Oklahoma City has Golden State on the brink of elimination

For nearly two full seasons, the Warriors have been an invincible blur of revolutionary basketball. But the Thunder are attempting to change that paradigm and write their own history

Mark D. Smith—
Oklahoma City

Well, I never thought we’d be here. And by here, I mean the Golden State Warriors — winners of an NBA-record 73 regular season games — facing elimination in the Western Conference Finals. Over the last calendar year, the Warriors, led by two-time MVP Stephen Curry, have been the best show in sports. The playoffs this year seemed like they’d become a coronation, the championship a given for the Warriors. If that was the case, however, someone failed to inform Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Following Tuesday night’s dominating 118-94 victory in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have claimed a 3-1 series lead, and are one win away from their first trip back to the NBA Finals since 2012. How exactly has this happened?

Orthrus resides in OKC

Like everything involving the Thunder, good or bad, it starts at the top with their two superstar players: Durant and Westbrook.

These two have played alongside one another for eight seasons, but honestly, it seems longer than that. It’s easy to forget that both of these dudes are just 27 years old, and entering the height of their powers. They’re easily two of the seven best players in the world, no matter how you slice it. They can get their shots whenever they damn please. It’s incredibly difficult to acquire one of these type of players. OKC has two.

Westbrook, a snarling bumble of aggression and angst, has gotten the better of the two-time MVP, save for the third quarter of Game 2, when Curry went bonkers from deep over the course of two minutes. In this series, he’s averaging 27 points, 12 assists and 4 steals per game. He’s also shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers, which is way above his normal rate. When he hits from deep, there’s essentially no answer for him defensively. Golden State has been so worried about his offense in transition that they’ve basically punted on offensive rebounds, and made sure to get multiple bodies back to curtail Westbrook’s fearless penetration.

OKC’s point guard uses his speed and vision to set up Durant on the break, which has been devastating for the Dubs. Durant’s averaging 1.46 points per possession in transition, and shooting 71.4 percent on said possessions. He leads the playoffs in transition points with 98. Westbrook, by the way, is second in this metric with 88. Over the last four games, the Thunder have scored 1.15 points per possession with Durant and Westbrook on the court. During the 127 minutes they’ve played together this series, OKC is giving up just .97 points per possession.

Led by Durant and Wesbrook, the Thunder have become the first team since the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win the title, to score 72 or more first half points in consecutive playoff games.

A thundering herd on defense

All season long, the Thunder have had one of the most explosive offenses in the NBA. Questions over their ability to contend for a championship didn’t reside on that side of the court. Their defense, however, was a massive concern.

Oklahoma City had the No. 12 defense in the NBA this season. They gave up 103 points per 100 possessions, which isn’t necessarily bad. But it’s outside of the range for a normal title-contending squad. In their series against Golden State, the Thunder are giving up just 101.8 points per 100 possessions. Considering the opponent, one of the greatest offensive units in league history, that kind of improvement is as unlikely as it is significant. OKC looks like a totally different team.

There simply isn’t a better athlete in the league than Westbrook: he’s a bundle of fast-twitch muscles, and I think if you cut him open, you’d find a combination of energy drink-infused gears and springs. He’s built like a guy who could take over a game defensively, but Westbrook has long been plagued by lapses of attention to detail, and a desire to gamble for steals. This series, though, he’s cutdown on the needless roving, and has focused on getting in a stance and staying in front of Curry. He’s still going to take chances (he’s averaging 3.8 steals per game this series), but the results speak for themselves.

These two teams met three times during the regular season. Oklahoma City had leads in the fourth quarters in all three games, but went on to lose each and every one of them. A big reason for this was the brilliance of Curry, who averaged 35 points and 6.7 assists in those contests while shooting 45 percent on 3-pointers. Westbrook has taken that away: Curry’s scoring 24.3 points per game and shooting 37.2 from deep. These are really good numbers for just about anyone on planet Earth, but this isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Steph, and it’s crippling Golden State’s offense.

Curry had just one 3-pointer blocked all season (on 886 attempts). Against the Thunder, though, he’s had two blocked by Steven Adams, which is perhaps another indicator that Curry isn’t that close to being 100 percent physically.

With Westbrook at the point of attack, neutralizing Curry, it has allowed Andre Roberson, OKC’s defensive stopper, to flex his muscles on Klay Thompson. The taller half of the Splash Bros shook loose for 26 points on 17 shots in Game 4, but that was the first game this series that Thompson has had more points than field goal attempts.

Shooting guard Dion Waiters, often mocked in basketball circles for his shot selection and suboptimal defense, has brought his lunchpail on this end, too. This is crucial because Waiters gives them another dimension offensively, which is made null when he can’t keep his head above water defensively. His contributions on that end — guarding a mix of gifted perimeter players — have been a real boon for OKC. He’s become a valuable 3-and-D wing (Waiters is shooting 46.2 percent on corner threes in the playoffs).

A lot of Golden State’s discomfort on offense has been created by the Thunder’s ability to switch everything defensively, which is a sentence I never thought I’d type. The Warriors became the envy of the league last season when they flashed their positionless defense that allowed them to switch across every screen, both on and off the ball. Durant and Serge Ibaka have demonstrated excellent foot speed, and stuck close to Golden State’s perimeter players when asked.

