The Golden State Warriors don’t lose at home very often, but when the Western Conference Finals kicked off on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder proved that the mighty team by the bay isn’t invincible in front of their home fans. The Thunder stunned the Warriors with a 108-102 victory in Game 1 of the series, which now has their playoff win streak at an impressive four games — dating back to the final three games of the conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. For a team that was something of an afterthought in the loaded Western Conference for the latter half of the season, the Thunder are playing maybe their best basketball of the year at the absolute perfect time.
While superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done their thing to help OKC go on this hot streak, something about the Thunder has changed in order to allow them to be successful. There is still a long way to go in this series and Golden State is more than capable of overcoming a Game 1 slip up, but if the Thunder keep playing well in the following three areas, they may just ride this wave of momentum all the way to the NBA Finals.
All season long, the Thunder have used their length to dominate the glass. During the regular season, they easily had the best rebounding differential in the league at plus-8.4 per game and here in the playoffs, the story has basically been the same — they own a differential of nearly plus-10 on the boards. The merits of rebounding aggressively have been debated in recent years, but there’s no doubt that Oklahoma City’s brute force on the boards has really given them an advantage throughout their current win streak.
In Game 4 against the Spurs, the Thunder found themselves with a double-digit advantage on the glass in a 14-point victory. In Game 5 of that series, the score was much closer, but — thanks in part to a plus-19 edge in rebounding — OKC again found victory. To close out that series, they again had a big advantage on the boards in Game 6. Their ability on the glass overwhelmed the Spurs and allowed them to advance to the conference finals, where, at least in Game 1, they proved what rebounding can do for them once again.
The Thunder’s rebounding edge wasn’t quite as large against the Warriors on Monday, but a differential of plus-eight is still significant, particularly in such a close game. The second chance point and fast break opportunities that those rebounds create is critical to the Thunder’s game plan. If they continue to dominate on the glass, a Game 1 victory might not be the highlight of the series for OKC. With several effective rebounders like Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Durant, and Westbrook (the most prolific glass-dwelling guard in the league by a long shot), there’s no reason that domination can’t continue.
On the defensive end of the floor, the Thunder are playing terrific basketball and keeping some of the best offensive teams in the league in check. The Spurs aren’t the highest scoring team in the league, but they are generally very efficient. However, against the Thunder, they were held to under 100 points in each of the last three games. In those games, San Antonio didn’t shoot as well as they usually do either, which can be attributed to lockdown defense by guys like Andre Roberson.
Against the Warriors, the Thunder held the highest scoring team in the league to just 102 points on Monday night — also keeping Golden State in check from long range (as the Warriors shot just 36.7% from three in the game). OKC also forced 14 Warrior turnovers in the victory, which led to easy buckets at the other end. They aren’t the best defensive team in the league, but if they continue to play as well as they have on that end of the floor, coupled with their offensive talent, it could be too much for the Warriors to overcome over the course of a seven game set.
3. Fourth quarter improvement
All season long, the big bugaboo with the Thunder has been their play in the fourth quarter and in closing out games. On numerous occasions, they blew late leads to lose key games (a stat in which they embarrassingly led the NBA in during the regular season). Through their last four games, though, Oklahoma City has quieted the talk on that issue, as they have won close games down the stretch thanks to efficient play from the likes of Westbrook and Durant.
In Game 4 against San Antonio, the Thunder were actually down by four entering the fourth before pulling away for a blowout win. In Game 5 of that series, they were in a battle on the road and were down by three entering the fourth. Clutch plays down the stretch again led them to victory, as was also the case in Game 1 against the Warriors. With closers in Durant and Westbrook, this is a dangerous team to deal with in the fourth. Now that they appear to be over their mental hurdle in the quarter, nothing may stop them on a quest for a championship.
One more thing to mention about the Thunder’s win streak is their play on the road. The win over the Warriors gave them three straight road victories — all coming against the two teams with the best homecourt advantage in the NBA. Overall, OKC has lost just once on the road in the postseason. That makes them incredibly dangerous as they look to earn a major upset in the conference finals.