After winning back to back games against the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, the Golden State Warriors (32-42) will try to earn a third consecutive victory tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder (48-24). The Thunder are the fourth seed in the Western Conference standings and have slowly but surely been built to play in the postseason.
One of Oklahoma City’s biggest strengths is their ability to put up points on the board, as evidenced by their 104.4 points per game (fifth in the NBA) on 46.3% field goal shooting (14th in the league). Their efficiency stems form their ability to get to the rim with regularity thanks in large part to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s drives to the hoop.
Durant likes to isolate at the wing and fire away jumpers in the grill of his defender. As his opposing player moves in closer to him to contest his shot, Durant will wait for his defender to try and swipe at the ball and elevate just as its happening to draw the foul and get himself to the free throw line. After causing all that confusion, Durant will just size up the player guarding him and take him to the hole for a lay up, midrange jumper, dunk or floater.
Westbrook on the other hand is not as sophisticated as a scorer, but he just gets to the rim because of his ball handling skills and speed. He usually comes off screen and rolls aggressively looking for his shot as he probes the lane to find an angle to the rim. Even if the former UCLA guard does not get all the way to the basket, he still manages to get in the lane for a short shot or he is able to set up a teammate for a look at the basket.
The Thunder’s ability to manufacture 42.3 points in the paint per game (10th in the NBA) also translates into fouls. Indeed, because they do such a great job of getting to the rim, the OKC gang attempts 29.3 free throws per game (second most in the league).
Further compounding issues for opposing teams, the Thunder get out in transition better than most teams because of the athletes they have on the roster as well as their steady point guard play.
Westbrook is just too fast and too dynamic on the fast break as he gets his team up and down the court effortlessly as the team averages 16.2 fast break points per game (fifth in the league).
With that said, the Thunder are prone to having a few scoring droughts per game when they start to rely too much on their perimeter game. Because they are a team that relies so heavily on their stars, ball movement is not always a priority. This is reflected in their 20.4 assists per game (23rd in the association). The end result is that they have several instances where the ball sticks in the hands of one player as the shot clock is winding down and they are forced to fire away a contested jumper.
To be fair, not all of the blame can be attributed to the players. The team’s offensive sets seem to have one singular purpose with a very limited amount of options. For instance, if the play is a curl screen for Durant to get loose from about 17 feet, if he fails to get open, the ball still has to end up in his hands close to where it was diagrammed for him to receive it because there aren’t any counters like the ones that the Pacers ran for Reggie Miller.
Also, with Durant and Westbrook on the team, this team would benefit greatly from having some knock down shooters on the roster. Their 35.0 percent shooting from deep (19th in the NBA) is decent but often times opponents send extra help towards the Thunder stars because they understand that other players on the roster do not convert shots from three-point range with much regularity.
As good as the Oklahoma City Thunder is on offense, they have instances where they struggle on defense. On the season, they allow 100.8 points per game (18th in the NBA) on 46.0% field goal shooting (19th in the league). And yet, to be perfectly honest, this team should be a defensive juggernaut with the players they have on the roster.
Imagine the chaos this line up could potentially make on the court: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. One could argue that Durant is the weakest defender of the group and yet his length still bothers players at his position. So what gives?
Prior to the trade that brought Perkins on board, the Thunder were a poor interior defensive team. Granted, part of that can be attributed to the fact that Jeff Green was constantly overmatched when playing against opposing power forwards and that Nenad Krstic routinely got exposed in the pick and roll.
On the season, Oklahoma City allows 45.0 points in the paint per game (26th in the NBA) and 25.0 free throw attempts per game (20th in the league). Their inability to contain post players led to teams scoring on the low block against them, but they have also struggled during the season with containing dribble penetration. Indeed, the Thunder were previously slow at reacting to the screener when he rolled towards the basket.
In addition, OKC’s big men tend to hedge hard in pick and rolls which leads to good ball handlers being able to split the defense and get to the hoop for a lay in or to draw a foul. The presence of Perkins on the roster does change that to some extent mind you, because of the resistance he provides at the rim. He might not block shots, but his physical presence around the rim is enough to deter opponents from getting all the way to the rim.
Perkins’ bulk also is a huge advantage as far as defending opposing big men. The former Celtic does his work early as he fights for post position and pushes the offensive player off the block. Even when the his opponent catches the ball in the low post, Perkins adequately sits on his go to move and forces him to change up his game and do something he is not comfortable with thus limiting his effectiveness. His presence has allowed the team to become a bit tougher.
For the Dubs to have a chance, they will have to be relentless in attacking the hoop and getting to the line. Also, Kevin Durant tends to fall asleep on the weak side, hence if Dorell Wright remains active off the ball, he might be able to get some scoring opportunities just by cutting to the basket.
I would also be tempted to put Curry, Ellis, Wright, Radmanovic and Lee on the court against the Thunder’s combination of big men. As good as Ibaka is on switches, he struggles to stay with players that go through screens because he prefers to cheat off the screen instead of trailing the offensive player. The end result is that if he’s guarding a perimeter player at any point, this said player can simply fake as if he is going through the screen and go back to his initial spot for an uncontested jumper.
Lastly, James Harden likes to break off plays and improvise depending on his mood. Consequently, if defenses deny Durant the ball (especially late in ball games, KD often has trouble getting open as referees allow a more physical brand of defense), Harden might decide to try to bail the team out. That’s a bad thing for Oklahoma City, but a good thing for their opponents.
Oklahoma City game notes: In his two previous games against the Warriors this season, Russell Westbrook has averaged 20.0 points, 9.0 assists and 1.5 steals on 33.3% field goal shooting.
Golden State game notes: In his two previous games against the Thunder this season, Stephen Curry averaged 31.0 points, 9.5 assists and 2.0 steals on 63.2% field goal shooting.