The Golden State Warriors have advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Which opponent would they rather face?
On the other side of the bracket from the Golden State Warriors, a tough series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder will decide who the Warriors have to take down to make it to the Finals for the second straight year.
The Spurs this year have been historically good defensively, boasting an all-time net rating of 11.8. They smothered teams all year, a morphing mass of switches, directionally forced-drive defense, and on-ball harassment. They looked like the easy pick for the Conference Finals against the Warriors.
Now, the Thunder have pushed them to the brink of a six-game elimination on the back of solid performances from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as key contributions from guys like Enes Kanter.
With the series nearing its end, the question is who should the Warriors want to play?
In the regular season, the Warriors played the Spurs four times, and the Thunder three times. Of those games, they lost one to the Spurs. As one would guess, the Spurs games had a grinding quality to them due to San Antonio’s defense. The Thunder ones were shootouts, with both teams topping 100 points every time. Let’s take a closer look:
San Antonio Spurs
The key guys here are going to be LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. They both help drive the machine offensively, but they play good team defense too. Leonard does a decent job of handling Stephen Curry, forcing the Warriors offense to run through other guys like Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup.
The thing about the Spurs is that they’re not going to out-shoot you. Generally speaking, they are not a remarkably strong offensive team, and they thrive on their defense. Teams that can score above their typical rating have a great shot at winning, because the Spurs don’t tend to win shootouts this year.
In one game against the Warriors this year, the Spurs scored 101 points. In the other three, they scored 90, 86, and 87. Generally speaking, the Spurs are a known quantity on offense. If you can find a way to score 95 points, the odds are in your favor. The problem is getting there through the reigning Defensive Player of the Year as well as the best power forward ever (Tim Duncan).
A key guy to watch here is Danny Green. He’s been terrible shooting this year, but good defensively. If he finds his shot in the playoffs, the Spurs pick up an asset they haven’t had all year.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder boast two top ten players in the league in their everyday lineup, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Both are types of players that could give the Warriors fits. The Warriors tend to have tough games against explosive, attacking point guards with playmaking shooters around them. The Warriors are going to have to hide Curry on Dion Waiters if they play the Thunder, leaving Klay Thompson to contain Westbrook, one of the most aggressive off-the-bounce guards in the NBA.
Their defense can be hit or miss, and so can their offense. The issue is their volatility. The Thunder push shooting teams to greater heights because they can keep up in a shootout. They have the firepower. You don’t know if they’re going to drop 105 on you or 120, but chances are they can keep up.
A key guy here is Enes Kanter. Kanter has been excellent this year, especially competing against other teams’ benches. He’s a monster rebounder with great touch around the rim, and he rakes in second-chance points. Giving up offensive rebounds against the Thunder is particularly unforgiving.
Ultimately, I’d rather play the Spurs. They’re coached much better, but I think that the Warriors have a better shot at poking holes in this team’s defense and eking out 105-95 point game wins than trying to weather the storm of a hot Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The explosive quality and the unknowns with the Thunder are worrying.
When in doubt, always pick the more predictable opponent, even if they’re stronger on paper. Give me the Spurs.