The Oklahoma City Thunder's stunning blowout wins in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals inspired a number of questions about the record-setting Golden State Warriors. Was unanimous MVP Stephen Curry too hurt to make a big impact? Did their 73-win regular season obscure problems against more athletic, taller teams? And would Monday's Game 5 at Oracle Arena serve as the extremely disappointing final chapter to a season that until recently looked set to become one of the greatest in NBA history?
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
The Warriors are still down in this series and face a tremendous challenge to advance to the NBA Finals, but Game 5 at least proved that they're not going to go out without a serious fight. The result of this very intense, high-level contest hanged in the balance for virtually the entire way, but Golden State persevered through another tremendous defensive effort from Oklahoma City to come away with a well-earned 120-111 win. The Thunder will take enough positives from the loss to remain confident in their ability to close out the series at home in Saturday's Game 6, but the Warriors have fresh life in a matchup that had looked to have escaped them.
The game-sealing play doubled as an act of catharsis for the back-to-back MVP. Up 109-101 after two Curry free throws with 1:36 remaining in regulation, Curry stripped Kevin Durant, escaped several defenders to advance the ball, and eventually took center Steven Adams off the dribble for a highlight lay-up. To top it off, Curry yelled "We ain't goin' home!" several times in triumph. Take a look:
The celebration proved a little premature — the Thunder managed to cut the margin to just six points at the 0:40 mark before giving way to the Warriors win. Regardless, Curry's big moment saw the Warriors and their superstar play with freedom and confidence that they had sorely lacked in the two games at Chesapeake Energy Arena. As Curry said in his post-game press conference, the team had played tense on the road and suffered for it. Thursday's performance served as a return to form and perhaps will serve as a starting point for a much stronger effort in OKC on Saturday.
Curry's overall performance in Game 5 provides several examples. Although he was far from his most efficient in shooting 9-of-20 from the field and 3-of-8 from long range, Curry got to the line 10 times (making all of them) and worked hard to get shots against the Thunder's stifling defense. This was not the kind of breezy Warriors win NBA fans saw throughout the regular season — Golden State had to stay calm against consistent pressure, make smart decisions, and at some point just make tough shots against a defense that has tested this group like none other in the past two seasons. Curry's 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five steals indicated that, knee injury or not, he's still plenty capable of doing enough to win an ultra-competitive playoff game.
The season-extending win was arguably most heartening for not coming especially easily. The Thunder's two wins in OKC made the Warriors look astonishingly unprepared for the moment, a big surprise for a team that looked so comfortable in adverse situations throughout the regular season and last postseason. The Thunder's defensive pressure and ruthlessness in transition were not quite so extreme in Oakland — to be expected on the road — but their length and quickness troubled the Warriors into difficult possessions more often than not. The difference in Game 5 was that Golden State did not fold under that pressure and rush into questionable shots and passes. Instead, they moved the ball to create better looks. Their 25-to-15 assist-to-turnover ratio wasn't stellar, but it was clearly an improvement on the 15-to-21 disaster of Game 4. In fact, the Warriors managed to best their entire assist output from that game with 16 in the first half alone.
It helped that the Warriors got off to a very fortunate start. After seeing key players whistled for early fouls on Tuesday, the Warriors managed to go nearly 11 minutes without a whistle against them on Thursday. The Thunder were called for seven fouls during that same stretch, including two on Adams in the first 2:30 of the game. With Adams on the bench, Warriors center Andrew Bogut managed to turn around a few ineffective games to start the series with a game-changing performance. Bogut put up 10 of his 15 points and eight of his 14 rebounds in a terrific first half, all while picking up just one foul in 16 minutes. While well established as a rim protector and offensive facilitator, Bogut's scoring punch helped to cover for another iffy (though improved) half from Draymond Green and a rather weak 4-of-13 showing from deep.
It's to the Thunder's credit that they were able to stay close when so much was going wrong. In addition to the early foul trouble, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to shoot just 10-of-29 from the field for 28 points in the first half. Yet OKC managed to stay within a possession or two for most of the first half and into halftime down 58-50 thanks to contributions from role players. Somewhat surprisingly, playoff mainstays like Adams, Dion Waiters, and Enes Kanter did relatively little — instead, the big players were newfound three-point threat Andre Roberson (2-of-3 from deep in the first half and the game) and little-used wing Anthony Morrow, who came off the bench due to foul trouble in the second quarter and negated a temporary Golden State zone with two three-pointers. Morrow's contribution was just the latest in OKC's recent run of stellar bench play from a team that came into the playoffs with supposed depth issues, and he helped to sustain the Thunder when their stars were not performing especially efficiently.
That seemed to create problems for the Warriors after halftime, when Durant began to score far more efficiently thanks to a number of trips to the line. OKC opened the second half on a 9-2 run and suddenly appeared to be the calmer, more confident team, working through possessions with a clear sense of goals and looking focused enough to end the series on the road.
They were also aided by a number of early-half mistakes by Draymond Green, who looked headed for another horrendous performance. Green fouled Durant on a three-point attempt 50 seconds into the third quarter and then picked up a technical foul for protesting the call. He then tried to make up for the error with a rushed lay-up, and the game looked like it could slip from the Warriors' grasp at any moment.
OKC continued their push and managed to take the lead before the halfway point of the third, but Golden State did not wilt under pressure for the third-straight game. Green was far from his best and seems certain to struggle against the Thunder's length for as long as this series lasts, but he came up with several big blocks and managed to make a solid impact on his way to 11 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, and four blocks in 39 minutes. The two teams went back and forth throughout the period, and the Warriors got enough from their big names to head into the fourth quarter up 81-77.
Then Steve Kerr made a decision that easily could have backfired, opening the final period of an elimination game without Green, Curry, or Klay Thompson on the court as Billy Donovan kept in Durant. It worked out, though — the Warriors got a Shaun Livingston jumper, a Dion Waiters tunrover, and an Andre Iguodala three-pointer to force a Thunder timeout, after which Harrison Barnes added another triple for a quarter-opening 8-0 run. That created enough of a cushion for Golden State to keep control and pull out the win.
The Thunder sounded very confident that they can finish the series in Game 6, and it's hard to blame them for thinking so. Their incredible defensive pressure traveled well enough that it should carry over to another home game, particularly with a raucous home crowd that can help maintain the team's energy. It's also likely that more role players will play well, and Durant and Westbrook should shoot better than their combined 23-of-59 (39.0 percent) from the field.
On the other hand, the Warriors look like a championship-level team again, which creates fresh hope that they can avoid another terrible blowout in OKC. It's possible to imagine the Warriors hitting shots early to stretch the defense and avoiding miscues, causing the Thunder to press more than they have of late and perhaps even returning to the stagnant offense that made them a second-tier contender for most of the season. Plus, the Thunder will also need to contend with a new level of pressure in a home close-out game even if the 73-win Warriors will always face more as a historically great squad hoping to avoid getting saddled with a no-championship asterisk. It will take a lot for the Warriors to keep their composure in a very hostile environment on Saturday, but Game 5 at least suggests that they're not going to go down too easily.
Every game of this series is now the biggest game of the NBA season. Game 6 is appointment viewing for any basketball fan.
- - - - - - -