As Steph Curry hit a buzzer-beater to end the first half and cap off a run by Golden State’s fabled smallball lineup of death, it felt like the Warriors were bound to keep burning the Thunder and run away with Game 1, much like the Spurs did to them to open that series. When Curry hit two improbable threes (including an audacious banker through a double team) to quell a Thunder run and give his team another 12-point lead in the third quarter, a Thunder loss once again appeared imminent. These are the Warriors, after all. They bludgeon you with furious little runs and they don’t lose at home.
And yet, Oklahoma City kept hanging around, never letting any run cut them too deeply. As the game went on, Golden State struggled more and more opening up those little pockets of space they kill teams from, and Oklahoma City constricted them to death, winning 108-102. Russell Westbrook had a terrible first half and Kevin Durant had a dreadful fart of a game until the last minute, but their much-maligned supporting cast outplayed the Warriors’ non-stars, which was not supposed to happen and has to worry the Warriors.
The primary schematic concern of the Western Conference Finals was how OKC would deal with Golden State’s killer smallball lineup and how the Warriors would try to mitigate their size disadvantage. In the first half, the Warriors got the better of OKC and kicked into a higher gear to grab a 13-point lead at the end of the first half.
But Oklahoma City was utterly persistent. If this is the Thunder at their peak, then they’ll never be an aesthetically coherent team. Even when they were pulling away from the Warriors, they did so by getting burly on the glass, and Dion Waiters of all people pushed them over the hump. Enes Kanter got roasted a few times on the perimeter by Steph Curry, but he gave Draymond Green more problems than he was expecting. Kanter embodies the strange effectiveness of the Thunder bench; he is useless at defending in space and should, tactically speaking, represent a huge liability for OKC. But he always earns OKC a few extra points here and there, and he’s still tall and talented enough to give every Warriors big man problems. He shouldn’t play against the death lineup, but he’s not a lemon.
More importantly for OKC, Steven Adams was too rugged for Green and Bogut, and Serge Ibaka looked engaged for the first time this playoffs. Steve Kerr tried to counter OKC’s size by sticking to what’s worked for him all year and going small (Warriors centers only played a combined 31 minutes). While their trump card lineup worked in the first half, they were sufficiently off their rhythm by the second half and the Thunder closed them out rather casually. Russell Westbrook ripped off 17 straight points for the Thunder in the third quarter, and while he never got in a groove after that, he made Steph Curry very uncomfortable in the fourth and helped hold him to one-for-six shooting in the quarter. He made a bad gamble that led to an open three in the first half, but locked in in the second and threw the Warriors offense off and ended up with seven steals.
There’s some controversy about whether or not he dragged his pivot foot and travelled here towards the end of the game (maybe OKC was in the process of calling a timeout? I don’t see it), and Steve Kerr says he thought he walked. I hesitate to chalk the Warriors’ entire loss up to that one play, especially since they only scored 14 in the entire fourth quarter.
It’s strange to conceive of a team with two of the most gifted athletes in the NBA as working at their best when they’re playing in an ugly, disjointed basketball game, but a rockfight of a series suits OKC far better than Golden State (which, this was an entertaining game, but none of the stars involved had a complete game). Russell Westbrook is inevitably going to get frustrated and miss some shots, and sometimes you get stilted KD games like his 10-for-30 clunker, but when you have the three best rebounders in the series, you can get away with a lot more. I don’t know if they can survive many games where their stars shoot 17-for-51, but if the Warriors are forced to sacrifice some of their fluidity for help down low, they have a real shot of getting to the Finals.