Thunder Storm Stuns the NBA

We’re proud of the fact that we recommended the Oklahoma City Thunder as a 12-1 bet to win the NBA championship prior to the beginning of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State. Those odds are now cut to 13-10 after Oklahoma City grabbed a 3-1 series lead with last night’s 118-94 win.

But even the most fervent believer in OKC or the biggest skeptic 73-win Golden State couldn’t have seen the thoroughness which the Thunder dominated Games 3 & 4 on their home floor. How could this have happened? And given that the series is far from over - the Warriors need simply defend their home floor and get one road win - can it continue?

Oklahoma City won these games in the second quarter. They rolled up a 38-19 advantage in the second quarter of Game 3 and then came out and ripped Golden State 42-27 in last night’s second period. And those weren’t even their best offensive quarters. The Thunder dropped 45 points in the third quarter of Game 3. And for sheer clutch performance, how about last night’s fourth quarter? The Warriors had cut a 19-point lead down to 12. Oklahoma City put the defensive clamps on and held the league’s best offense and two-time MVP Steph Curry to just twelve points in the final period to seal the deal.

If Golden State is going to stop the assault, they simply have to rebound the basketball. Oklahoma City has dominated the glass, winning the rebounding edge 52-38 in Game 3 and then 56-40 in Game 4. And the rebounding is a complete team effort. In Game 3, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all had eight boards while Enes Kanter came on the bench to grab twelve. In Game 4, they were even better. Durant and Westbrook got 11 boards apiece, Andre Roberson had twelve, while Ibaka and Steve Adams had seven apiece.

Those litany of numbers are impressive, but there are two facts that are even more damning for Golden State. Adams, a big-time rebounder, only had five boards in Game 3 and his seven last night was pedestrian. He’s more than capable of a 12-15 rebound night. The other fact is this - the diminutive Curry is outrebounding his own center, Andrew Bogut.

It’s true Bogut gets role player minutes even though he’s a nominal starter, but this is a chicken-or-the-egg question. Are his rebound numbers low because of his limited minutes, or are his minutes limited because of his rebounding? Clearly, if head coach Steve Kerr had confidence in Bogut, or backup Festus Ezeli, they would get more than 10-11 minutes a game.

So Golden State goes small, the way they won last year’s NBA title and set a regular season wins record this year. This makes perfect sense - if you’re going to lose, at least go down being true to your own identity. But the problems the Warriors are having are what critics - notably TNT analyst Charles Barkley - have been waiting for when it comes to teams that rely on the perimeter.

The Warriors aren’t getting easy points right now. By relying on the three-point shot, they don’t get to the free throw line like the Thunder. Over two games, Oklahoma City has shot 77 free throws to Golden State’s 54. That’s been translated into a scoring advantage of 64-38 or an edge of 13 points per game. Between this and the rebounding - meaning easier opportunities close to the basket - there’s a lot of pressure on the Warriors to be lights-out from three-point range.

And they have not been. Golden State was 10-for-33 from behind the arc in Game 3 and 9-for-30 in Game 4. It would be no surprise to anyone if they light it up at home in Game 5 and extend the series. But is it realistic to expect any team, even the best three-point shooting team in the world, to just casually drill 45-50 percent of their treys for three straight games against conference final-caliber defense?

Golden State has to find ways to win that go beyond three-point shooting and it starts with better efficiency. Their biggest edge coming into this series was a significantly better assist-to-turnover ratio than Oklahoma City. That evaporated in the middle games of this series.

So to bring this full circle, is what OKC did in Games 3 & 4 sustainable. No, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not reasonable to expect them to drop anywhere from 38-45 points per quarter and blow games open early. But they have a huge margin for error, having won those games by a stunning average of 26 points. It is reasonable to expect them to rebound aggressively and get to the free throw line more often than Golden State.

To counter, the Warriors have to move the ball more crisply, get more easy baskets off turnovers and from that, let better looks from three take care of themselves. The market still has relative belief in the Warriors - they’re still 9-2 to win the championship while the Toronto Raptors - who are tied two games apiece with Cleveland in the East - are at 40-1. Golden State is still a (-7.5) favorite for Thursday’s Game 5 back in Oakland. But they can’t just hope for the threes to magically start falling.