It took 96 games for the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors to lose two games in a row. As impressive as that accomplishment is, the team with the most wins in regular-season history now has to take three in a row to avoid elimination from the postseason.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
The Oklahoma City Thunder followed up an overwhelming blowout of the Warriors in Sunday's Western Conference Finals Game 3 with another dominant showing in Game 4, beating the 73-win defending champions 118-94. The contest proved more competitive than the previous game but no less a statement of OKC's apparent superiority in this matchup. Much as in the conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder have made a historically great squad look slow and overmatched the most devastating mix of length and athleticism in the NBA. The Warriors' much-feted and transformative offense has struggled to create decent looks with any ease or regularity, and the Thunder have succeeded in upending apparent tactical advantages thanks to lineups that are able to play with the strengths of small and big players all at the same time.
It is difficult to exaggerate how good the OKC defense has been over the last two games of this series. The Thunder's evisceration of the Spurs was somewhat logical given their advanced age and relatively thin backcourt depth, but the Warriors have inspired rapturous praise throughout the last two seasons with an offensive attack that no team has been able to solve. With Kevin Durant serving as their elite defensive tone-setter, the Thunder have managed to pressure the Warriors' elite guards on the perimeter and adjust to virtually every pass and shot to allow very few easy buckets and open looks.
The results have been shocking not just in terms of shooting percentages and the struggles of All-Star Draymond Green (six points on 1-of-7 FG) and Stephen Curry (19 points on 6-of-20 FG), but very high numbers of steals and blocks. Those stats often depend more on risk-taking than sound defense, but the Thunder have forced bad passes and fumbles often when single long-armed defenders like Durant and Serge Ibaka move quickly to cut off driving and passing lanes. The Warriors committed 21 turnovers in Game 4 (six each for Green and Curry), 16 of which were live-ball steals. Durant (four steals and three blocks), Ibaka (two blocks), Andre Roberson (five steals and two blocks), and Russell Westbrook (four steals) have rendered the Warriors' small-ball "Death Lineup" stunningly ineffective, effectively erasing the quickness advantages that have defined its success throughout the season.
Those same athletic advantages played out in other facets of the game. The Thunder were able to get to the foul line seemingly whenever they wanted in Game 4, shooting 31-of-40 from the stripe and going to the line 28 times in a particularly impressive first half (some of those were intentional fouls to Roberson). Golden State fans will likely explain away that high number via poor officiating, but a measured take on the action must admit that the Thunder kept going to the line because they have players capable of exploiting athleticism and strength advantages to dislodge defenders and call attention to contact. The more aggressive team tends to get the benefit of the doubt in these cases, and OKC has been quicker to loose balls and long rebounds throughout the series. They're getting calls because they're earning them.
It became apparent fairly early that the Thunder's Game 3 performance was no fluke. The Warriors managed to build a very small early lead thanks to Thunder shooting troubles, but the tide turned very rapidly roughly four minutes into the game. A short Durant jumper began a 22-7 run that covered nearly five minutes, with OKC forcing turnovers and getting out in transition to make Golden State look overwhelmed and out of sorts just as they did during similar stretches on Sunday. Durant and Ibaka were everywhere at the defensive end and allowed Westbrook to thrive in the open court.
To the Warriors credit, they did not fold under that early pressure. An 11-2 run to end the second managed to get the OKC lead back to a more manageable 30-26, which at least provided hope that the outcome would be different. If nothing else, Golden State's effort in Game 4 proved that OKC is just as responsible for its opponent's struggles as anyone. It's not just a matter of players missing shots or not coming to play with the requisite energy and focus.
That takeaway probably isn't very comforting to Warriors fans, but the course of this contest suggested that the Thunder's game-changing runs are a new normal, at least for games at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Feeding off a raucous crowd, the Thunder defense swallowed the Warriors again in the second quarter for a 42-27 advantage. OKC had 72 points at halftime for the second-straight game and a 72-53 advantage in this one, forcing Golden State to play from behind against a very confident opponent. Worse yet, the Warriors looked as if they had to expend great amounts of energy just to get a decent shot, let alone to stop the Thunder from scoring.
The good news for Golden State, and their best hope to win this series even when down 3-1, is that they have stars capable of carrying the team. Klay Thompson struggled through a foul-ridden first half to explode in the third quarter, scoring 19 straight Warriors points over a period of more than five minutes. That run cut a 72-55 deficit to just 80-74, giving the Warriors another opportunity to get back into the game for a tight fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, the Warriors could not come up with other performances or team-wide advantages to make up for Thompson's less productive moments. He picked up his fourth foul at the 4:20 mark of the third and went to the bench 30 seconds later. The Thunder built the lead back up to 94-82 by the end of the quarter, and the Warriors were back in a tough position yet again. With Green and Curry unable to play like stars for even short stretches, the Warriors simply did not have enough firepower to compete in the fourth quarter and ended up on the wrong side for the second game in a row.
Meanwhile, OKC is getting so many tremendous performances as to suspend belief. The vastly improved play of role players like Serge Ibaka (17 points and suddenly reinvigorated as a screen option in smaller lineups), Dion Waiters (10 points and a plus-24 in 32 minutes), Steven Adams (11 points and seven rebounds), and Andre Roberson (17 points and 12 rebounds) continues to be one of the biggest stories of the postseason. OKC would not have been able to beat a 67-win team and go up 3-1 on a 73-win team without those big performances, and they look set to compete for a title if they continue.
As ever, though, this team depends on the star power of Westbrook and Durant. The former was terrific throughout, posting his first triple-double of the postseason with 36 points (12-of-27 FG), 11 assists, and 11 rebounds. The ever-present debates over Westbrook's style of play have dissipated now that OKC has taken such complete control of this series, but it should be noted that his go-for-broke aggressiveness has raised OKC's intensity a few levels as they overwhelm the Warriors.
For all Westbrook's numbers, though, there's little question that Durant was the most important player for the Thunder in Game 4. His line — 26 points on 8-of-24 shooting and 11 rebounds — does not jump out as especially dominant, but Durant was the point man for the sensational defensive effort and and contributed his normally strong scoring threat. Durant has probably had better stretches throughout his excellent career, but it's likely that he has never had such a big impact on the game in so many facets at the same time. A player who can score in virtually every fashion imaginable and serve as what's essentially a taller Kawhi Leonard on defense has no answer beyond hoping that he plays worse than he has.
Games 1 and 2 suggest that the dynamics of this series can change in Oakland for Game 5, where the Warriors will have the benefit of their own loud crowd and the Thunder will not be able to feed off their own fans' intensity. Yet, for as tough as it is to imagine the Warriors losing three in a row, the same could be said of a Thunder team that looks to have shaken the defending champions' confidence for the first time all season. For whatever reason, Curry looks like a shell of his usual self, Green has become one of the worst players in the series, and Thompson has been able to succeed only intermittently. Their opponent — a No. 3 seed said to lack the depth and moxie to beat elite teams in crunch time — is suddenly one win from pulling off the most impressive run to the NBA Finals in league history.
- - - - - - -