How are the Thunder up 3-1 on the Warriors? Stephen Curry and Golden State are running out of answers.
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There may have been scenarios discussed in which the Thunder could beat the 73–win Warriors, but not like this. For the second straight game Tuesday night, I spent halftime of the Western Conference finals stunned and basically speechless. I texted a bunch of friends, and they were all on the same baffled, barely-coherent page. This is where the entire NBA is right now.
Golden State's getting blown off the court, and a Thunder team that looked shaky all year now looks unstoppable. How is this happening? Was that Lacob interview really that damning? Was it the photo shoot? Is the universe screwing with all of us?
These are the questions I was asking myself throughout Game 4. Afterward, I decided it's time to cobble together some logic and try to make sense of this. There are four factors that help explain the Western Conference finals so far.
The Thunder have always been a nightmare matchup for the Warriors, and we saw hints of this during the regular season, when OKC played them closer than anyone. It starts with the two most dominant NBA buzzwords of the past 24 months: length and space.
The Warriors have used three-point shooting to extend defenses all year, getting easy buckets, and creating more space to operate. We were writing entire articles about Steph's range changing the geometry of offense. But the Thunder have the length to take all that space and make it disappear.
With Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Andre Roberson, the perimeter defense is bigger, longer, and more athletic than any team this side of Giannis Anetokuonmpo and the Bucks—another team that gave Golden State trouble this year. It's a cheat code to answer the Golden State cheat code. It's why the 73-win team that looked unstoppable for the past eight months now looks smaller and slower and overwhelmed.
Steve Kerr came close to explaining the whole series in his post-game press conference last night. "This is probably the longest team in the league that we're facing," Kerr said. "And we are continuing to try to throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms... So 21 turnovers, many of them unforced... and then, of course, they're taking care of business on the boards. We're forcing stops, we're getting stops, but we're not going and getting the ball, and we have to be able to chase down loose balls and long rebounds."
As Kerr explains, the length manifests itself in a few different ways. First, it forces the Warriors into reckless passes on offense. Then on defense, when the Warriors do get a stop, OKC is bigger and faster and better positioned to steal rebounds for another shot.
Most importantly, the comfort zone is gone. The Warriors are making reckless passes because OKC has the size and athleticism to make their entire offense uncomfortable, and those plays then create turnovers which allow the Thunder to get easy buckets and build momentum. Speaking of which ...
2. Russell Westbrook
Golden State has struggled all year to stop scoring point guards, but Westbrook was an exception to the rule. Coming into Sunday's game, he'd shot 34% against the Ker Era Warriors. In the Game 2 loss, he was 5-of-14 for 16 points. In Game 1, he was 1-of-8 in the first half, and the Warriors were up double digits at halftime. This is the Westbrook that was supposed to be OKC's undoing.
For the past two games, he's transformed into something else. He's been unbelievable. He had 30 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds in Game 3, and then followed that with 36, 11, and 11 in Game 4. He's taking Golden State's turnovers and turning them into kamikaze fast breaks. He's slapping the floor. And he's basically living fan fiction that the internet has been writing for the past four years.
He's been active in the passing lanes on defense, and wreaking havoc on the offense. In Game 4, he even started draining threes, just to make this all a little more demoralizing for Steph Curry and the Warriors.
Half of this goes back to Golden State turnovers. If Westbrook has the opportunity to get going on fast breaks, it takes him to another level. He had seven steals in Game 1, and between steals and deflections, that's a big reason he was able open the game up in the second half.
The other half of this is a Thunder story. For anyone who's spent the past five years watching OKC, it's pretty clear that Russ is the bellwether for this team. Durant dominance will put pressure on the defense regardless, but when Westbrook starts hitting on all cylinders, the whole team feeds off his energy and follows his lead.
That's where the Thunder have been for the past two games. Russ has struck the perfect balance between creator and scorer, and it's turned his team into a nightmare. And if you're looking for the polar opposite of this phenomenon, just look at Golden State.
3. Draymond Green
"I bring energy to this team, and I have not done that," Draymond Green told reporters after Game 4. "I think our energy goes as my energy goes, and I’ve been awful."
Coming into this series, he's the single biggest reason I thought the Warriors would win. Next to Curry and Klay, he's too much for anyone to handle. He's spent the past eight months looking like a hybrid of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. But right now he looks like poor man's Paul Millsap. He really has been awful.
After Game 3 and the Crotch Shot Heard Round The World, I was sure he'd bounce back, because all Draymond's done his entire career is bounce back and make everyone look stupid. It didn't happen.
"I don’t think the last 48 hours affected me," Green said afterward last night. "But I think it’s the first time in my life that I didn’t respond to critics."
It's hard to watch. Some of it can be explained by citing the length mentioned above, but that only goes so far. This is mental as much as anything else. You can see him overthinking decisions, forcing passes, and getting lost as he gets beat on defense. Meanwhile, the death lineup—smallball with Draymond playing center—has been getting run off the court.
The Death Lineup is now minus-27 in 34 minutes of the Conference Finals, with 11 turnovers. 40% from the field, OKC shooting 49% against it— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 25, 2016
This can still change, of course. But if you're wondering how the Warriors are losing, bear in mind that their second most valuable player has disappeared almost entirely for the past two games. And that's before you get to the MVP.
4. Steph Curry
"He's not injured," Steve Kerr said postgame. "He's coming back from the knee, but he's not injured. He just had a lousy night. It happens, even to the best players in the world."
"I'm fine," Curry said when pressed about his health. Meanwhile, a source close to him told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski he's playing at 70%.
Whatever you believe, Curry's had exactly one quarter in this series in which he looked like the best player on the floor. Maybe this series is as simple as that. When he's the best player in the world, Golden State is the best team ever. When he's not, they are much closer to the team that lost to the Clippers in the first round a few years ago.
We could also talk about the rise of Steven Adams and the resurrection of Serge Ibaka, two players that give OKC the ability to go big or small (and scorch earth either way). Billy Donovan's coaching looked uneven all year, but for the last two weeks he's looked like a genius. Steve Kerr is the inverse of that story. There are a lot of things happening at once in this series. But I'm pretty sure the story begins and ends with the best player.
For all the talk of Draymond's role as the heart of this team, Curry has been the catalyst for everything over the past two years. He's the guy who really does make them seem invincible. Over and over again, he's come through when they were supposed to lose. He was immune to pressure this season, and he won them at least five extra games with unreal performances and gigantic shots. And now he looks mortal.
It's not just that the shots aren't falling. He's hesitating for the first time since last year's Finals. He hasn't known whether to drive off pick-and-rolls or step back and shoot, and we can all see the indecision, which only makes it harder to watch.
Right now he looks exhausted, and a little bit overwhelmed. It's jarring to watch after Curry turned the season into one, long hallucination. Can he bounce back? Will he be healthy enough to make this a series? Westbrook has destroyed him the past two games. Even if Golden State finds answers for the length and sees Draymond come back to life, none of it will matter unless Steph Curry remembers how to be Steph Curry.