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The Oklahoma City Thunder's surprising Western Conference Finals Game 1 victory on Monday stood out as an example of a team finding its best form at the right time, but it also found the history-making Golden State Warriors making uncharacteristic and frequently baffling mistakes. A team known for its late-game poise made a habit of taking bad shots and seemed intent on seeking out daggers even when down. It was far cry from what NBA fans saw over and over during their 73-win regular season and already in the playoffs, when the Warriors appeared only to improve during winning time.
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Game 2 played out far differently, enough so for the Warriors and their fans to hope that Game 1 will prove to be an outlier in this series. After going on a late run at the end of the first half to break a tie and build up a significant lead, the Warriors took over in the third quarter to create extensive fourth-quarter garbage time in a 118-91 win. OKC is still in a good position after a road split, but Golden State should enter Sunday's Game 3 with confidence that they can continue to turn their tactical advantages into wins.
The identity of Wednesday's biggest difference maker should not come as a surprise. Stephen Curry followed up his disappointing Game 1 with a suitably MVP-like performance in Game 2, scoring a team-high 28 points on 9-of-15 from the field, 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, and 5-of-5 from the line.
Remarkably, the majority of Curry's scoring came during a 15-2 that didn't even last two minutes. Mind you, that wasn't just a 15-2 Warriors run — Curry scored all 15 points.
That patented Curry burst put OKC away for good. Up 64-57 after an Andre Roberson lay-up with 7:22 remaining in the period, Curry's overwhelming display put Golden State up by 20 and, perhaps most importantly for the rest of the series, made the previously stout Thunder defense look confused and porous.
Naturally, the game-shifting run started with the ball movement and sound play-calling that the Warriors lacked in the second half of Game 1. Curry started his scoring run (and ended a scoreless stretch that went back to the first quarter) on an exceedingly well-run play that got him a wide-open triple from the left wing. From there, the Thunder began to crack increasingly often, with Curry dicing up players off the ball and off the dribble in favorable matchups. The Warriors were clearly focused on finding the open man and married that ball movement to the risk-taking playmaking that has given them one of the most explosive offenses in NBA history.
The Thunder could not match or even near that kind of output while experiencing their own offensive issues. Co-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to attempt just three field goals in the third quarter, a far cry from the dominant performance that Westbrook put up in the same period to give the Thunder the edge in Monday's game. While Durant had at least previously dominated the second quarter, Westbrook struggled throughout Game 2, putting up 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting to go with one of the quieter 12-assist performances you'll ever see. Although that shooting mark is technically a statistical improvement on the 7-of-21 Westbrook logged in Game 1, he was clearly less aggressive and less effective overall.
OKC can expect both players to force the issue more often on Sunday, just as they can reasonably hope for their role players to play better at home. However, the Warriors will find far more reason for optimism, because the Game 2 blowout saw several matchup advantages that were apparent in the series-opening loss show up more clearly in the final score. The most obvious is the quickness advantage that materializes whenever the Warriors go small or play against lineups featuring both Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Adams has developed into one of the better defensive centers in the league, but he can only do so much against a fully operational Warriors attack. Meanwhile, Kanter will likely always look lost when forced to defend in space. Golden State failed to take advantage of those advantages regularly on Monday, but they made a point of doing so throughout this win. With a focus on ball movement, the Warriors stretched the Thunder to their breaking point to create lots of open looks.
Furthermore, the Thunder role players out-performed expectations to finish off the Spurs and win Game 1 and arguably regressed to the mean in Game 2. Kanter (six points on 3-of-5 FG) and Dion Waiters (seven points on 3-of-11 FG) followed up several terrific games with relatively poor performances, failing to defend effectively and not making up for it at the other end. They'll have to hope that they find their form again at home in Games 3 and 4.
By contrast, the Warriors bench was terrific all game long. Andre Iguodala (14 points and a plus-18 in 26 minutes), Marreese Speights (13 points on 5-of-6 FG in nine minutes), and Festus Ezeli (12 points on 5-of-5 FG and five rebounds in 14 minutes) all made meaningful impacts, with Ezeli's perhaps standing out as the biggest x-factor with Andrew Bogut still restricted due to a right adductor strain. Although Golden State's 50 bench points were inflated by garbage time, that's the kind of output that will lead to a win pretty much every time.
It's to the Thunder's credit that they managed to play the Warriors better than even for most of six quarters despite these disadvantages. That was very true early in this one, when the Warriors started 6-of-12 from deep (including two makes each for Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green) but led by just one point five minutes into the second quarter. The biggest reason for that tight score was Durant, who overcame a four-turnover first quarter to dominate the next period. Shooting 7-of-8 from the field for 18 of his 23 points (of an eventual 29), Durant took over in a way only he and a few other NBA players can to keep pressure on Golden State. It was a reminder that OKC can make up for matchup problems with semi-regular star performances and solid games from the role players.
At the same time, the Warriors hold the ever-present potential for a game-winning run. While Curry's third-quarter stretch stood out in this game, a more balanced 11-2 run at the end of the first half arguably did just as much to even the series. Tied at 49-49 after a Durant jumper with 1:35 left, the Warriors scored the final eight points of the period to give themsevles significant leeway heading into the halftime break. Iguodala's no-look and-one lay-in was easily the most exciting play of the bunch, but Golden State showcased their playmaking skills several times:
The two game-changing runs showed once again that the Warriors can put a game away faster than any other team, but it would be wrong to treat them like random occurrences. The advantages that allowed Golden State to claim this blowout have been present (or latent) in every other minute of the series, and it felt in some ways as if at least one of these games would end in a Warriors blowout because of it. Frankly, Game 2 felt a lot like Game 1 early on. For the Thunder, that similarly can be either a good thing (they won Game 1) or bad thing (they got blown out in Game 2) depending on the perspective. The series is certainly not decided after two games, but the Warriors just showed that they can dominate when they play like we know them to be capable of. News flash — a 73-win team firing on most of its cylinders is pretty darn great.
Two questions loom for the Thunder. First, can they create new tactical advantages or render disadvantages irrelevant now that the Warriors have shown where they are able to succeed? And, if they can't, can Durant and Westbrook dominate for more than a quarter at a time? The answers are likely to define which squad represents the West in the NBA Finals.
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