3 Ways the Thunder Can Beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals
Knocking off the odds-on favorite to win the NBA Championship won't be easy for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Golden State Warriors' myriad offensive looks and stingy defense have caused havoc for opposing teams for what seems like a decade now.
But there are some tell-tale signs in the advanced numbers that suggest the Thunder could deny the Warriors a chance at a second straight NBA Championship.
1. Dominate the Offensive Glass
Offensive rebounding isn't a glamour stat, but it's vitally important. That's why it's one of Dean Oliver's Four Factors, if you measure it by Offensive Rebounding Rate -- the percentage of available offensive rebounds a team grabs.
By this measure, the Thunder hauled in 31.1% of offensive rebounds this season. Only one other team -- the Detroit Pistons at 27.0% -- were above 26.0% in 2015-16. So the Thunder were quite clearly the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA.
And for as good as the Warriors are on defense -- their 103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions tied for 5th-best in the league -- their Defensive Rebounding Rate (76.0%) ranked just below league average (76.2%) this season.
It's not a fluke, either. Last season, Golden State's 74.5% Defensive Rebounding Rate ranked below league average (74.9%). The Thunder's Offensive Rebounding Rate (28.9%) ranked just behind the Utah Jazz's 29.1% last season.
Any idea why that might be? Well, Enes Kanter, who split time with the Jazz and Thunder last season, has the second-highest Offensive Rebounding Rate (15.5%) among players with at least 2,000 minutes over the past two seasons.
And don't forget Steven Adams, whose 12.4% Offensive Rebounding Rate in that span ranks 16th.
It'll be hard to ignore the stars on the wings in this series, but don't overlook the frontcourt battle to see if the Thunder can get the best of an undersized Draymond Green (whose 22.7% Defensive Rebounding Rate ranks 33rd over the past two seasons) and Andrew Bogut (26.3%, 14th) more often than not.
2. Get to the Free Throw Line
The Thunder aren't quite as dominant at getting to the free throw line as they are grabbing offensive rebounds, but their free throw numbers are still impressive.
In terms of Free Throw Rate, the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, the Warriors ranked ninth-best at .292. League average this season was .276. But in terms of Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt (so, made free throws per field goal attempt, one of the Four Factors), the Thunder ranked fifth at .228.
Russell Westbrook ranked 10th among qualified guards in Free Throw Rate at .397, which isn't easy to do given his volume. Putting the pressure on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson could impact the series significantly, especially considering that Westbrook maintained just a 36.7% Effective Field Goal Percentage against the Warriors this season on a 35.2% Usage Rate.
Golden State, again, was a league-average squad in terms of made free throws per field goal attempt at .208 (league average this season was .209). Then again, it's a bit silly to penalize a team for free throw defense (as measured by made free throws), but the Warriors' opponents averaged 24 free throw attempts per 100 possessions, which were 13th-most in the league this season.
Simply put, the Warriors put teams on the line at roughly an average rate, and the Thunder get to the line like a top-five or top-10 team. If Oklahoma City can get to the line and control the offensive glass? Look out.
3. Control the Fourth Quarter
Of course, none of that matters if they can't put away the Warriors late in the game, something the Thunder weren't able to do this regular season.
The Warriors outscored the Thunder 107-83 in the fourth quarter (in their three games) this season, despite the Thunder leading or being tied in each fourth quarter at some point.
In their first game, the Thunder never got to the point of being favored, according to numberFire Live, but they tied the game at 104 with 3:37 left in the fourth quarter.
Yeah...that almost vertical line? That was from this.
Perhaps even more devastating (I know) was their game back on March 3rd, when the Thunder actually carried an 83-82 lead into the fourth quarter. That, uh, didn't hold up.
Oklahoma City's fourth-quarter Net Rating (the difference between their points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) of -1.2 ranked 20th in the league. Even in eventual wins, their 8.7 Net Rating in the final frame ranked just 19th-best. That can easily be a misleading stat, especially with the difference in win totals around the league, but they're not a dominant fourth-quarter squad by any stretch.
However, their fourth-quarter Net Rating in the playoffs is up to 12.2, fourth-best in the field (behind Golden State's 18.0, Boston's 13.2, and Cleveland's 12.7 -- no other team is better than a 4.0).
They've been locked in down the stretch this postseason, but only time will tell if they can replicate that small-sample success against the Warriors.
If not, they could lose control of a lead and wind up devastated at the buzzer. Again.
Our algorithms give the Thunder just a 31.57% chance to advance to the NBA Finals.