It’s May 24th around 10:45 P.M. GMT. The Oklahoma City Thunder exchange high fives and congratulations with each other, smiles all around. They’ve just blown out the 73-9 Golden State Warriors back to back games and have now taken a 3-1 series lead.
This Thunder team has massively overachieved so far throughout this postseason, and it has not gone unnoticed. Prior to game 1 of the their Western Conference Semi-Finals matchup versus the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs very few people predicted the Thunder would win the series. When they got blown out 124-92 in game 1, virtually no one outside of the Thunder faithful and some ballsy people (myself included) gave the Thunder any chance of winning. Fast forward 13 days and the Thunder have just closed out the series with a commanding 113-99 win to take the series 4-2. Behind strong performances from their 2 superstars (Kevin Durant averaging 28.5 points and 6.7 rebound per game on 50% shooting and Russell Westbrook averaging 25.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 10.5 assists per game), the Thunder were able to overcome a talented Spurs team to advance to a Western Conference Finals matchup against Golden State. If the Thunder were given slim odds to beat the Spurs, how do you think people thought they would fare against the Warriors? Well, of ESPN’s 18 “expert” analysts all 18 of them chose Golden State to win. Maybe ESPN isn’t the best way to prove this point considering their major Warrior bias, but all you had to check was your daily twitter timeline to understand no one gave the Thunder a chance. Through the first 4 games, the Thunder made everyone look downright silly. Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook were absolutely dominant on both sides of the ball. On offense, the duo was spectacular as usual, KD averaged 28.5 points, 2.5 assists, and 8.3 rebounds on 44.8% shooting while Russ averaged a phenomenal 27.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 6.5 rebounds on 41% shooting. They even got help from their role players such as Steven “Draymond Green’s personal punching bag” Adams who averaged 11 points and 8.5 rebounds on 59% shooting while absolutely owning the paint. While the Thunder were terrific on offense, they were even more incredible on defense. Their incredible hustle and ridiculous length gave the Warriors fits all game. The unanimous MVP Stephen Curry was physically and mentally worn out from the thunder’s overall aggressiveness and averaged 24.5 points, 4.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.3 turnovers on 41.8 % shooting. Klay Thompson was no more successful than Steph in finding a whole in OKC’s defense, averaging 21 points, 2.5 assist, and 4.5 rebounds on 43.5% shooting. The player who suffered the most from the Thunder’s incredible dominance the first 4 games? Draymond Green. He averaged 11.3 points, 4.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.3 turnovers on 33% shooting while averaging an atrocious -49 plus minus. In fact, Draymond, Steph, and Klay and a combined -115 through the first 4 teams. To put that into perspective, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka were a combined +151 plus minus. At the end of game 4, after a dominant performance once again by the Thunder, there were smiles all around. This was a team who were shocking the world and had the self-confidence that they could win this series.
Fast forward 6 days. It’s May 30th around 8:50 P.M.
A visibly distraught Thunder team walk off the court with their heads down. Finding a smile now would be harder than finding a needle in a haystack. That is unless you’re looking at the Golden State Warriors. They just capped off their historic comeback with a 96-88 win at Oracle arena. After struggling through the first 4 games, Golden State finally figured things out and became the team we all fell in love with during the regular season. Steph and Klay regained their shooting touch, breaking some records on their way. Andre Igoudala rediscovered his form that won him NBA Finals MVP last year. Even Draymond Green, although still struggling, flashed that unique skill set he is gifted with when Golden State needed it most. Meanwhile on the other end, Russell Westbrook’s recklessness finally caught up to him. Kevin Durant’s poor shooting surfaced at the worst time possible, and a lack of depth in their bench came back to haunt OKC. It wasn’t always like this though, and I don’t just mean through the first 4 games. OKC held leads in games 5, 6, and 7. Most notably they held a 13 point lead in both games 6 and 7. They also blew a 7 point lead with 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter because some guys nicknamed The Splash Brothers decided to play some real basketball again. An upset looking Kevin Durant gives Stephen Curry a quick hug at half court then walks off with his head down. The rumors of him signing with someone else besides OKC this off-season are surfacing again. Why though? This Thunder team was projected to lose in the second round, yet they just took arguably the best team ever to 7 games. Do people think that a “choke” against arguably the best team ever will negate all the positives OKC has had throughout these playoffs. There is no chance KD signs with anyone besides OKC this off-season, and he will most likely do it by signing a one year deal with a player option to opt out in the 2017 offseason. Durant resigning with the Thunder is very bad for the 31 other NBA teams, and very very good for the Thunder. Here’s why: Of the teams currently considering NBA competitors (Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, L.A. Clippers, and Toronto) the Thunder have far and away the brightest future and the most to look forward too of all those teams.
Of all the teams I previously listed, the Thunder have the second youngest team only behind the Toronto Raptors. If you consider though who actually receives regular playing time for the Thunder, only one player, Randy Foye, is over the age of 27. If you look at the top players on each of teams, you’ll notice lots of them are in their 30s. LeBron James and Chris Paul are 31, Kyle Lowry and Lamarcus Aldridge are 30, Tony Parker is 34, and Manu Ginobli is 38. Even MVP Stephen Curry is surprisingly older than both Durant and Westbrook. It goes deeper than that for the Thunder though. Rim protector and solid scored Serge Ibaka is only 26, outstanding overall defender Andre Roberson is 24, rising talent Dion Waiters is only 24, efficient scorer and rebounder Enes Kanter is just 23, and one of the toughest and most respectable guys in the NBA who also has incredible potential named Steven Adams is just….22!!! Considering this team were one game away from reaching the finals and beating a 73 win team, how do you think they’ll do the next few years when most of these players enter their prime? Add in a new coach who has managed to stabilize one of the hardest locker rooms to manage and tactically outsmart Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr and the Thunder look to be heading for years of success. If you even factor in that the Clippers and the Spurs might not be as competitive these next couple years due to the edge, it looks like there will be a consistent battle between Golden State and Oklahoma City to be the best team in the west. After watching this series, most probably give the edge to the Thunder over the next couple years considering their immense potential and young team. The Thunder will have a busy off-season making sure that they maintain Durant, but once he is retained the front office can rest easy. The Thunder core has been built incredibly well. Of course each player must work hard to improve their game, but I have no doubt they will. This is an outstandingly competitive team who will be incredibly motivated to get better after their collapse against the Warriors. Even this year, the Thunder were considered the most talented team. Even more so than GSW or CLE. They are the only team to have 2 top 5 players and have multiple players who are extremely talented. Their success will come down to whether they will be able to gel as a squad and play to each others strengths. This is the first year in a surprisingly long time where OKC has had Durant and Westbrook healthy for the majority of the season. It was a success. Worries about Durant after his foot injury last year were quickly put to rest. Westbrook and Durant were able to complement each others play style’s for both to have very impressive individual stats. The Thunder were able to discover the talents of many of their young players such as Waiters, Kanter, and Adams. Coach Billy Donovan’s first year was vastly overlooked, yet he proved to the players and the front office he is the right man for the job. Finally, the Thunder defied the odds to mount an incredible playoff run that no doubt would’ve been considered legendary had they managed to secure just one more win. Winning a combined 7 of 13 games against teams that a had a combined record of 136-24 is something any team would be immensely proud of. While right now, things may look bleak for the Thunder, they should be proud of their feats this season and very excited as a team for years to come.
By Jack Buckingham, @nbatalkalways on twitter
*all stats aquired via Basketballreference.com