Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are making an unexpected fourth appearance in the Western Conference Finals (Photo via Twitter).
By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – For much of the season the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs had seemingly been on a collision course. The teams with two best records in the NBA were predestined to battle for the Western Conference Championship, the de facto NBA title to most.
However, the young and brash Oklahoma City Thunder decided to play party crasher. After a grueling series against the Spurs, it’s the Thunder who earned the coveted spot to face the top-seeded Golden State in the Western Conference finals. Game 1 is Monday in Oakland, Calif.
“Game 1 they just outplayed,” Kevin Durant said. “Game 3, I think we gave the game away and we didn’t want to do that again. We were huge on the road though. Russell (Westbrook) was huge last game. I think that propelled us into having a good game tonight. We’re not done yet. We have to keep improving. Keep getting better and get ready for the next series.”
In the close out game Thursday, Durant scored 37 points on 12-for-24 shooting from the field. He was a perfect 12 of 12 from the free throw line and pulled down nine rebounds. Russell Westbrook posted 28 points and 12 assists.
Those are the type of numbers. Oklahoma City fans will hopefully expect to from their two biggest stars when they take on Golden State.
When the Thunder face the Warriors, it will be their fourth Western Conference Championship in six years. They were 0-3 against Golden State in the regular season, but are looking forward to taking on the defending champions.
“It’s going to be fun,” Durant said. “We’re just excited to get this opportunity. Not too many teams get this opportunity. We’re looking forward to it.”
In those three defeats to the Warriors this season, the Thunder had the lead in the fourth quarter in all three games. That included a 121-118 overtime contest in which Durant turned the ball over and fouled his man while attempting a 3-pointer in the final moments of regulation.
Durant went on to foul out that game and Steph Curry drained a 40-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game.
But the Thunder believe they are a different team now compared to that point in the season when they were earning reputation for losing games in the 4th quarter.
“It all comes down to defense.,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think if you look at our defense, our defense has been better in those situations. I think in some of those regular season games, people pointed to offense and maybe our offense could be better in those situations. A lot of times, when teams get into these fourth quarters, teams tighten up and you’re probably not going to shoot as high of a percentage. I think what has hurt us sometimes on offense has been our turnovers and transition defense. Teams have shot a very high percentage against us when we’ve had leads.”
While the Thunder have changed those traits around in the playoffs so far, they will now face a Warriors’ squad that thrive on the pressure of the fourth quarter. A team that continually makes big shots after big shots in the most clutch of moments.
Golden State comes into the series after knocking out Portland in five close games that took late game heroics Curry, the recently anointed unanimous MVP. Even though he is just two games back from an MCL strain, it didn’t take him long to get back into character of playoff assassin.
However, unlike last year when the Warriors marched to the NBA title, they will have a fully healthy Thunder squad standing in their way. And Curry will have to deal with a point guard in Westbrook who’s all-around game and fiery nature could be the perfect counter to his cool demeanor on deadly shooting.
But the most important factor in the series could be which team imposes their will. Golden State wants to go small and run up and down the court raining 3-pointers. They scored at least 116 points in game against Oklahoma City.
But as the Spurs learned, the Thunder’s best line up is with a big front line of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter dominating the boards and imposing their will.
Regardless, the Thunder will be the underdog against the record breaking Warriors. But that doesn’t seem to Oklahoma City. These days, they tend to thrive on the perceived disrespect.
“It feels great. It is just a testament to all that we put in,” Andre Roberson said. “A lot of people counted us out playing against the Spurs. They are a great organization and a well-coached team. We believed in ourselves and came through with our heart all the way to the end. It paid off.”