Can the Thunder Halt the Warriors’ Coronation?

Four years ago, an Oklahoma City team that was a bit underrated compared to the very top of the Western Conference took down a seemingly unbeatable foe in San Antonio that had racked up a remarkable win streak at the end of the regular season and deep into the playoffs.

If you'll remember, after the Spurs won the first two games of those Western Conference Finals, there was "best-ever" talk if San Antonio won six more playoff games to take the title.

That six-game win over the Spurs in 2012 to make the NBA Finals with a core of young players who hadn't yet hit their 24th birthdays and end a 20-game win streak with four straight wins of their own stands as the peak accomplishment of the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook era in OKC.

The Thunder's most recent six-game triumph over the Spurs is definitely the second-best achievement of the Durant/Westbrook years. In 41 regular season home games, San Antonio lost merely once — to Golden State in the final week of the regular season. In three home games against Oklahoma City in the West semis, the Spurs lost twice.

Oklahoma City is getting a lot of deserved credit for pulling the upset, but I think it's still going overlooked how impressive it was to beat San Antonio this season.

In the 70-year history of the NBA, only 10 teams have ever finished with per game point differentials of plus-10 or above. This year's Spurs were one of those teams. San Antonio's 67 regular-season wins tied for seventh-best all time.

Even despite going out in the second round, the Spurs were one of the 25 to 30 best teams ever to take the court, and one of the 10 best not to lift a trophy at the end of the playoffs.

But the challenge Oklahoma City has in front of it for the West finals might be monumental, compared even to the San Antonio series from either 2012 or this spring.

Throughout the regular season, the biggest area Oklahoma City struggled the most relative to the other elite teams in the league was defense. Perhaps some of that was to be expected when Billy Donovan took over last offseason and installed a more traditional defense than the overplaying, turnover-heavy one Scott Brooks had employed. But in many of the biggest games this year, the Thunder's defense let the team down, especially in crunch time.

Yet, in the three close games against San Antonio, it was the Thunder who were stronger in most of the fourth quarters, especially defensively.

And excluding a Game 1 in which Oklahoma City got demolished on the pick-and-roll, on the three-point line and by LaMarcus Aldridge in particular, OKC held San Antonio to an average offensive rating of 104.2 points per 100 possessions, well below the Spurs' season average of 110.3.

But if we're being honest with ourselves, it was easier for the Thunder to guard the Spurs than it will be to matchup with the Warriors.

As currently composed, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David West all in their twilight years, and Danny Green established as an incredibly valuable 3-and-D player but not capable of much more, San Antonio has two excellent offensive talents: Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard.

Oklahoma City's ability to matchup Andre Roberson on Leonard and then use Steven Adams defensively down low against any San Antonio big man, while still potentially having the offensive game and shooting abilities of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on the floor at the same time was a giant key. When you consider that Enes Kanter's defense wasn't then going to kill the Thunder against older San Antonio legs, and Dion Waiters wasn't on his worst behavior for most of series, Oklahoma City truly had a winning formula against the Spurs.

Not a lot of the same logic applies when talking about going up against Golden State.

In the latter half of the Spurs-Thunder series, it was absolutely striking how stagnant San Antonio looked on offense for large stretches. When Aldridge and Leonard would try to make things happen on their own, the Thunder often stopped them. When San Antonio tried to move the ball around, and get good shots, the players didn't look as decisive as they usually were, and overpassing would happen on occasion.

Those things aren't likely to happen against Golden State. Even without Steph Curry for the first three games against Portland, the Warriors offense was still at an elite level. And even when Golden State can't throw out a lineup with four of its top five dynamic offensive talents (Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala), they still move the ball around as masters of the pace-and-space game.

You see where this probably leads. The Warriors have too many options on hand on offense, even if the Thunder's defense-first players like Roberson and Adams absolutely lock down their guys. Heck, even if we go beyond the five "death lineup" players for Golden State, you can absolutely envision Andrew Bogut (if healthy) or Festus Ezeli picking on and demolishing Kanter on pick-and-rolls or simple rim-running.

When Oklahoma City has the ball, those lineups with both Adams and Roberson on the floor are likely only going to take the Thunder as far as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka can lead them, taking into account a whole lot of switching, help defense and double teams coming from the Warriors. However, Portland did play fantastic on offense against Golden State in what was a similar series stylistically to what the West finals should be.

There is one potentially huge equalizer in Oklahoma City's arsenal: rebounding. The Thunder had the best offensive rebounding percentage in the league this season by some distance, and have stayed at that lofty level in the playoffs. For all of their numerous, numerous strengths this year, Golden State has only been a league-average team on the glass. I'm also not breaking any news in saying that the Warriors will be using smaller lineups in this series than the Thunder.

If the Thunder keep rebounding their own misses at a 30 percent or greater level, it could be a way to neutralize Golden State's likely field goal percentage advantage and make things very competitive.

In this series, both teams are likely to play fast and score points, so it should be a fun watch for the neutral fans and casual fans. Whether Oklahoma City has a serious shot at preventing the Warriors' coronation as conference champions in their historic 73-win season depends on how the Thunder players can adapt to the different opponent and if they can step up their level of play even above what they proved against the Spurs.

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