The Golden State Warriors have spent two seasons terrorizing opponents with what has become known as the Lineup of Death. It’s a small-ball lineup featuring Draymond Green at the five and Harrison Barnes at the four, and it works for a few simple reasons: There are shooters all over the floor, they can run like crazy, and Barnes and Green can guard opposing centers and power forwards who cannot guard them in turn. Every game and series against the Warriors begins with the question, “How will this team deal with the Lineup of Death?” and nobody’s really had an answer. But it looks like the Thunder might have found one, and it’s, “We have our own Lineup of Death, motherfuckers.”
Throughout the regular season, the Thunder’s first big man off the bench was Enes Kanter, who would pair with Steven Adams or Serge Ibaka and help overwhelm opposing second units with size. A big, lumbering center who can’t defend plays right into the Warriors’ small-ball hands, though, and so Donovan has mostly kept Kanter screwed to the bench during this series. Instead, he’s dusted off a lineup that only played 46 minutes together during the entire regular season. It’s a small-ball lineup of Ibaka-Durant-Roberson-Waiters-Westbrook, and oh my God it’s coming right for us:
139.8 offensive rating! 71.3 defensive rating! 69.9 percent true shooting! Someone please turn this lineup into a drug so that I can take it and never feel pain again.
If you’re wondering why it took the Thunder this long to realize they have a weapon like this at their disposal, it’s because a few things that make it sharp have just recently fallen into place. Ibaka was mostly a ghost during the regular season, and Dion Waiters was, well, Dion Waiters. But both have looked like completely different players in these last four games. Ibaka has been the shot-blocking, jumper-hitting menace that Thunder fans have long dreamed of him becoming. Dion Waiters has been a fully functional shooting guard, hitting shots and slashing and dishing and D-ing up in ways he’s never seemed too interested in before. With those two clicking, that small-ball lineup is one that can defend, run, and shoot from anywhere on the floor. Sound familiar?
More than anything, it’s how this lineup defends that should scare the Warriors going forward. This is a long, athletic group that can short-circuit the Warriors’ pick-and-roll offense by switching on every screen, and still protect the paint with two legitimate seven-footers. Take this play from Game 3, for example:
Kevin Durant is the star of that sequence, and he’s the real reason why this lineup is so deadly in the first place. Ibaka and Waiters stepping up at both ends has made it a viable option, but it’s the guard-quick seven-footer playing as a “small” power forward who makes it hum. Durant’s been sniping as usual on the offensive end, and he seems to have been inhabited by the ghost of Kawhi Leonard on the defensive end. He was everywhere during last night’s game, tipping passes, blocking shots, and just generally laying waste to whatever the Warriors were trying to do on offense. Consider what an absurd luxury it is for the Thunder’s small-ball lineup to feature a player that can do this:
If the Thunder go on to close out this series on the strength of this new world-demolishing lineup, there will be a rush to congratulate Billy Donovan for unveiling it at exactly the right moment. He’ll deserve that credit, but don’t lose sight of Kevin Durant double-jumping his way to a perfect block at the rim and Russell Westbrook snatching rebounds out of the hands of much bigger men. Tactical adjustments are much easier to make when you’ve got impossibly constructed players who are, more than anything, just too damn much.