January 20, 2019

It’s fair to say that no matter what happens on Monday’s Game 7, the conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder will achieve instant classic status. Not even a boring blowout going either way would be enough to take the luster off a series that featured fantastic individual performances and huge narrative shifts thanks to unexpected wins. It’s been a neutral fan’s dream.

For the two teams actually playing the deciding game, however, what happened before doesn’t matter, unless it somehow can help them find an edge. Their entire season is at stake and the time to make big adjustments is in the past. It’s all about the little things now, about maximizing strengths and hiding weaknesses one more time.

With that in mind, here are three questions whose answers could determine the winner of Game 7:

Can Serge Ibaka hit enough shots to hurt the Warriors’ defense?

The Warriors have made it a point of punishing the Thunder for having several players who can’t create on offense in their starting lineup. First they ignored Andre Roberson completely, having Draymond Green play off him and essentially act as a free safety on defense. Billy Donovan adjusted by having Roberson screen more as well as act as a big man, roaming the baseline and crashing the offensive boards. Golden State still gives him plenty of room but, has to be more aware of where he is now.

What they have started to do recently more than before is ignore Serge Ibaka. When the Thunder’s power forward is on the weak side along with any wing that isn’t Durant, Green will leave him to go help on drives.

G7-Preview-1

Most teams zone out on the weakside but few leave a capable shooter like Ibaka so alone. Golden State has simply decided that they will live with Ibaka shooting three-pointers if it helps them contain Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and so far, it’s proven to be a good move. Ibaka is shooting 45 percent for the playoffs from beyond the arc, but just 33 percent against the Warriors despite the vast majority of his three-pointers coming with no defender within four feet.

Despite the Warriors’ best efforts, the Thunder have made a killing inside. That needs to continue to happen. In situations in which the path to the basket is blocked because Ibaka’s man is in the lane, however, the ball needs to find Ibaka and he needs to hit those open threes. Getting him in rhythm with some pick and pop mid-range jumpers could be a way to make sure that happens, but ultimately it will come down to whether he hits shots when it counts or not.

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Is the Death Lineup truly back?

The Stephen Curry -€” Klay Thompson -€” Andre Iguodala -€” Harrison Barnes -€” Draymond Green five-man unit that terrorized the league during last playoffs and this regular season had been a disaster against the Thunder for the majority of the series. It got outscored by over 29 points per 100 possessions in the first five matchups, a ridiculously high number. It really seemed that for the Warriors to win, they were going to have to go big, like they did in Game 5 with Andrew Bogut getting 30 minutes and Marreese Speights sopping up the majority of the playing time when he rested.

Then on Saturday, the Warriors played the bigs less and outscored the Thunder by 12 points in the 11 minutes the Death Lineup was on the floor. Going by the numbers alone, it seems like it’s back to being a juggernaut, but the majority of its damage came late in the game, when the Thunder were collapsing. In the first three quarters, it was merely a +1 on six minutes. That’s not bad, but it’s not particularly scary either. And while the lineup deserves credit for how well it closed the game, individual play was the real difference.

Steve Kerr showed that he trusts this lineup, so he will surely give it some run. If the outcome is similar to the one from the first five games, in which the Thunder matched the small unit but outplayed it thanks to their length and athleticism, that trust could backfire spectacularly. If instead the Death Lineup is truly back, as it seemed late in Game 6, the Warriors could run away with it. The minutes in which that five-man unit is on the court could prove to be key.

Can the Thunder avoid another collapse?

The ending of Game 6 was a disaster for the Thunder. In the last five minutes they squandered a seven-point lead by going 1-for-5 from the field and turning the ball over six times. The offense got stuck in mud, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook trying to do it all themselves against a defense that was ready for it. It was reminiscent of the regular season, in which Oklahoma City lost 14 games while going into the fourth quarter with a lead.

win probability
Courtesy of inpredictable.

It’s tempting to focus on that terrible clutch performance and conclude that the Warriors have this in the bag unless they get blown out. All they have to do is keep the game close until the final minutes and watch Oklahoma City crumble. As bad as that stretch was, however, it really isn’t indicative of how the Thunder have fared late in games in the playoffs. They beat the Spurs in close matchups and in Game 1 they led by eight entering the last five minutes, let Golden State cut it to one, then rallied and close it out.

The potential to avoid another collapse is there. The Thunder just need to avoid isolation play with no wrinkles. If Durant wants to take the shot, they need to at least try to force a switch to get Iguodala off of him. If Westbrook is the one tasked with scoring, having him off the ball when the play starts is the way to go. The Warriors play off of him, so he can catch and drive with a head start. On defense, the key is getting back in transition. Those are all things the Thunder know how to do.

All signs point to a close Game 7. The Thunder need to do a better job executing late or the Warriors will pull off the comeback and make the finals for the second year in a row.

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