OAKLAND — Bruce Fraser, the Warriors assistant coach, stood on the side of the team’s practice court here Tuesday, watching the reserves get in extra work and wondering about what comes next. The night before, the Thunder rode a second-half surge, and some uncharacteristic Warriors’ mental lapses, to a 108–102 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Afterward, Draymond Green sat by his locker, feet jammed in ice, studying the box score, looking half-pissed and half-flummoxed. Shaun Livingston wondered whether the loss, “could be good for us,” in the manner of a man coming off a painful break-up who tries out the idea that maybe this is all for the better in the end. And Stephen Curry, who had as many turnovers as Russell Westbrook had steals (seven), arrived at his locker, picked up his long-sleeved shooting shirt and tossed it into a nearby ice bucket, where it slowly took on water, sinking as Curry turned away, towel over his head, lost in his own thoughts.
And now here was Fraser, in the light of a new day, thinking big picture. “At this level, the mind is everything,” he said. He was discussing the work of Dr. Chris Johnson, a part-time team psychologist for the Warriors last year. Johnson commuted from San Diego during the season, where he ran the Navy's Operational Neuroscience Lab, working with Marines and Navy SEALs. While with the Warriors, Johnson introduced certain SEALs concepts he thought would translate. One phrase in particular resonated for Fraser: “Find work, crush space.” “If you go into room [as a SEAL] and you’re working as team, you want to be finding work,” Fraser explained. “You don’t want to be just standing there. And you want to be taking up space as you’re moving through.” He pauses. “It’s a little bit like the basketball world. If you’re standing, just watching things happen, then you’re not participating or helping. It’s not intentional, but you have to be active, the mind has to be active, communicating, moving, doing things. Finding work. If I’m standing here, what if I made a cut, or what if I screen, then I'm taking up space or moving space.”
Johnson left the team in the off-season—offered a gig with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he is now. But in looking ahead to Game 2 of the Thunder-Warriors series Wednesday, Golden State’s players would be wise to follow Johnson’s advice and look inward. To find work and crush space. Because, for a group that rarely appears rattled, the starters lost their flow in the second half of Game 1. Players held the ball—on a team where holding the ball is essentially forbidden. Iso play followed iso play (again, discouraged, unless your name is Steph). Waving and yelling replaced passing and cutting. Klay Thompson, so hot early, looked like a pickup player who, upon catching the ball, felt he needed to shoot it immediately lest he not get it back. Green became an unlikely volume scorer; Curry played off the ball and struggled to get free. As Green put it Tuesday: “We went ballistic in a terrible way.” Some of this was the encumbering defense of the Thunder, a team that Andre Iguodala compared to Milwaukee with its length (as you’ll recall, the Bucks beat the Warriors to end their season-opening win streak). But plenty of it was on Golden State.
Thus the same phrases cropped up postgame and again at practice Tuesday. Poise was in heavy rotation. Make the adjustments, of course, but also, more strikingly, the idea that the Warriors were, as Curry put it, “out of character” and needed to “continue to be us.”
It goes without saying that this is not the time of the season for a team to lose its identity. Occasionally, a squad finds it in the postseason—as Cleveland appears to have done this year—but letting it slip away is perilous. The Warriors machine is built on trust and confidence and synergy. That’s a fine calibration, especially when it comes to the team’s small-ball lineups, which thrive only if the five players function as one on defense and on the boards. The reality is that the Warriors haven’t been playing great for a while now. The 4–1 series margin over Portland obscures the fact that Golden State struggled at times, and rarely looked crisp.
Chances are, the Thunder will stick with the same strategy in Game 2. Why wouldn’t they? Which, in a twist, leaves the Warriors—the home team, top seed, defending champions and best regular season team in history—to do the adjusting.
So tonight, expect to see the Warriors use Curry on-ball more than in Game 1. The team’s at its best when Curry is looking for mismatches on pick-and-rolls and finding those tiny crevices in which he thrives (provided his conditioning and knee/ankle are up for it over the course of 40-some minutes). Chances are also good that the Warriors will continue to play small, despite the banging, grunting presence of Steven Adams. The Warriors may have lost, but their vaunted Death Lineup played well for the most part. If anything, the team may try to go even quicker, giving some of Andrew Bogut’s early minutes to Festus Ezeli.
One thing we’re unlikely to see from the Warriors is panic or desperation, at least not outwardly (the team was loose at practice). This is a team that loves challenges; Green and Curry have spent their lives fueled by the doubts of others. And here is an opportunity for the overdog to play the role of underdog, for at least one game. “Some people think the series is over,” Bogut said Tuesday. “We respond pretty well to these situations.”
In the past they certainly have. Now their goal is both simple and difficult. They must outthink the Thunder. They must get back to playing without thinking.