As remarkable as the Warriors have been on offense this season, they did have one glaring deficiency on that end, and the Thunder are causing that to rear its ugly head: turnovers. Golden State averaged 15.2 turnovers per game during the regular season, which was 24th in the NBA. The Warriors haven’t exactly turned it over more against OKC — 15.3 turnovers per game — but those changes of possession are death when they result in run-outs for Westbrook, a one-man assault unit in the open floor, and Durant. In the Game 4 victory, the Thunder turned 21 Warriors turnovers into 18 points — 9 of those courtesy of Westbrook. In their three wins this series, OKC has averaged nearly 19 points per game off turnovers.

It’s more than just turning defense into offense, though. Ibaka has continued to be a strong presence around the rim, where the Warriors are shooting just 48.1 percent at the hoop on field goals contested by the big fella.

Death Lineup on the operating table

Outside of Steph Curry’s inability to connect on jumpers — he’s a measly 11 of 30 on uncontested shots the last two games — the biggest surprise of this series has been the lack of production from Golden State’s vaunted “death lineup.”

One of the beliefs heading into this matchup was that the Warriors would, once again, dominate the game when they went small. For two seasons now, this notion has been overwhelmingly true. During this series, though, the lineup of Curry-Thompson-Draymond Green-Andre Iguodala-Harrison Barnes has scored just .88 points per possession, while giving up 1.23 points per possession. Quite frankly, this is shocking. This five-man group has destroyed the league, and it’s the unit they used to closeout Cleveland in the Finals last season. All of a sudden, it’s missing.

Oklahoma City is the first team ever to counteract this threat. They’ve done this not by doubling up on their size advantage, but instead by beating Golden State at their own game. OKC had been reluctant to downsize and play Durant at power forward for most of this season. However, the Thunder have rolled with Durant and Ibaka as their two big guys, and my word, has it been dominant.

The five-man lineup of Durant-Ibaka-Westbrook-Waiters-Roberson is scoring an absurd 1.4 points per possession, and relenting just on .71 points per possession on the defensive end. This is where Durant and Ibaka’s ability to switch out on to ball handlers following screens has been invaluable. The collective length makes passing windows tighter than usual, too.

Offensively, this unit has played fast (111 possession per 48 minutes) and sizzled from the field (a true shooting percentage of 69.9). Ibaka is the rare unicorn who can both protect the rim, and shoot from the perimeter. He hasn’t exactly sniped from deep this series — shooting just 31.3 percent on 3-pointers — but the space he creates by just standing outside of the arc is wrecking havoc on Golden State’s defense.

Roberson, who has been completely ignored by the Warriors, has been actualized on offense for the first time in his career. He’s connected on six of his 11 attempts from deep, but more importantly, OKC has started to use him functionally as a rim-running center, which they can do with Ibaka stationed in the corners. I’ve been hard on Roberson, but he’s been great this series — setting screens, rolling hard to the rim and being confident around the basket with finishes and rebounds.

It seemed like an impossibility as recently as two weeks ago, but the Thunder are running the Warriors are the court.

Tip of the cap to Billy D

After 19 seasons and two NCAA championships at the University of Florida, Billy Donovan finally decided to make the jump to coaching in the NBA. He landed in what seemed like a pretty cushy situation in OKC. Most first-year coaches don’t acquire a roster that contains two of the best players in the league. That said, Donovan was also entering a cauldron of pressure. This is a franchise that’s been on the precipice of a title for six years, but couldn’t quite get passed teams like the Spurs and Warriors. Durant’s upcoming unrestricted free agency later this summer loomed overhead, too.

But here Donovan is, a win away from the Finals, coaching his tail off.

My only gripe with Donovan was that he waited until over halfway through the season to start staggering the minutes of Durant and Westbrook. Obviously, you want those two players to share the court a great deal, but if you have two gifted scorers like this, it makes no sense for them to ever be sitting next to one another on the bench while the game is going on. One of those players should be on the floor at all times.

It took some time, but Donovan adjusted, and now KD heads to the bench around the six-minute mark of the first quarter. That allows Westbrook to run the show for the remainder of the opening frame. Then Donovan can come back with Durant at the start of the second quarter. Now, Westbrook can reboot his mainframe — err, I mean, catch a breather — while the Slim Reaper cooks against an opposing second unit.

In the playoffs, Donovan hasn’t reinvented the wheel, mostly because he doesn’t need to. After crushing the San Antonio Spurs in the previous round on the glass while using their twin tower frontcourt of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, Donovan has readjusted. He didn’t fall in love with Kanter, who is a complete and total defensive liability against Golden State’s speedy offense. Kanter played 22.6 minutes per game against the Spurs, but his minutes have been cut significantly against the Warriors. He’s playing just 14.9 minutes per contest this series.

Advancing in the playoffs is all about match-ups. If you can exploit the inefficiencies of your opponent’s lineup, then your odds of winning the series jump through the roof. Donovan has proven himself to be capable in this regard.

Looking ahead

I’m not really sure Steve Kerr and Golden State have any obvious adjustments to make. They could slot Iguodala into the starting lineup ahead of Andrew Bogut, but they just need to play better. The Curry-Green pick-and-roll has been the best play in basketball since the start of 2014. It’s evaporated this series, though, and that’s incredibly disconcerting for fans of Golden State. If Warriors are going to stave off elimination, they need to rediscover that play, ASAP.

If they don’t, the Thunder will be headed back to the Finals. What a time to be alive.