OAKLAND, Calif. — The Thunder may be the NBA’s best hope of unseating the Warriors—that rare team with the length, talent and flexibility to theoretically match the defending champions on their own terms. In the translation from theory to practice, however, that characterization can turn dispiriting. Oklahoma City held its ground through much of Thursday’s game at Oracle Arena only to fall victim to the same kind of suffocating run that seems to claim all of Golden State’s opponents. The final margin, 121–106, cleared away the memory of a competitive matchup.
“They bring out the best in us because they’re so talented, they’re such a good team and they present so many challenges," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
By extension, the Warriors, who tied an NBA record 44th straight home win, seem to bring out the worst in the Thunder at times. Even Oklahoma City’s more sustained, successful runs came littered with turnovers and concessions. This was far from a first-rate defensive performance by Golden State, and yet Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rarely found clean scoring opportunities. Some Warriors defender was always lurking in view. Even a momentary hesitation could buy the 55–5 Warriors time to steel themselves against an impending drive.
“They put two or three guys out there and just shaded us a little bit and made us kick the ball,” Durant said.
Their deterrence worked if not to deprive the Thunder superstars of shot attempts, then certainly to the effect of forcing mistakes. Durant spent extended stretches of this game trying to facilitate and wound up with nine turnovers for his trouble. The only way to beat the Warriors is to make the right play and do so perfectly. Throwing a well-intentioned pass a beat late or a bit off-mark will likely result in a turnover. Hesitating even a moment before making the next play in sequence allows enough time for a full defensive recovery. Meanwhile, every possession inches Golden State closer to puzzling out its opponent and fully understanding the advantages in play.
“[The Warriors] are a team that, over time, they keep grinding away and grinding away,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “So you have to give them credit.”
Open Floor Podcast with Sharp and Golliver: Can anyone beat the Warriors?
In taking stock, Oklahoma City has as many points of leverage in this matchup as any team in the league. Durant can get the better of any one-on-one matchup the Warriors muster—even Andre Iguodala, who was limited by injury in Thursday’s game. Westbrook has the ability to keep Golden State’s guards on their heels defensively and counterpunch in transition. The fact that the Thunder can proactively switch so many of their defensive assignments makes the Warriors’ choreography all the more manageable. Golden State’s second unit regularly gives opponents the opportunity to make up ground. The offensive boards give Oklahoma City an opportunity to boost its offense and stall potential fast breaks. Even the way Golden State crowds Durant and Westbrook has the potential to swing in the Thunder’s favor, as was evident in the periodic contributions of players like Kyle Singler on Thursday.
So many of those factors need to swing in Oklahoma City’s favor, however, to create any meaningful traction over the course of a full 48 minutes. Golden State survives its most careless stretches until its next big run can turn the game. Any winning opponent will have to bury the Warriors before that time comes—a considerable challenge when, as Kerr noted, this team finds motivation in their matchup against the Thunder.
This season has shown the danger in being a team Golden State takes seriously. Among those to meet that criterion, Oklahoma City holds only the distinction of losing by a less painful margin than others.