Thunder (38-13, 14-8 road) vs. Warriors (45-4, 22-0 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 8:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 110.0 (2nd), Warriors – 113.2 (1st)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 101.4 (11th), Warriors – 99.1 (3rd)
This weekend, in the Bay Area, fans will be treated to a game between two of the top teams in the league. One team has gone virtually undefeated the entire season, while the other team has had a more difficult run of it because of coaching and personnel changes. Legacies will be on the line, as one team will be setting up to try and get their first championship, while the other is looking to return back to the promised land it has seen before. It’s must see TV at its finest. But enough talk about the Super Bowl. How about that Warriors/Thunder match-up the day before?
Sometimes, the NBA scheduling czar gets lucky. In a season where the NBA debuted their primetime Saturday night slot, the Super Bowl just happens to take place in what can be considered the current epicenter of the NBA world, the Bay Area. So the day before the Super Bowl, the NBA gets center stage with their two current darlings meeting for the first time this season.
Make no mistake about it: these are the two teams that move the needle the most in the NBA. The Spurs may have a better record than the Thunder, but they are still the same ol’ boring Spurs. The Cavs are the beasts of the East, but their style of play isn’t as sexy as the Thunder’s and Warriors’. This is the game the NBA wanted to put up its primetime tent on. And it has worked out almost perfectly.
Both teams are humming, coming into the game with multiple game win streaks. They are both relatively healthy and intact (sorry, Robes). And to top it all off, a week leading up to the game, Stephen Curry decided to say this:
Sage Steele: You have a game on Saturday, kind of a big game on Saturday.
Stephen Curry: It’ll be a good 48 hours –a win and a win.
Sage Steele: Oooo, I like when you talk trash.
First off, Sage, he’s married. Secondly, now you have a primetime game that is dripping with narrative. Not only is the possibility of an entertaining game extremely high, but the various storylines surrounding the game will push this into playoff-fervor territory. A night before the Super Bowl and the NBA will have center stage. Great job Adam Silver, great job indeed.
This is the first of three meetings between the Thunder and Warriors. They met four times last season, with the Warriors winning three of the games. In the game and a half the Thunder were healthy last season against the Warriors, they outscored them 190-180. In two of the losses, the Thunder lost by only 5 points each.
The Warriors come into the game with a 45-4 record, which is tops in the NBA and on-pace to beat the wins record set by the Chicago Bulls in the 1995-96 season. They have a historic offense, leading the NBA in points per game (115.4), offensive rating (113.2), assists (29.4), assist% (69%), assist/TO ratio (1.89), 3-point FG’s made per game (13.0), 3-point FG% (43%), FG made per game (42.6), eFG% (56.7%), TS% (59.6%), and fast break points per game (20.4). In addition, they have a top 5 defense that is predicated on the ability to guard multiple positions without giving up mismatches.
The team is, of course, led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who has continued on the tear he started last season and will likely repeat as MVP this season. He leads the league in scoring (29.8 ppg) and has made 232 three-point FGs. To give you some perspective, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made 255 three-point FGs…..combined as a team….for the entire season. The person who has made the 2nd most three-point FGs in the league is Curry’s backcourt partner, Klay Thompson. The offense, though, is catalyzed by PF/C hybrid Draymond Green, who leads the league in triple doubles (10), while also shooting 42% from 3-point territory. He is the definition of a stretch point-forward; the culmination of the vision the New York Knicks once had with Anthony Mason (R.I.P).
The rest of their role players are all adept at whatever role the team needs them to play. Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli allow the Warriors to go big if the match-up dictates it. Ezeli is doubtful with a knee injury. Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Brandon Rush are all good 3-and-D wings. And Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa give the Warriors a different back-court look when the starting back-court needs a break.
4 Big Things (Why 4? Because this game deserves 4. That’s why.)1.Perimeter Defense
The 3-point shot has become a staple in this new spread-offense NBA and no one has taken advantage of it more than the Golden State Warriors. They attempt 30.3 three-point FG’s per game, making 13 of them on average. For comparison, the Thunder attempt only 22 per game, while making just 7.9. The Warriors have 8 rotation players that shoot 38% or better from deep. EIGHT! For years, the Thunder have fantasized of the mythical unicorn known as the 3-and-D wing; a player that can defend the perimeter and hit 3’s at a 38% or better clip. The Warriors have at least 4 of those players in their rotation.
It may become a choose your poison kind of deal with the Thunder. Do you protect the perimeter so much that you open up lanes to the middle? Or do you play your normal brand of defense and hope the Warriors miss some shots? If I’m Billy Donovan, I extend my defense out and hope that Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and (gulp!) Enes Kanter can protect the paint enough.2. Defense to Offense
One of the Achilles heels of the Golden State Warriors is the fact that they are turnover-prone. Surprisingly, they average more turnovers than the Thunder (by just 1/10th, but still). But while the Thunder’s turnovers are more because of carelessness, the Warriors’ turnovers are more a product of their offense. When you pass the ball as much as the Warriors do, you increase the chances of committing turnovers. In addition, with the amount of threes the Warriors attempt, there are bound to be long rebounds that can play like live-ball turnovers.
With all that said, it’s up to the Thunder to capitalize on the Warriors’ mistakes and the 50/50 balls. Both teams are highly athletic and rank in the top 5 of Fast Break Points % (aka the percentage of points generated via the fast break). The only problem with running a track meet with the Warriors is that the Thunder’s track usually ends at the rim, while the Warriors’ track can end 28 feet from the basket.3. Outscore Them
Yes, I know. It’s a foreign concept. The winner of every basketball game eventually outscores their opponent. It’s how they are declared the victors. What I’m saying is that the Thunder need to out-offense the best offense in the league. While the Warriors do have the best offense in the league, the Thunder have two of the best offensive players in the league, in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both have shown a propensity to have big games against the Warriors and both can carry the team against this type of opponent. If someone like Dion Waiters, Cameron Payne, or Serge Ibaka can help subsidize some of the Thunder’s scoring, then the Thunder offense becomes that much more potent.
In the Warriors’ four losses, their opponents averaged nearly 112 points per game. The Thunder have scored over 112 points in each of their last 5 games. If the defense can maintain the Warriors and the offense keeps humming, then the Thunder have a great shot at beating the Warriors.4. Psychological Warfare
While there isn’t much riding on this game in terms of standing, there is a ton riding on this game psychologically. If the Thunder get blown out, then they have to go into the All-Star break wondering if they have the players necessary to beat the Warriors in a 7-game series. This game could literally decide if the Thunder make a move at the deadline, and who they specifically make a move for. If the Thunder lose, but keep it close, or if they win, it may affect the Warriors heading forward into wondering if a 7-game series with the Thunder would be the most difficult they’ve faced in the past two seasons. How will Curry’s statement affect how Westbrook comes out in this game? Did Curry do that on purpose (remember the champagne comment before the Cleveland game?)? It’s the game within the game that sometimes affects the players more than the actual game itself.
Thunder Killer – Opposing player most likely to have a breakout game against the Thunder:
Ian Clark – Clark has be……..Ahhh, who the hell am I kidding? Stephen Curry is human napalm on the court. His range stretches out to 30 feet and he can make the most difficult of shots. If you thought Damian Lillard set the world on fire against us, Curry could possibly be a solar storm that wipes out the entire solar system. Curry is the only guy in the league that when I watch him, I just chuckle, shake my head, and say, “I hate him…but I love watching him play”.