OAKLAND – Having won the NBA regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors are past the halfway point of their drive to a championship. On Monday, they confront Part IV of the five-part process.
Oklahoma City represents the last barrier between the defending champs and a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
The teams open their best-of-seven series at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors were 39-2 in the regular season and are 6-0 in the postseason. While the Warriors want to assert their dominance, particularly at home, the Thunder seek a split of the first two games to shatter any invincibility the Warriors might feel at Oracle.
“We know it’s going to be a tough task,” Stephen Curry said Sunday. “They’re a talented team. We have a good game plan and we’ve just got to execute it and stay focused on every possession.”
OKC is, from a sheer talent standpoint, the most imposing team the Warriors have seen over the past four postseasons. Here is a look at the matchups:
Harrison Barnes vs. Kevin Durant
Barnes continues to search for his offensive game, and there are times when hesitancy makes it appear he has no clue where to look. His scoring, missing so far, will be needed, making him the Warriors’ X factor. Durant conceivably is the most multi-dimensional scorer in the league, lengthy enough to attack the rim with force but also smooth enough to punish opponents with skill on the perimeter. The Warriors will send Barnes and a bevy of other defends – because they must.
Draymond Green vs. Serge Ibaka
Green gives his team something in every facet. Through 10 playoff games, he leads the Warriors in rebounds, assists, blocked shots and steals – and is third in scoring. Yet his greatest value here may be his defense, whether on forwards Durant or Ibaka, the guard Russell Westbrook or 7-foot center Enes Kanter. If Green is making his 3-ball, it will force adjustments in the OKC defense. Once feared only for his interior defense, Ibaka has become a solid offensive player who demands coverage.
Andrew Bogut/Festus Ezeli vs. Steven Adams/Kanter
Bogut will be needed for his offensive influence and defensive intellect, but, above all, his rebounding. Bogut absolutely must do better against OKC than he did in the regular season, when he grabbed one rebound every 5.25 minutes. Ezeli, who missed all three regular-season encounters, also needs to be effective. Whereas Adams has evolved from rugged bruiser to rugged bruiser who produces, Kanter is simply a skilled big man who can exploit most defenders. The Thunder big men pose a legitimate threat.
Klay Thompson vs. Andre Roberson
Thompson is a two-time All-Star who ranks second in scoring among those still active in the playoffs with a deserved reputation for playing stellar defense. Roberson, a defensive specialist who on rare occasions can toss in a few points, starts games but often plays fewer minutes than third guard Dion Waiters. Thompson, who will spend much of his defensive energy on Westbrook or Waiters, may not spend a minute guarding Roberson.
Curry vs. Westbrook
Curry is the 2016 scoring champ and a back-to-back MVP award winner. Westbrook is the 2015 scoring champ and fourth-place finisher in the latest MVP balloting. Curry is style and grace, a butterfly doing tricks with his dazzling handle and vast offensive repertoire. Westbrook is an attack dog, baring teeth from tip-to-buzzer, treating every moment as if it could dictate the fate of his family. These greats won’t often guard each other, as they will see a variety of defenders. Both push the pace. Both can get reckless. Westbrook, however, is prone to more lapses in prudency. His ability to make or break his team makes him OKC’s X factor.
The Warriors often brag about their depth, and they’re going to need it in this series. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston bring length, savvy and dimension to both ends of the court; both will get chances to defend Durant. Behind Bogut is a deep group of big men, with Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Anderson Varejao and young James Michael McAdoo. The most interesting game within the game may be the way the Steve Kerr and his assistants utilize the bench.
The Thunder are one of those rare teams that can summon from the bench four or five bodies, of various sizes and shapes, to throw at opponents. Randy Foye and Kyle Singler will see time, and maybe even Anthony Morrow. Kanter and Waiters are such important members of the rotation, averaging in excess of 20 minutes per game, that they’re quasi-starters.
PREDICTION: Warriors in 7.