How Steph Curry and the mighty Warriors wound up on the brink of elimination
Whether Steph is injured or merely struggling, Golden State simply isn't getting it done against OKC
Is this how it ends?
The all-time record for most wins in a single season, 73 wins? The defending champions? The two-time MVP? The best start in NBA history? The team with the most wins in a two-year span in NBA history? One of the greatest teams ever assembled?
This is how it ends? With a swarm of long arms and blocked shots? With the greatest shooter in NBA history looking scared to drive and sloppy with his passes? With the plus/minus destroyer of worlds All-Star being ran off the floor?
This is how the Warriors go out?
Golden State fell to the Thunder 118-94 in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night, suddenly putting one of the greatest teams in the history of the game on the brink of elimination. It was a cacophony of everything that could go right for the Thunder and everything that could go wrong for the Warriors that have put Golden State on the verge of the greatest upset we've seen since this very franchise upended the Dallas Mavericks in 2007.
Russell Westbrook has been the best player in the series, Kevin Durant's played the best defense of his career, every Thunder role player has stepped up, and the Thunder's smallball unit has demolished the Warriors' mighty lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green.
And yet so much of this comes down to Stephen Curry, and the struggles of the man in the midst (or end of?) one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.
THE STEPHEN CURRY INJURY RIDDLE
With Curry missing shots he's supposed to make, the question has now become "Is Curry hurt?"
It's not an easy question to answer. Tuesday marked one full month since Curry suffered his sprained MCL against the Rockets in the first round. He returned to action in just over two weeks, but full recovery wasn't expected until four-to-six weeks. That's on top of the ankle problem that held him out for two games against Houston that he said was going to continue to bother him.
Curry has struggled to create space in this series, and just hasn't looked the same. The problem is that it's impossible to actually quantify or show in step-by-step detail where he looks injured. There's no stat or video example I can provide that might clearly pinpoint his physical struggle. He doesn't look "right," but trying to determine if that's injury, or the Thunder defense affecting his game and mentality is impossible. Honestly, the biggest reason to believe Curry is injured is that ... he's missing. Curry doesn't miss, so he must be hurt. That's what Warriors fans have to believe.
Yahoo Sports reports of a Warriors source saying Curry is "about 70 percent."
But then, what about his 17-point explosion in the third quarter of Game 2? Or how often he still hits tough contested shots? Is he only hurt on the shots he misses?
Or is the pain he's experiencing just dragging away at his margins, making the degree of difficulty on his shots just a little too high?
Curry flatly denied after the game that he's hurt, saying simply he is "fine." Which is exactly what Curry is going to say in that situation, even if he's not right.
Curry finished with 19 points on 20 shots, and just 2-of-10 on 3-pointers. Some of it was just tremendous defense by OKC, like when Steven Adams completely ignored Curry's fancy dribble, kept a hand up and just contested:
Or when Kevin Durant interrupted his flow and just kept contesting:
But some of it ... Curry just missed:
That's a tough shot, but it's one Curry's made countless times. This play pretty much describes the entire Warriors' night. Barnes doesn't go strong to the rack in transition, scared of another block, and then Curry misses a shot he always knocks down:
This is a terrible shot, an absolutely horrible decision, even if open, for any other human being on the planet. Yet for Curry it's a quality look. However, notice how Curry's basically begging the basketball gods to reward his swagger. They leave him be:
Was Curry missing shots because he didn't have his legs under him due to injury? You can interpret it any way you want, but it's likely a combination of a. Curry not at 100 percent, b. flat-out missing his shots and c. OKC getting in his head. The Thunder have disrupted Curry, and his missed layups are a bigger reason to be concerned.
Curry used to struggle with shots at the rim, but made incredible strides the past three seasons, largely by making them into scoop shots and increasing the distance. Against the Thunder, Curry has become more and more uncomfortable driving to the rim as OKC has blocked 26 shots in this series.
The video below shows Curry attacking the rim, and you'll notice that the Thunder sent multiple defenders at him, as if he were Westbrook:
Here he seems very hesitant and cognizant of the interior rim protectors:
Curry finished 2-of-7 at the rim in this game, and when you're rushing layups and missing 3-pointers ...
And that's all before you throw in turnovers like this:
Curry can easily go out and have another performance like he did vs. the Blazers, or in Game 2 vs. the Thunder. Injury can rob you of consistency, but it doesn't prevent high points. If Curry returns to form, the entire shift of the series changes, because he is, by his very nature, unguardable.
If he doesn't, however, the Warriors look like just another team. It's both a testament to how great Curry is and a condemnation of the Warriors' collective that in their biggest moment, if Steph isn't hitting crazy crossover step-back 30-foot 3s, they look not only vulnerable, but outmatched.
THE DRAYMOND FAILURE
Draymond Green evolved into an All-Star starter in large part because of his plus-minus numbers. No matter what, the Warriors were always better with Green on the floor. That has not been the case in this series. Through four games, the Warriors are minus-15.3 per 100 possessions with Green on the floor in this series.
Green has just not been able to make an impact. Green is 2-of-12 from 3-point range, 33 percent from the field, and has 13 turnovers.
Green was nearly suspended for his kick to Steven Adams' crotch in Game 3, and Thunder fans have to be grateful to the league that didn't happen. In the past two games, the Thunder have outscored the Warriors by 73 points with Green on the floor. It's a stunning turnaround, and if that doesn't reverse itself, Golden State's magical season is over, point blank.
THE IGUODALA BLIP
The reigning NBA Finals MVP has made his career on his defensive prowess, but in this series, the Thunder are going nuclear when Andre Iguodala is on the floor. The Thunder have a 119 offensive rating when Iguodala is on the court, and a 51.4 effective field-goal percentage with him on-floor. Iguodala is usually a calming force for Golden State's defense, but instead, he's just another guy out there, as Kevin Durant sends him sprawling off screens and Iguodala can do nothing against Westbrook (not that anyone can).
Iguodala isn't the problem, he's just not the solution so far.
THE "DEATH" LINEUP DIED PAINFULLY
The Warriors' masterful, unstoppable smallball lineup that dominated the regular season has vanished and has been replaced by a doorstop.
In the last two games, the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green has been outscored by 41 points in 19 minutes. The Thunder have run the ball down their throats, outscoring them by 18 points in the paint in the past two games against that lineup. OKC's insane length in their own smallball unit has flummoxed and outmatched the Warriors. Their best weapon has been rendered inept.
SO ARE THE WARRIORS DONE?
Fifty-three teams have gone down 3-1 in the conference finals, and only three have come back to win the series. But none were as potent as this Warriors team. They have to play harder, smarter, better and above all, they have to hit the shots that have come to define their style. They need the best Curry has to offer, and for the Warriors to look like the Warriors, or else they're done.
Win one game, though, and the pressure moves back to OKC. This team won 73 games this year. They can snap off a three-game winning streak.
Golden State has always responded with its back to the wall. It has never faced a 3-1 deficit, but this season is all about doing things that had not been done before. Until they lose four, you can't count them out. But the margin for error is gone. Last year, the Warriors were able to win games when they didn't hit shots, to focus on their defense and find ways to win. This year, they seem desperate just to get back to when things were easy and all the shots went in.
It may take more than hope for the Warriors to save their season.
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