A funny thing happened on the way to the predicted Cleveland-Golden State NBA Finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder woke up.
Following a six-game dogfight with the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, the Thunder have won four of their last five playoff games, taking a 2-1 lead over the defending-champion Warriors in the West finals.
The Thunder are two wins from getting back to the Finals for the first time since 2012 — and they have their superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — to thank. Durant is averaging 27.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists in the playoff run, including 31.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in the last six games.
Westbrook has been just as good, with 25.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 11.1 assists in the postseason and came through in the clutch, with 28 points and 12 assists in the clinching win over the Spurs.
With their win over the Warriors in Game 1 of the West finals, the Thunder took home-court advantage in the series — and all of a sudden, have cast some doubt in the Warriors’ presumed sashay toward a second straight NBA championship. Golden State has relied on the 3-pointer, as they have all season, but their chances likely will live and die by it.
There’s still plenty of series to go, but the 28-point blowout in Sunday’s Game 3 showed that there’s more to this series than many of the pundits predicted. If Oklahoma City can complete the series win, the upset could go down as more of a sonic boom than just Thunder.
Here are 10 thoughts from the playoffs and Pistons for this week’s Monday Drive.
1. The Pistons’ sweep wasn’t so bad: Sure, a sweep is a sweep, but the young Pistons got some valuable experience against the Cavaliers and got to measure themselves against the best in the Eastern Conference. Most of the games were close and the Cavs had to play near peak level to finish the sweep. They’ve played just as well in the two following series, but the Pistons gave the Cavs the best shot they’ve faced in the playoffs.
2. Any hope for Toronto? Before the playoffs, the thought was the Pistons had a better shot in the playoffs if they got the No. 7 seed and faced the second-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round. The Raptors had a pair of seven-game series on the way to the Eastern Conference finals — and looked to be outclassed against the Cavs, before they took Game 3 on Saturday and made it a series, in their first trip to the conference finals.
3. Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry redeemed himself, temporarily: He had a string of postseason duds, but had 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in dispatching the Miami Heat in seven games. But he’s struggled against the Cavs, averaging 12.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the first three games. He had 20 points in the Game 3 win, but they have little chance to advance without him at peak level.
4. The Cavs’ streak finally ended: They rattled off 10 straight playoff wins before ending the streak with the Game 3 loss Saturday. LeBron James (23.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists) has played his usual role as facilitator, but Kyrie Irving (23.7 points, 4.8 assists) has been the leading scorer in the postseason. With Kevin Love, they’ve managed to lean on their Big Three and are just as good as any of the top three teams in the West.
5. Flops and flagrants are just foul: One of the side notes to the playoffs this year has been the spate of flagrant fouls and flops. Warriors forward Draymond Green has been whistled for a couple shots to Steven Adams and LeBron James might still be reeling from an inadvertent elbow he took from teammate Tristan Thompson. More calls are being reviewed and any shot to the head presumably will be a Flagrant-1 call — and most of them unnecessarily. It’s the playoffs … play on.
6. Piston tryouts: The Pistons had a couple of potential second-round prospects in for tryouts last week, most notably big man Matt Costello (Michigan State) and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke and Maryland). They won’t begin working out potential first-round candidates until later this week, but it’ll be interesting to see which direction they’re thinking of going — possibly backup point guard or power forward — with their tryouts.
7. Draft homework: The Pistons interviewed several of their potential targets at the NBA draft combine, including Wade Baldwin IV, Demetrius Jackson and Tyler Ulis. They had some talks with big men as well, but the initial indication is that they’d be looking at point guards — if they choose to keep their No. 18 pick for the June 23 draft. A trade is still likely — and probable, in the right package — before the draft, though.
8. Getting closer: The Philadelphia 76ers got the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery — and all seems to be falling into place in their multi-year rebuild and trusting of “the process” of tanking. They’ll likely select LSU phenom Ben Simmons to add some name recognition to a mostly anonymous roster and if they all stay healthy, they could be a team to watch next season. They’ll still need to add an experienced veteran, but they’re getting closer.
9. Ingram to Lakers? The Lakers are the lucky lottery beneficiaries as well, getting the No. 2 pick. Their job isn’t so tough, as they’ll only have to worry about picking the Sixers’ leftovers — likely Duke forward Brandon Ingram. They need an infusion of talent, with Kobe Bryant riding into the sunset, and Ingram could be a good piece to add in the rebuild, alongside D’Angelo Russell.
10. Davis and Valentine: It’s odd to see that between the top two MSU players in the draft, Deyonta Davis and Denzel Valentine, that Davis is projected to go higher in many mock drafts. Valentine is the national player of the year and has shown his NBA readiness; Davis is a rare MSU one-and-done and is scratching the surface of what his potential can be. Again, the message is that potential trumps proven talent.