OAKLAND – This challenge is going to be different than all those previous, and the Warriors know it.
The Warriors tend to respond best when they feel what coach Steve Kerr refers to as “appropriate fear,” and the Oklahoma City Thunder, at this time, are the most fearsome possible opponent.
The Thunder are not too young, like the Trail Blazers, nor or they too slow or too old, like the Grizzlies and the Spurs. The Thunder are not psychologically damaged, like the Clippers, nor are they a hotbed of ennui and disunity, like the Rockets.
The Thunder also are not dependent on a superstar with two feet firmly planted on the darks side of his peak, like the Cavaliers.
Oklahoma City is talented enough to sprint into the Western Conference Finals and wreck everything the Warriors have built over the last seven and a half months, leaving this charmed season in a pile of charred ruins.
“You can do everything perfectly and they can still score,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the Thunder.
“They are loaded. And they are tough. And they are playing well.”
That doesn’t mean the Warriors are finished; the defending champions are favored, deservedly so. What it means is that the Warriors absolutely must be at their best, as they are confronting a raging beast unlike anything they’ve seen the past four postseasons.
“The last three years against them have been entertaining games, most of the time going down to the wire,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “So you can only imagine what it’ll be like in the playoffs.”
When Game 1 tips off Monday night, it will be the introduction to a feast for the eyes, two teams most comfortable playing at Mach 10 speeds, producing dizzying video-game dazzle while lighting up the scoreboard.
When defending a team with two superstars, such as Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, coaches tend to choose one of two strategies. One is to focus on them in an effort to take them away. The other is to let them get theirs, but make sure to lock down the supporting cast. It’s coach’s choice.
“It doesn’t work that way with them,” Kerr told CSNBayArea.com. “Everything they do runs through those guys. So you have to focus on them constantly, on every possession. Your focus is on slowing them down.
“If you can limit the easy ones. That’s the whole thing. Turnovers lead to transition dunks. They just explode. How many of those do they get? How many offensive rebounds do they get? How many straight-line drives do they get in the half court where we don’t get a body in front of them?
“So you have to cover them. With the other guys, you’ve got to do your best to close out on them when the ball is kicked to them.”
Durant and Westbrook are the most lethal offensive duo in the league today, maybe ever. Both are MVP candidates. Both are former scoring champions. Together, they are enough to carry OKC to victory.
Yet there is more for the Warriors to be concerned about. Thunder coach Billy Donovan has made changes in their rotation, often playing centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in the same lineup – one Kerr says the Warriors saw for no more than “five or six minutes” in the three regular-season games between the teams.
OKC owned the glass in those games, averaging 52.7 rebounds per game to 39.3 for the Warriors. That advantage could grow with the Thunder’s new lineup.
“They’re clicking right now,” Curry said. “They’ve found a good recipe, obviously, to beat a tough Spurs team. That says a lot about how they’re playing right now.”
What may make OKC even tougher than the new lineup is the new confidence. The Thunder in the regular season led the NBA in blown fourth-quarter leads, with 14, and now they’re coming off a conference semifinals series in which there were two close games in which they summoned the will to hold off San Antonio, nothing less than the cagiest team in the league.
While the Warriors advanced despite being flummoxed at times by Portland in the conference semifinals, OKC was blown out by the Spurs in Game 1 but came back to win four of the next five.
The Thunder used to talk a good game, thinking they were special. Now they have proof.
“We know what the challenges are,” Kerr said. “We know we have to be better for sure.”