May 29, 2024

Western Conference finals will feature some of the most prolific players in the NBA

OAKLAND, Calif. — Klay Thompson described the Oklahoma City Thunder as a “two-headed monster” in the days leading up to the Western Conference finals.

That would qualify a series also involving the Golden State Warriors as something of a Monsters Inc. There might not be two NBA teams with more bloodcurdling talents.

Oklahoma City features a spindly shot-maker in Kevin Durant and a hard-charging dynamo in Russell Westbrook. Golden State will counter with a boyish wonder in Stephen Curry, a largely expressionless sharpshooter in Thompson and a freakishly versatile forward in Draymond Green.

“Some of the best players in the world — and I mean, when it’s all said and done, maybe all time,” Thompson said Sunday, on the eve of the series opener Monday evening at Oracle Arena.

This wasn’t the series many expected to see after the San Antonio Spurs nearly matched defending champion Golden State win for win during the Warriors’ regular-season surge to 73 victories.

Then the Spurs’ win-loss ledger went L-L-L over the final three games of the conference semifinals against Oklahoma City and they were done. Durant and Westbrook had a lot to do with it, combining for 65 points during the Thunder’s series-clinching Game 6.

The duo combined to average 51.7 points per game during the regular season, second-best in the NBA. The only more prolific tandem? Curry and Thompson, who averaged a combined 52.3 points.

Curry suggested Sunday that the sprained right knee that sidelined him for two weeks earlier in the playoffs might not be fully recovered until next season, though the two-time league most valuable player said he didn’t expect to be limited against the Thunder.

“I mean, I’m pretty confident going into the series that I can be effective on the floor doing everything that I want to do and play the way I want to play,” Curry said. “Honestly, it hasn’t gotten much better in the last week but it hasn’t gotten worse either, so I’m all right with that.”

There was less certainty regarding Golden State center Andrew Bogut, who remained questionable for the series opener because of a strained muscle in his right leg. Bogut’s presence could be crucial to combating a Thunder front line that includes 7-footer Steven Adams and the 6-11 Enes Kanter.

Then again, the Warriors could turn to their small-ball lineup featuring Green at center or rely on more traditional backups Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Anderson Varejao. Golden State could also push the pace and essentially concede the rebounding department, given that Oklahoma City out-rebounded the Warriors by 30 in a February game the Thunder lost.

Golden State won all three meetings between the teams during the regular season, though that doesn’t convey the drama involved. The Warriors needed Curry to make a staggering 37-footer with six-tenths of a second left in overtime to clinch a comeback victory in Oklahoma City. If Curry buries one three-pointer Monday, he’ll break Reggie Miller’s record of at least one make from beyond the arc in 44 consecutive playoff games.

The Warriors’ biggest proving ground probably will come on the defensive end. Thompson is expected to shadow Westbrook after having chased Houston’s James Harden and Portland’s Damian Lillard in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Thompson also happened to average a team-leading 27.2 points in those games while making 47.5 percent of his three-pointers.

“Being able to shoot the ball like that when you’ve expended so much energy at the defensive end of the floor is an amazing ability, an amazing skill,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “So we’re lucky to have him.”

Oklahoma City is trying to get back to the Finals for the first time since 2012, when it seemed as if trips to basketball’s biggest stage would become a summer ritual. An injury to Westbrook derailed the Thunder’s chances in the 2013 playoffs and one to Durant kept them out of the playoffs last season. The Spurs ended Oklahoma City’s season in the conference finals in 2014.

The Thunder have been criticized in recent years for a lack of imagination on offense. They’ve largely allowed Durant and Westbrook to operate in isolation, quite the contrast to Golden State’s constant ball movement.

No one can question either approach so far in these playoffs.

“It’s two talented teams that have a goal of getting to the Finals and are going to try to get there any way possible,” Curry said. “To win four games, it’s going to take a lot.”