Western Conference Finals Update

Western Conference Finals Update

The first leg of the NBA Western Conference Finals is complete, as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors split two games in Oakland. The next leg starts on Sunday night with Game 3 in Oklahoma City (8 PM ET, TNT). Here's a look at what we've learned from the first two games that can be used to help us make money in a series that is shaping up to have five more games still remaining...

*Let's start with the easy one. Steph Curry is back. He's scored 54 points in the two games and while a knot in his elbow was the latest in the run of physical ailments for the two-time MVP, Curry has shot 11-for-22 from three-point range. The elbow and knee are worth keeping an eye on, but until we see actual evidence of reduced performance, not worth factoring into handicapping the next game.

*Russell Westbrook has stayed committed to distributing the ball. Oklahoma City's Game 3 loss in the San Antonio series is shaping up as a threshold moment for Westbrook and for this franchise. Westbrook openly admitted he shot too much and needed to move the ball more. His team responded by winning three straight over the 67-win Spurs and then grabbing Game 1 in Golden State. Westbrook has dished twelve assists in each of the two games of the conference finals.

*Staying on the ball movement theme, Golden State's ability to do so efficiently is the most obvious difference between their loss in Game 1 and their victory in Game 2. The assist-to-turnover number was 26-14 in the opener. That's not terrible, but it's not anything that gives them an appreciable edge on the Thunder. And if the Warriors don't get the edge moving the basketball, then the series will be decided by one-on-one battles, which OKC is better equipped than anyone in basketball to win. In Game 2, Golden State moved the ball to the tune of a dazzling 26-3 number.

*Oklahoma City center Steven Adams is the most underrated player in this series in terms of importance. He's a closer - with 22 rebounds in the first two games, 18 of those have come on the defensive end. A team like Golden State, even though they aren't big, benefit greatly from offensive rebounds that can be quickly kicked out to the three-point line. Amidst the chaos of pursuing the ball, defenders are wont to leave great shooters open (think Ray Allen's open three at the end of Game 6 in the 2013 NBA Finals that ripped out San Antonio's heart). With the Warriors already getting their share of long rebounds, Adams must close off the more conventional misses that come off closer to the rim. He's doing just that.

*While ball movement may be a key bellwether stat in this series, the offensive play of Klay Thompson might not be. Thompson shot well in Game 1, not so much in Game 2. His team's fortunes were flipped. I don't suggest rashly concluding that Thompson is irrelevant to his team's fate, but it's a trend worth keeping an eye on over these next couple games, to see if he should be reduced in handicapping importance.

*This series offers Kevin Durant the opportunity to return to the realm of mega-star, right up there with LeBron and Steph. Since his foot injuries, KD has continued to produce, but most observers have started to conclude that Westbrook is the more important player on his own team. With Westbrook realizing he needs to distribute, and Durant having exploded at the end of the San Antonio series, this is becoming a "Return To Glory" kind of moment for the OKC superstar. So far he's the leading scorer on either side in this series at 27.5ppg and he's done so with reasonable efficiency, hitting 21-for-48 from the floor. Defending his homecourt over these next two games is now paramount.

*The biggest betting trend has been on the totals line. Both games have gone Under. OKC's 108-102 win went Under 222.5 and Golden State's 118-91 win was Under 224.5. Linesmakers are looking to adjust, with the Game 3 total being set at 219.5. But even with that substantial adjustment, it's still worth noting that the first two games have fallen on 210 and 211. The general public likes to bet Overs as it is, and a high-profile series with this many superstars is only going to exacerbate that. Sharp handicappers are likely to continue to get some cushion to play with going forward.