OAKLAND — When the Warriors are rolling, they alternate between quick strikes, sometimes hitting three-pointers within seconds of the shot clock starting, and deliberate dissections that require two or three extra passes and multiple off-ball slaloms to unveil the shot they truly want. The defending champs comfortably deploy speed and precision, and often the interplay between those two sensations proves to be backbreaking.
Presented with a familiar opportunity, to put down a reeling opponent, Golden State was unable to conjure up either its rapid-fire three-pointers or its one-step-ahead buckets during a fourth quarter to forget on Monday night. With the onslaught avoided, the Thunder closed out a come-from-behind 108–102 road victory over the Warriors and open up a 1–0 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Golden State’s offense, which ran off 60 points in the first half and forced Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan to quickly bench Enes Kanter in the second quarter, managed just 14 points in the final period. As the Thunder mounted a comeback, the Warriors whiffed on their chances to hold them off, shooting just 6 for 23 and hitting just one three on 10 attempts in the final period.
The most telling sequence came with roughly seven minutes to go. After Stephen Curry collected an offensive rebound, he found himself isolated on the left wing against Kanter, a very lonely place for the 6'11" Turkish center. Earlier in the game, Curry and Draymond Green had taken turns exploiting Kanter, with Curry draining a three over the top of his too-late closeout and Green blowing by him for a layup.
Now, behind 95–93 with an opportunity to regain the lead, Curry didn’t launch and he didn’t attack. Uncharacteristically, he hesitated. The ball then moved to Green, who wasn’t set for a catch-and-shoot look, his preferred type of jumper. Also uncharacteristically, Green hesitated, eventually launching a contested step-back three-pointer off the dribble rather than attacking.
Here the Warriors lacked their signatures—their ruthless decisiveness and their savvy unselfishness—that so often pay off with points, and they left the possession empty. They trailed the rest of the way, losing Game 1 of a playoff series for the first time during coach Steve Kerr’s tenure.
“We have to be better at being us,” Curry said.
Curry, a late-game monster in two clutch victories over the Blazers in the second round, scored just three of his team-high 26 points in the fourth quarter. Klay Thompson, his backcourt sidekick, scored 25 on the night but was held scoreless in the fourth.
“A lot of quick shots, way too many quick shots,” Kerr said. “Five minutes left in the game and we’re down four or whatever, and we were acting like we had 20 seconds left. Five minutes is an eternity. We know how we have to play. We have to pass and move and create rhythm for ourselves with our screening and our cutting.”
When the Warriors weren’t hesitating, they were overcompensating by firing somewhat madly: Curry and Thompson combined to hit just one of seven three-pointers in the final period, with many of those attempts being very difficult looks.
“I do think we lost our poise a little bit and that had a lot to do with the quick shots,” Kerr continued. “I think we were trying to rectify the situation in one or two plays instead of letting it play out.”
As a team, Golden State had as many turnovers as free throw attempts in the fourth (two), a sign of an offense that lost its direction and its ferocity. Curry, who is just one week removed from returning from a knee sprain, was a major culprit when it came to loose-ball control, committing seven turnovers, his most in a playoff game since 2014.
“In the first half he was careless with the ball,” Kerr said of Curry. “You can’t throw the ball over the top of these guys. They’re a very long-limbed team. He had a couple of those in the first half. It’s an adjustment, for sure. Every team is different, and Oklahoma City’s a lot different from Portland. Portland was a lot different from Houston.”
Indeed, the Warriors spent the second half looking like a team that hadn’t yet adjusted to an opponent that possesses A-level talent and the requisite determination.
The Thunder, who received 53 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are substantially more potent than either the Rockets or Blazers, and their improved defense has helped address their early-season tendency to give away games with late collapses.
While Oklahoma City went more than four minutes without a field goal in crunch time, their defense held serve long enough for Durant to deliver the dagger: a mid-range pull-up jumper in the game’s final minute.
Stunned by the Warriors’ stalled offense and enraged by a no-call on Westbrook, who appeared to travel late, the Oracle Arena crowd began departing before the final buzzer. As the thousands of fans filed out in defeat, following the first home loss of Golden State’s 2016 postseason, the Thunder calmly hit their free throws and dribbled out the win in businesslike fashion.
“What’s to celebrate? We didn’t win the championship,” Durant said. “We’re playing in the Western Conference finals against a great team. ... It was a good win for us, but we’re not going to be jumping up and down, chest-bumping on the court. We’ve got a lot more basketball to play.”
Whether due to rust, or complacency, or mental lapses or the Thunder’s better-than-expected defense, the Warriors weren’t themselves down the stretch of a game they led by as many as 14 points. That development didn’t inspire anger from Curry, or fear from Kerr or excitement from Durant. Instead, there was a common thread to be found in Curry’s call for an identity check, in Kerr’s reminder about the need to adjust to new opposing personnel and in Durant’s emotionless downplaying of a crucial road victory.
All parties seemed to be preparing for, or bracing for, a return to normalcy in Wednesday’s Game 2, when Golden State will look to continue its season-long streak of never losing back-to-back contests.
“I think our defensive game plan was pretty good, really good,” Green said. “Offensively we sucked. ... You’re down 1–0, you’ve got to play with a little more desperation. But there is a difference between desperation and panicking, and we’re not panicking at all.”
That measured tone will disappear if the Warriors can’t recapture their offensive form. With the proper response, Monday might reasonably be viewed as a forgivable mulligan. But a 2–0 hole, with three games to be played in Oklahoma City, would easily stand as the bleakest moment of a shining season.