Seldom have there been more changes in the narrative within a single series, than there have been in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Many were quick to dismiss the Warriors after consecutive drubbings in Games 3 and 4. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were buried amidst a pyroclastic flow of hot takes. The question was being asked, "Does 73-9 mean anything without a championship?" All before the Thunder had actually won their 4th game.
Following a heroic performance from Splash Brother no. 2, and a late-game renaissance from Steph, Golden State looks like the presumptive favorite in Game 7. FiveThirtyEight is the least bullish on the Warriors of any power rating system, and their projections still give them 68% odds to win. For a second straight year, we are reminded that a 3-1 deficit is not a death knell for the home team.
Of course, the series is not over yet. Those assuming Golden State will ride the wave of momentum and home-court advantage into the Finals should re-watch Games 3 and 4. Oklahoma City is an immensely talented team with two of the top five or six players in the league. Game 7 may not possess the hysteria of Game 6, but it should be competitive nonetheless. So how did we get here, and what can one expect from the series finale?
Isolation Rules (at least for OKC)
Perhaps I'm beating a dead horse at this point, but Oklahoma City's predictable late-game offense is of paramount concern. In the fourth quarter of Game 6, practically every possession was an iso call for either Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant. They did not get into actions until 10 seconds or so were left on the shot clock. OKC's non-stars (Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Serge Ibaka) rarely moved off the ball, and were often in poor position within offensive sets.
Ignore the obvious lack of movement off the ball for a moment. A subtler issue here is Ibaka's position on the low block. By standing there, he allows Harrison Barnes to easily help on the drive, and contest Durant's jumper. Notice the shot clock as well. The play is a KD iso, but Westbrook hands the ball off with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Durant then proceeds to stand and dribble around for another 4 seconds, before finally beginning his drive with just 11 seconds left. This sort of stagnant offense is highly inefficient, and reminds one of Toronto's ghastly crunch-time offense earlier in the playoffs.
This next play encompasses two late-game trends which helped Golden State rally in Game 6. There is both Oklahoma City's deliberate, transparent offense, as well as tremendous on-ball defense by Andre Iguodala. Inbounding with 13 seconds left on the shot clock, the Thunder almost entirely stand still. Durant manages just one dribble before having the ball slapped away while rising for a shot.
Preceding this play was another isolation, this time for Westbrook. Following a miscommunication on a ball-screen, he drove wildly to the rim. His layup hit squarely off the backboard, and could not be controlled by Klay Thompson as he fell out of bounds, thus setting up the ensuing inbound pass to Durant. Finally, notice Waiters on the two plays above. He stands in the opposite corner from the ball, and does not move in either iso action for KD.
Active Defense and Transition Scoring
Live ball turnovers and defensive deflections fueled the rout in Game 4. Practically everything tracked by the NBA's new "hustle stats" tab, the Thunder had in spades. Golden State seemed completely perplexed by OKC's superior length and lateral quickness.
The oft-mispronounced Andre Roberson, once deemed unplayable in this series, had two blocks and five steals in Game 4 alone. Durant has converted his tantalizing wingspan into tangible results. He protects the rim, closes out, and plays the passing lanes. He had a combined six blocks in the two game stretch, and four steals in Game 4.
Draymond Green going downhill to the rim typically produces good results. Here, he drives unabated after Waiters and Westbrook blow a coverage. But Durant absolutely smothers his shot at the rim, before capitalizing on the ensuing five-on-four with a pull up three.
Oklahoma City's offense relies heavily on transition opportunities. In transition, the threat of Westbrook and Durant gets magnified. Westbrook is literally a one-man fastbreak, while Durant has mastered the pull up game. Golden State limited live-ball turnovers in both their Game 5 and Game 6 wins. After finishing with 16 steals in Game 4, OKC had only 17 combined in the next two contests.
Defensive Rebounding and Size Mattering
Much of the credit for Oklahoma City's upset over San Antonio was given to their center duo, and rightfully so. The Steven Adams - Enes Kanter lineup was a revelation, and put up absurd rebounding numbers. In Game 5 for example, the Spurs did not record a single defensive rebound in the final 6 minutes of the game, as OKC outscored them 17-8 in that span. It seemed like the series against Golden State could hinge on how they leveraged their size advantage.
