The Oklahoma City Thunder continued to combat the sharpened scythes of the Western Conference with powerful and brute force as it defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 1. The locked-in Thunder played with effort and communication defensively, and got just enough offense from its star duo as well as Billy Donovan’s devotion to the NBA’s pastime of playing two non-shooting bigs. With the performance, Oklahoma City quieted Oracle Arena and lavished in giving the media the middle finger once again as they won a key battle in the ongoing war against the historical dominance of the Western Conference hierarchy.
So how did the Thunder win the game’s stretch run and go up 1-0 in the series?
In the 4th quarter, OKC switched everything defensively with its pair of bigs whether it was a Kanter/Adams combination to begin the quarter or Ibaka/Adams to close it, scraping together enough quality possessions to force Golden State’s lukewarm offensive sets to a stall. The switching shut off the Warrior’s lethal off-the-dribble triples and sealed up driving lanes as Ibaka and Adams moved their feet and competed to contest drives and subsequent shots at the rim.
Adams, who was roasted a few times earlier in the game playing uncustomary defense in the perimeter against quicker guards and forwards, came up with two huge plays in the final two minutes, challenging a pair of missed reverse layups from Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
However, Golden State wasn’t diligent in taking advantage of OKC’s end-game switching. Early in the quarter, Thompson couldn’t turn off his gunner mentality when playing with the second unit and hemorrhaged possessions with quick 3-point jacks instead of running Kanter through pick-and-rolls. Green conceded an even more egregious opportunity with apoplectic contested 3 despite Curry having Kanter on a switch and 12 seconds still on the shot clock.
The Warriors did breed a few miscommunications by OKC, including a nice counter by Harrison Barnes to screen his own man knowing the Thunder were looking to switch which led to a Curry 3. In the game’s most pressurized moments with the clock winding down to the two-minute mark, Barnes caught Ibaka cheating to switch onto Curry who was bolting off a screen, and smartly cut into the lane for a bucket. Switching against Golden State isn’t some foreign antidote as the Warriors have seen and can create money looks that can bring on an avalanche of treys, but for Oklahoma City, a team that has waned going beyond basic defensive assignments, the communication and rotations down the stretch were a sign of growth in the season’s pinnacle moments.
OKC’s offense staved off its crunch-time inadequacy enough to pull out the victory with a flurry of midrange jumpers in the 4th, impactful offensive rebounds by its oversized lineup and taking advantage of a Golden State lineup that had no business being on the floor to build an advantage early in the quarter.
The Thunder’s isolation-heavy offense featuring its star duo receives its warranted criticism, but an underrated component is its simplicity. Knowing Durant and Westbrook were engaging intent on engaging in one-on-one heroic feats, Oklahoma City’s bigs (particularly Kanter) were relentless crashing the glass, having little regard for playing another role in the offense or bunching up the paint. The single-mindedness paid off as Kanter posted a 28.6 offensive rebound rate in the fourth quarter after not snaring a single offensive board through the first three quarters. Kanter’s two put backs in the quarter provided a needed cushion, but his fight kept several other balls alive and allocated time for the Thunder to retreat to the other end and set its defense.
As for those midrange jumpers that exist as nothing short of absolute damnation in today’s analytical landscape, Westbrook feasted on Curry in the quarter’s middle stages. OKC repeatedly worked a 1-2 pick-and-roll with Dion Waiters to get the switch from Thompson to Curry, which Russ exploited to full effectiveness.
However, after a single case of a neutered switch, which resulted in a Russ airball, Oklahoma City went to its other star, resulting in a host of clanks and bricks off the rim on contested jumpers as the Warriors gradually closed the gap. Durant can only be reduced to mediocre for so long, hitting the dagger jumper with about 30 ticks to bury Golden State (pending travels don’t exist).
The stretch run of the 4th, which glared as an ugly wart on OKC entering the postseason, wasn’t exactly extinguished with efficient offensive production down the stretch, but OKC had constructed a sizeable lead heading into the game’s official crunch-time minutes.
While Westbrook got things rolling in the third quarter and kept them rolling midway through the fourth, it was a costly lineup trotted out by Steve Kerr that acted as a potential life preserver.
The Thunder cut the deficit to three entering the fourth and took the lead for good in the early stages as Golden State endured through five painful minutes with a lineup that featured Marreese Speights at the 5, without the luxuries of Curry or Draymond. Golden State was outscored by nine in those minutes, with Speights struggling to switch on shooters and offering no rim protection as the lone big, while Golden State couldn’t take advantage of Kanter offensively. Kerr may have to wax this lineup going forward and give Speights’ minutes to Festus Ezeli as the bench mob lineup it allows OKC to go big with all of the offensive and rebounding benefits, but none of the detracting switching pick-and-roll coverage.
Golden State’s quick triggers, questionable lineups and consistency in attacking OKC’s defensive switches are demerits, but Oklahoma City deserves enormous credit. Billy Donovan stuck to his strengths and went big for the entire fourth quarter, producing valuable second-chance points as a result. Adams was his usual self, fighting and competing like hell to stay in front of Golden State’s perimeter players as he simultaneously hustled all over the place on that end to cover other OKC blemishes. Westbrook jolted the Thunder in the third with maniacal energy and relentlessness before providing playmaking in the fourth after the Curry switches, and Durant made a couple overlooked but essential defensive plays down the stretch before stabbing Golden State through the heart with his jumper that finally went to essentially seal the game.
Round two Wednesday night should be a doozy.