The Western Conference semifinals have gotten awfully interesting. Both series are tied 1-1 (heck, both East series are 1-1, also, though we know which way Miami-Chicago is going). And the Warriors’ stunning performance against San Antonio has opened a whole new world in the West.
The Thunder’s loss of Russell Westbrook made reaching the NBA Finals a pipe dream. Getting past Houston was likely, and indeed it occurred. But beating Memphis was going to be a tall task even with Westbrook; the Grizzlies are tough. Without Westbrook, beating Memphis could be considered about all anyone could ask from this Thunder squad.
But now? After 106 minutes of basketball in Alamo City in which the Warriors played even or dominated for 102 minutes, the series is tied 1-1, and Golden State looks like the better team. Only a four-minute meltdown at the end of Game 1 regulation keeps the Warriors from being up 2-0.
It is not crazy to see the Warriors in the West finals. Which means the OKC-Memphis winner would have the clear advantage. I know Golden State is the flavor of the day, but it’s not a defensive-minded team. Rely on magical shooting, and eventually the magic wears off. You’d have to take the Thunder-Grizzlies winner to beat Golden State in the West. And frankly, the Thunder would have a better chance than the Grizzlies, against Golden State. The Warriors would have the better chance against San Antonio, because of matchups. But the same would hold true for OKC against Golden State.
The Warriors discovered they love the small ball lineup, after David Lee’s injury. But the Thunder loves to go small, too. That would allow them to sit Kendrick Perkins for much of the game, which means the Thunder offense would be in high gear, with no repercussions on the defensive end.
Of course, all talk about Golden State is premature. Clearly, Memphis has the edge in what now is a best-of-five series, with three games in Memphis. The Grizzlies and Thunder have played two games in the 90s that have gone down to the final minute, and there’s no reason to believe that will change. Memphis’ style of play isn’t really conducive to blowing out teams — or getting blown out — though the Grizzlies-Clippers series actually produced several one-sided games.
But if the Thunder can somehow get past Memphis, a return trip to the NBA Finals isn’t out of the question.