For months, the Oklahoma City Thunder frustrated us at the end of games. We saw all of this top-heavy talent on a roster, and just wanted them to play at a championship level. The better they could become meant the better the playoffs would end up being. While many people questioned the offensive schemes of the Thunder in tight games, it was actually their defense that forced them into a lot of these late collapses.
Sure, the offense looked unimaginative at times, but the pressure for it to perform came from not being able to get key stops late in games. In fourth quarters this season, the Thunder clocked in as the 14th-best offense in the NBA. That's not great but it's not a disaster either, unless you consider the fact they were the seventh-worst fourth-quarter defense in the NBA. It's a huge reason they struggled to close so many games.
Going into the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, this was a huge problem. The Warriors were the second-best offensive team in the fourth quarter this season, which is crazy remarkable when you think about how many times Stephen Curry and their other top players sat out late in blowouts. The Thunder's defense was going to be tested against the Warriors' offense, especially late in games, and that was probably going to be the difference in the series. Then the final 12 minutes of Game 1 happened, and so far, all of that was flipped on its head, if only for a night.
The Thunder's 108-102 victory at Oracle Arena was fueled by a 23-14 fourth quarter in which they held the Warriors to just 26.1 percent from the field and 1-of-10 from 3-point range. It was a stunning turn of events fueled by solid Thunder defense, a switching system that mostly worked, and the Warriors making some mistakes with their shot selection and shot form that they normally don't make.
Here's how the Thunder took the fourth quarter in Game 1:
Klay Thompson was all over the place with his shooting form and balance
The Warriors' other Splash Brother didn't score a single point in the fourth quarter of Game 1. He went 0-of-4 from the field and missed all three shots from 3-point range. He didn't even get to the line for a single attempt. Considering he was so good in the first three quarters (25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, 11-of-21 from the field, 3-of-5 from downtown), this was a surprising finish for Klay. He's been so good throughout this entire postseason, often carrying the Warriors offense in Curry's absence.
His shot was nowhere to be found in the final 12 minutes. I'd love to be able to pinpoint something the Thunder did defensively, but his shooting form and balance were just gone.
For the most part, the upper body still looks good on his jumper in these first three attempts. He's fading left on the first jumper. He's leaning back on the second jumper. He's kicking his legs out in an homage to Jason Williams on the third jumper, and all of this stuff is throwing off his balance. His release is so quick because his shooting base is so still. That's not the case in these clips. And on that layup, he had very little control and his body is in all of the wrong motions as he's getting in position to toss it up.
That was part of the Thunder's success, but it also helped that the both Splash Brothers couldn't get it going.
Steph Curry really wasn't himself, either from some leftover rust or the bothersome knee
Curry didn't have a bad game, but he didn't have the overwhelming game we're used to seeing from him. In his epic closeout of Game 4 against Portland and then his full effort in Game 5, Curry looked to be back to normal. But we're also dealing with a guy who is still recovering from an MCL sprain and hasn't played a lot of basketball in the last month. Whether you want to call it rust still on his game or the knee bothering him, Curry didn't look himself in his three-point, six-shot effort in the fourth.
You could see that in his decisions attacking throughout the game, but mostly in the final quarter. It was like he didn't see the areas in which he was supposed to attack, and it caused him to settle for a less than ideal attempt, even for him.
It's pretty shocking to see him not see the area of the floor in which he could get an easy layup on the left side of the rim. Instead, he picked up his dribble way too soon and ended up carrying his momentum into a runner that Kevin Durant gets a good challenge against. The sloppiness with the ball is just not what we expect with him.
Maybe the most shocking moment of all of this was when he had an isolation against Enes Kanter, who gambled for a steal on the play, and it didn't result in 1) a Curry shot/highlight, 2) a pass to a wide-open shot for a teammate or 3) anything that resembles Warriors basketball.
He should have cooked Kanter there. Absolutely roasted him. Instead, he couldn't find the handle on the ball after the gamble, and it allowed enough time for Durant to help over and take away a driving lane. Then at that point, he passed over to Draymond Green, who promptly wasted a couple of seconds before tossing up a horrible shot with 11 seconds on the shot clock. Normally, that would lead to a pass back to Curry for a quick attack or a quick pick-and-roll, but neither happened.
The quickness vanished from Game 5 of the second round to Game 1 of the conference finals for Curry and when that isn't there, it's enough to make the Warriors' offense running through him look relatively normal.
