Warriors on brink of elimination as Thunder close in on NBA Finals
Get all of Rob Mahoney’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The death lineup is slain. For the second straight game, the Thunder worked over the single most dominant lineup of the regular season by bringing the small-ball Warriors to panic. The very speed that had fueled Golden State in Draymond Green’s minutes at center tripped up the Warriors in Games 3 and 4, with every turnover or rushed shot playing right into Oklahoma City’s hands. Cross-court passes were intercepted. Attempted dribble drives went awry thanks to the Thunder’s length. Shots at the rim were bothered, passing lanes were occupied and so much of the Warriors’ once-spectacular offense was brought to a grinding halt. It was the Thunder who stopped them, again and again, leveling a 118–94 verdict in Game 4 on Tuesday night to hand the Warriors their first losing streak of the season.
One win now separates the Thunder from their first Finals appearance since 2012. Their evolution since the regular season’s end has been nothing short of sensational; Oklahoma City showed little evidence of playing championship-level defense in its 82-game campaign, yet has made that a mainstay over the course of its postseason romp. San Antonio, then thought to be a presumptive conference finalist, was the first giant toppled. In two days’ time, Golden State could follow suit, namely because the Thunder found the means to keep pace and deny what the Warriors do best.
Stephen Curry looked like a shell of his MVP self in Game 4, primarily because OKC’s relentless coverage had hollowed his confidence. This wasn’t the freewheeling Curry; it was a shadow of that player who couldn’t find the means to separate on the perimeter nor punish defenders too aggressive in their pursuit. We’ve seen Curry catch fire for a few minutes a time, but never in this series has he seemed all that comfortable putting the ball on the floor and snaking his way to the basket. There have been more bodies in his path during this series than at any point during the season, and when he did previously find more resistance at the rim, he actually made it all the way there. In all, Curry went 2-for-7 at the basket.
The Warriors simply aren’t the Warriors when Curry isn’t able to use the drive as a counter, particularly when Green—Golden State’s secondary playmaker—is blanketed to the point of ineffectiveness. Oklahoma City took every advantage. If not for Klay Thompson scoring 19 straight points for the Warriors in the third quarter, Game 4 could have easily slipped to the wild, lopsided margins of the previous contest. It took his attempted save to even keep the margin respectable and a comeback plausible.
Any such plans were spoiled in the fourth by an all too familiar panic. Billy Donovan has increasingly committed to matching the Thunder’s small-ball with a few lineup variations, all of which have been able to shake the Warriors completely. Guards like Russell Westbrook (who played a sensational all-around game) and Andre Roberson helped to ensure that the Thunder could maintain its rebounding advantage through will alone. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka again held their ground as impromptu perimeter defenders and much-needed rim protectors. From their athleticism and communication came stops, and from those stops came opportunities to attack. The crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena swelled with every Warrior mistake and crested on those scores that followed.
Golden State, despite its most desperate efforts, could never quite get its head above water.