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Oklahoma City’s Thunder Strike

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Whether this weekend or later in May, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the team to topple the Western Conference favorites, Golden State Warriors.

It was supposed to be a back-and-forth affair. A game in which the two heavyweights of the professional basketball world would throw knockout punch after knockout punch, going toe to toe until the unofficial midseason NBA champion would be crowned. It was supposed to be playoff basketball in January. A tasty sampling of everyone’s foregone conclusion as to the two teams that will be fighting for a Western Conference championship in May. The one thing it was not supposed to be, however, is exactly what it quickly became- a blowout. 

With a score of 120-90, to be exact, in favor of the Golden State Warriors. So much for competitive basketball. Even the most loyal San Antonio Spurs fans did not have much of an answer after the massacre was complete. No, the Spurs did not have Tim Duncan, but can anyone actually argue that he would have made up a 30 point deficit? Maybe 2003 Tim Duncan, but certainly not the 2016 version. 

And thus, the landscape of the NBA has been almost completely decimated as the Warriors stand on a pedestal high above the rest of the league. Most analysts have been arguing that it will take a complete team defensive effort in order to knock off the Warriors in the playoffs. 

Naturally, this is why the Spurs are consistently being chosen as the most likely team to supplant the Warriors as the best in the west come playoff time. But how well did that actually work? Not very well, especially when the the 120-point decimation is taken into account. So what if the experts are wrong? It would not be the first time. 

The Warriors have been held under 100 points only three times in 49 games so far this season, or about six percent of their games. Not very good odds for opposing teams. Against the best defensive team in the league they scored 130 points, and against the second best defensive team, the Heat, they put 111 on the scoreboard. Instead, what if the necessary skills to beat the Warriors are on the offensive side of the ball? 

The common theme for teams that were able to emerge victorious from matchups with the darlings of Golden State include offensive outputs of 108, 114, 112, and 113 for an average of 111.8 points per game. Therefore, instead of trying to stop the Warriors offense, maybe the league just needs to come to grips with the fact that it is an impossible task, especially with how they have been playing as of recent. Rather, the team that beats the Warriors will be a team that is extremely explosive on the offensive side of the ball and essentially outscores the team from the Bay.

So which team would this be? The answer may surprise some NBA fans. No, it is not the Eastern Conference favorite, Cleveland Cavaliers. As bad as an idea as it might be betting against the genius of Gregg Popovich, it is not the Spurs either. Instead, it is the team no one is talking about. The one that has won 12 out of their last 13 games and are slowly but surely climbing into the upper echelon of realistic potential NBA Champions. 

Of course, the highly touted Warriors’ offense is averaging the most points per game in the NBA at 115.4 per game. Number two at 109.7? The same team that is also leading the NBA in total made field goals on the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been on a rampage recently, yet very few people have truly taken notice due to the Warriors’ and Spurs’ dominance, as well as the drama surrounding Cleveland’s coaching change. 

A top-tier offense is absolutely necessary since it will be near impossible to slow down the Warriors during a seven game playoff series. Therefore, the Thunder truly have the advantage on every other team in the league in this category. Besides leading the league in total field goals made, they are also third in both overall field goal percentage at 47.6 percent and two-point field goal percentage at 51.6 percent. 

Oklahoma City Thunder 2015-2016 stats

Even though they do not shoot the three ball as successfully as the Warriors, honestly, who does? Plus, at 35.9 percent, good for ninth best in the NBA, the team is only about six percentage points behind the Warriors and can usually count on one of the team’s sharpshooters, like Anthony Morrow, to make the necessary timely three now and again. 

The real bread and butter of the team is their emphasis on taking high percentage two-point shots. They are leading the league in two-point shots made and have made 231 more than the Warriors. The Thunder are able to do so due to the incredible off-the-dribble ability of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

For different reasons, each player possesses extremely different skill sets that make it difficult for defenses to figure out how to guard. If the defender sags off Durant, then he simply shoots over top from three-point land where he is making over two per game. Yet if the defender is too close, then he uses his ball skills to slither past the defense and get into the lane where he completes an extremely high percentage of shots. Other times, still, Durant will simply back down the smaller defender and use his wide array of fade away shots, as well as his incredible length, to score over the outstretched arms of the defender.

Westbrook, on the other hand, creates matchup problems for every point guard he faces. His combination of physicality, strength, and quickness make it almost impossible for any point guard to take the task of guarding Westbrook as a solo mission. Because he brings the ball up the floor with so much pace, the defender is often backpedaling and is too far away from Westbrook to truly contest when he pulls up at about the free throw line for what amounts to a simple “gimme” shot for him. If the defender steps up, though, then Westbrook simply blows past and hammers the ball home for a thunderous (pun intended) dunk.

Due to both player’s unique skillset, as well as the triple-tower combination of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka down low, the Thunder excel at scoring in the painted area and are second in the entire league in points. The team’s percentages in the paint are also better at almost every spot than the Warriors.

Oklahoma City Thunder shot chartGolden State Warriors shot chart

The most underrated aspect of the Thunder, though, is their team rebounding. This team sweeps the boards unlike any other in the NBA, and leads the league in total rebounds, defensive rebounds, and are second in offensive rebounds. When a point guard is the second leading rebounder on the team, it is easy to see how this dominance can be possible. Due to their dominance on the glass, the team is also second in the league in second chance points, which improves their two-point field goal percentage.

These are simply the basic, statistical arguments on behalf of the Thunder’s offense. On another level, the true x-factors in any game are the Thunder’s two all-world players, Durant and Westbrook. On any given night, Westbrook has the ability to either score 40 points, obtain a triple-double, or both. Durant compliments Westbrook’s 24.0 points per game with his own 27.4 points. 

As proven by last night’s victory over the Orlando Magic, Durant and Westbrook combine to form a two-headed scoring monster that is a matchup nightmare for every team in the league. In the game, Durant scored 37 points with 5 rebounds, while Westbrook did a little bit of everything else and finished with 24 points, 19 rebounds, and 14 assists. 

Add in the fact that Durant has one of biggest clutch genes in the NBA, also evidenced in the game against the Magic, and it becomes difficult to say that the Thunder are ever actually out of any game.

Even though it might not be the team’s strong-suit, the defense of the Thunder is oftentimes overlooked. The team leads the league in blocks and is ahead of the Warriors in the middle of the points against category as they allow only 101.6 points per game.

Granted, they are not the defense of the Spurs or the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, due to the extreme pace at which they push the ball, which is necessary to continue to score at the clip that they do, it is difficult to not give up a few extra points in the process. This is the same problem that the Warriors run into, as well.

Plus, Westbrook is without a doubt the most physical point guard defender in the league. His upper body strength and pure scrappiness on the defensive side of the ball has allowed him to lead the league in steals this year with 2.35 per game. Doubting Curry’s offense is like doubting that the sun will rise, but it’s fair to say that Curry has not been challenged by as physical of a defending point guard all season. 

The three-pointer versus the two-pointer. Westbrook versus Curry. The battle of the offenses. However it is billed, the upcoming matchup between the Warriors and Thunder will not disappoint. A foreshadowed taste of what is to come in May, perhaps?

At the very least, it will be playoff caliber basketball in February. Everything that the Spurs and Warriors blowout was not. It is time for the Thunder to put their stamp on the season and announce the team’s official arrival as a serious competitor for one of the top spots in the Western Conference. The landscape of the conference is changing and the Thunder are rumbling into position to shake things up before All-Star weekend.

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

What year did the Seattle Supersonics move to Oklahoma City and become the Thunder?
Created 2/6/16
  1. 2010
  2. 2009
  3. 2008
  4. 2007

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