Oklahoma City has used their size well against the Warriors, but not in the way many expected. Kanter has been fairly unplayable, with Steve Kerr rushing to sub in the "Death Lineup" whenever he saw Kanter on the floor. Billy Donovan has had no qualms with taking out Kanter, even illegally removing him before he had played a single possession in Game 6.
Instead, OKC has gone small while still maintaining an edge in both height and length. They have leaned on the Westbrook - Waiters - Durant - Roberson - Ibaka unit, which blitzed the legendary death lineup in Games 3 and 4, outscoring them 91-35. Its success also created a bit of a problem. What moniker can be given to a lineup that eclipses death? (Plague lineup? Mega-Death lineup?) This lineup has been used as a counter to Golden State's preferred unit, while OKC has used Adams in a traditional center role.
Across pretty much every lineup, OKC has held an offensive rebounding advantage. This is nothing new – they were league best in ORB% this season. In Game 6, they secured 34% of available offensive boards, right around their mark in the regular season. This might overstate the importance of offensive rebounding in this series, but in every game thus far, the winning team has finished with the higher ORB%.
Andrew Bogut, Home Specialist
Perhaps the most important player in Game 7 (outside of the stars) is the Australian big man. He was Golden State's most fungible starter all season, and might be moved after the season in order to clear cap space. Yet his role has expanded within this series.
Golden State has four centers on its roster, though only three should ever play. Giving Anderson Varejão minutes is perhaps Steve Kerr's worst vice. He is almost guaranteed to be a minus, and even his two or three minutes of run is too much.
And though he is a much better player than Varejao, Marresse Speights is fairly limited himself. He provides almost no rim protection, and is still an inconsistent shooter. But his offensive upside helps Golden State's all-bench lineups tread water, especially given how Shaun Livingston has struggled with OKC's length this series.
For a big-minutes center, Festus Ezeli and Bogut are the only realistic options. Kerr has rarely given Ezeli much of a chance this series, for unknown reasons. Ostensibly, Kerr finds Ezeli's penchant for fouls untenable. But if that's the only reason, why is he willing to play Varejão, who is a magnet for foul calls?
Ezeli's defensive upside is indisputable, and he displayed it during Golden State's rally in Game 2 against Portland. His quickness allows him to contest hand offs 28 feet from the basket, which flummoxed Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. His rim protection numbers were nearly identical to Bogut's in the regular season, and he runs the floor extremely well. He does not have Bogut's passing acumen, but has exhibited finesse when finishing around the rim.
Much of the burden will almost certainly fall upon Bogut in Game 7. His Game 5 performance was masterful, as he finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, to go along with two blocks and steals each. He did not replicate this on Saturday night, though this was to be expected. For whatever reason, Bogut has not played well on the road since February.
Bogut's rim protection has been sorely needed at times. Westbrook's forays into the paint have often been unchallenged in this series. When OKC spaces out the Death Lineup, Green has late to recover on drives to the rim. It was difficult for him to serve as a rover on Roberson. He could not strike a proper balance between guarding Roberson properly, and feigning coverage to provide help defense.
Draymond has made himself into a top defender (I picked him for DPOY) in large part due to his tenacity and awareness. But here, he closes out on Roberson when he should have been helping on Durant's drive to the rim. That leaves Harrison Barnes as Golden State's last line of defense, and he stands no chance against a scorer of Durant's caliber.
While that play was partly a blow by of Iguodala by Durant, OKC can get to the rim in other ways. Roberson has thrived on a healthy diet of back cuts. If Golden State forgets about him, he darts into the restricted area. And even he can convert uncontested layups.
Yet with Bogut challenging at the rim, Roberson has no such luck. He is less deft around the basket compared to Westbrook or Durant, and is easily blocked. On a per-minute basis these playoffs, Bogut has led the Warriors in contested two-point FGs.
Bogut's value is not merely limited to his defense either. His activity helps mitigate OKC on the offensive glass, and he often serves as the screener for some of Golden State's favorite offensive actions. Whether it be "elevator doors" or split cuts, he sets flattening screens. And Bogut is perfectly comfortable passing to open teammates, often while he is standing behind the three-point line after a handoff. He helps Curry, whether it be by creating space via screen, or by getting him switched onto a center in the P+R.
Some of this minutia will prove significant in Game 7, but it should not obscure nor distract from the greater theatrics. This is a damn spectacle. This is the greatest regular season team ever, facing an arguably superior challenger. Game 6 was one of the 10 greatest games ever. Game 7 could be even better. Enjoy the show.