Over the past two seasons, Golden State had both a gear no other team possessed, and destructive weapons no other team could stop. But increasingly throughout the playoffs, and especially during Game 7, the Warriors couldn’t find them.
It happened during the Oklahoma City series and it happened again in the Cleveland series: the Warriors’ Death Lineup couldn’t save them. This is worth repeating over and over again because of how unstoppable that lineup has been. In 12:02 in Game 7, it was just +0. It was as good—or as bad—as all the other lineups the Warriors trotted out there. It was on the court for the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, and while it still played tenacious defense, it didn’t score a single damn point.
Partially this is just a function of the Death Lineup’s constituent parts playing poorly—Draymond Green was basically the only Warrior who had a good night. But part of the conceit of the Death Lineup is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. It gets the Warriors out into the open court more, it generates looks at the rim or wide open threes, it creates momentum and energy. It unlocks players who are having bad games. But against the Cavaliers, it could not.
There was also no torrential downpour from either of the Splash Brothers. In the second round, with Portland threatening to make a real series of it, Curry went off. In the Western Conference Finals, Thompson singlehandedly won Game 6. But needing either one of them to go off last night—or even just string together a couple of consecutive makes, really—neither of them did.
The most interesting question to me is whether these things are simply an aberration—Curry was injured, or it was simply a terribly timed run of bad form, or something else—or whether the league has fundamentally figured the Warriors out. And based upon the past 14 games, I think it is much more of the latter.
In both of the last two series, the Warriors were stymied by their own defensive scheme: switch everything. Both the Cavaliers and Thunder barely bothered to play big men—Enes Kanter, Timofey Mozgov, and Channing Frye were mere spectators for their respective teams—and thus were able to switch “bigs” like Serge Ibaka and Tristan Thompson when the Warriors ran pick-and-rolls. This led to some breakdowns in coverage as always switching requires tremendous defensive communication, but mostly prevented easy baskets.
What had happened in the past in these situations is the Warriors punished teams in the paint. With no true rim protector in the game, and the only facsimile of this guy often out on the perimeter, it should have been a layup line at the basket. But Curry rarely got free into the paint (this is where it would be useful to know how injured he really was) and long-limbed opponents jumped passing lanes and otherwise slowed down a tick the Warriors’ insane ball movement. As it turns out, the same thing that defends the Death Lineup well also helps prevent a one-man explosion.
Now, most teams can’t do this against the Warriors. They’re still going to win 60-plus games next year, and still stroll to the second round of the playoffs, or maybe even the Conference Finals. But now there is a blueprint out there for the other elite teams in the league to follow. And we’ll have to wait an entire year to see if Steve Kerr and his staff can find a different trump card.