Durant gets away with a hold on this play 100 percent when he grabs Curry during a switch. And yet, Curry still couldn't get away from him. You can point to the missed foul on Durant, but the refs allowed some physical play, especially in the fourth, and you can't just rely on these calls. Steph normally doesn't, anyway. He can normally break free and get a step on the defender for a layup or a gravitational pull on the defense to create a shot for a teammate. Instead, the ball gets slapped away by Durant on the shot attempt.
Earlier in the game, Curry was able to step into a deep 3-pointer against Kanter when the big man didn't start trying to crowd him from 30 feet in. Whether that's still a believable scouting report against a player or not, that's what you have to do against Curry and he didn't do it. He got another chance at it in the fourth, but Curry ended up tossing up a flat-footed attempt.
You can't fault Curry here for the shot selection because we laud him for taking these shots, which just have to be accepted as good looks for him. However, if you notice on the attempt, he doesn't step into the shot much, and that's probably where the rust or the lack of quickness comes into play. However you want to categorize it, Curry isn't balanced enough even for him and rushes the shot.
Then on his second-to-last attempt of the game, Curry moves pretty slowly through the screens and the defense, only to be well-contested by Dion Waiters on the shot.
Where was the explosiveness from Curry in his direct steps? Where was the speed? Where was ... the Curry we know?
Bad decisions and good defensive fundamentals ended some possessions
There were two quick plays I wanted to highlight. One was a bad decision by Green and the other was a great defensive play by Kanter.
The first play from Green here is just a rash decision that ends in poor execution of said decision. Draymond wanted to go coast-to-coast to try to use his quickness against Steven Adams. Instead, he was mostly out of control.
If Green is going to pull this off, he has to find a way to either get into the chest of Adams to draw a foul or create enough space to be comfortable on the layup. Instead, he takes off without proper balance, and he tries to flip up the reverse layup with his off-hand from under the hoop. That shot has to be attempted going toward the left side of the hoop and not straight toward the basket support.
The second play happens with Kanter switching onto Shaun Livingston and then not allowing him to get off a clean look from the area around the key he's so deadly.
Livingston throws two moves at Kanter, and the Thunder big man never breaks his stride to fall for them. The first is a hesitation move by Livingston designed to get him to jump at a possible pull-up jumper. The second is a move toward the baseline that should trick the defender into jumping at a fadeaway toward the baseline. Instead, Kanter forces him to pivot and throw up a tougher shot. Miss. Rebound. Defense.
What the Warriors did right and can correct moving forward
It wasn't all great defense by the Thunder though. OKC aggressively switched on almost everything, which is kind of the base principle in trying to defend what the Warriors love to do in their read-and-react offense. The tricky part of that is being able to defend everybody no matter what the traditional positions may be. The Thunder did a good job of this, especially in the second half, but there were times in which the Warriors broke it down by taking advantage of hesitation or indecision.
Part of the issue with switching against the Warriors is their main guards use so much movement -- with or without the ball -- that moving across zones in the defense (even when they're not playing zone) requires instant communication and reactions. Once you have a moment of confusion like what happens with Serge Ibaka there, it sets off a chain reaction of recoveries that the Warriors exploit so well. Harrison Barnes missed the 3-pointer, but he was wide-open and on the exact shot the Warriors look for in those situations.
They'll live with that look all day and it's something the Thunder can't afford to let happen often.
Waiters gets caught up in over defending Thompson with Russell Westbrook there, and in the process ends up leaving Curry open in the corner. It doesn't lead to a shot, but the recovery Waiters has to have allows Curry to create space with a quick fake and drive the baseline. From there, OKC was never back in the possession, and Curry's pass leads to him actually running toward the target of the next pass, Draymond. This may seem like a bad idea because it's bringing defenders to the man with the ball.
However, you have to stay with Curry no matter what, which means everybody is running away from the paint, where Green is about to attack off the dribble. That leads to a pretty great look at the rim, which he scores.
The final play of this post highlights just how easy it is to get lost switching on those side pick plays off the ball. Ibaka is supposed to work through the screen by Barnes and take away Curry's shot, and Westbrook never closes out to help. Once Ibaka gets caught up on the screen, Curry has a free look ,thanks to Westbrook's indifference. These are the plays the Warriors feast on every game.
Credit the Thunder for doing the job they did in the fourth, defensively. It was a huge surprise against the Spurs in the previous round and it was the difference in stealing Game 1 at Oracle Arena. But I don't know how much you can hope for Thompson and Curry to be as out of sorts as they were. There's a lot to build on from Game 1, but there's a lot of stuff the Warriors can easily correct, as well.