors are at home, but you cannot possibly have watched this Thunder team rise over the past three weeks and expect them to lie down after a defeat that might leave a lesser team hollow.

Here are five things to watch in a game that everyone outside Oklahoma City wanted:

The Iguodala question

Warriors coach Steve Kerr made the first dramatic lineup change of the series by starting swingman Andre Iguodala over Harrison Barnes in the second half of Game 6, and with a historic 73-win regular season on the line once more, Kerr should consider doing it from tipoff. Iguodala has outplayed Barnes, and he is a better fit for this matchup.

Barnes’ best asset on defense is his ability to credibly defend big men on the block, and aside from a few random Enes Kanter post-ups, that just doesn’t mean much in this series. Barnes is a little mechanical guarding Thunder forward Kevin Durant; he reacts to each move, lurching after him from a standstill once Durant starts a cut. Iguodala is fluid. He moves in tandem with Durant, mirroring him almost stride for stride with a genius sense of anticipation.

On offense, Iguodala’s secondary ball-handling is probably more important against Oklahoma City than Barnes’ 3-point shooting. When the Thunder strangle a possession by switching everything, Iguodala is better equipped to create something from nothing off the bounce. He’s in another universe as a passer; Barnes has missed several wide-open shots in this series.

The Thunder hide extra big men on both Iguodala and Barnes, and the Warriors have responded by having those guys screen for point guard Stephen Curry — a method of dragging Thunder behemoths into the Curry-centric action they’d prefer to avoid.

The Thunder will usually trap Curry in that circumstance, yielding a free roll to the rim for Iguodala or Barnes. They in effect become big man Draymond Green, running the 4-on-3s that fuel Golden State in happier times. Iguodala is a more natural drive-and-kick Green facsimile.

Golden State’s starting lineup has outperformed the version with Iguodala in Barnes’s place over the full series (though not the full season), but Iguodala is more comfortable than Barnes coming off the bench. Perhaps Kerr will stick with the regular starters, but be ready to insert Iguodala earlier.

On staggering, and centers

The Thunder are plus-45 in the 206 minutes Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook have played together and a disastrous minus-30 in the leftover 82 minutes, per They shared the floor for 41 minutes in Game 6, a series high, and unless coach Billy Donovan abandons the staggering gambit, it is impossible for them to play much more than that.

Oklahoma City has mostly gone small with Durant on the bench, and jumbo — with a Durant, Steven Adams, Kanter frontcourt — when he plays without Westbrook. Nothing has really worked.

Kerr loves to chance it by starting the second quarter without Klay Thompson, Curry, or Green on the floor, and the Warriors’ offense flatlined for that chunk of Game 6. They couldn’t gain any north-south traction; no Warrior could beat his man one-on-one, reducing every possession to a series of harmless pitches around the perimeter.

Golden State is almost impossible to beat when it wins these games within the game. The Warriors rely on tough shots: Shaun Livingston post-ups, random Marreese Speights outbursts and Barnes pull-up shots over bigger guys. The Thunder have made those shots even tougher. Shooting guard Dion Waiters has morphed into The Thing walling off Livingston’s post-ups.

As he often does in close games, Kerr adjusted by pulling Thompson a hair earlier in the third quarter so that Golden State could start him (and Green) in the fourth quarter. If the Warriors are behind, Kerr should probably go this direction in the second quarter Monday.

The center minutes alone will be fascinating to watch. Adams has been sensational for Oklahoma City the entire playoffs, tailor-made by the basketball gods to slip into the void and gobble up offensive rebounds when defenses overload on the Thunder stars. When Durant has his pocket-pass game on, Adams is a legit pick-and-roll threat. Golden State’s centers have to scurry around the 3-point arc to quash Durant’s off-the-bounce triple, and if Durant looks for it early, he can find little creases to spring Adams:

Thunder-Warriors: Five things to watch for in Game 7 – ESPN

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