The early analysis of the Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder cast the matchup primarily in terms of tactical advantages and disadvantages. Monday's Game 1 served as a reminder that a team can appear to lose the majority of those matchups and come out ahead thanks to bursts of excellence and the avoidance of huge mistakes. Sometimes tactics don't matter nearly as much as a more obvious factor — which team makes more game-winning plays.
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Down 60-47 at the half and by as many as 14 points early in the third quarter, the Thunder stormed back to lead for all but 90 seconds of the final period on their way to a 108-102 victory at Oracle Arena. The star of the night was Russell Westbrook, who followed a three-point, 1-of-8 first half to score 19 of OKC's Warriors season-worst 38 points in the third quarter. Finishing with a game-high 27 points, 12 assists, seven steals, and six rebounds, Westbrook helped to carry the Thunder when they needed a big performance. Thanks to his star turn, OKC has now beaten San Antonio and Golden State three times on their home floors in the past two weeks — as many home losses as those teams combined for all regular season.
Westbrook's big second half helped cover for co-star Kevin Durant's current cold streak. After putting up a somewhat disengaged 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the first half, KD went just 5-of-19 in the second, including an 0-of-8 streak in the fourth quarter. Yet he ended that drought with his biggest shot of the night — a dagger pull-up over the hand of Andre Iguodala that put OKC up 105-100 with 30.7 seconds on the clock:
Durant had far from his best night — he shot just 10-of-30 from the field, committed five turnovers, and looked gassed after playing 46 minutes, including the entire second half. However, his clutch jumper sums up much of what went right for the Thunder in this huge series-opening victory. They managed to make enough plays to win even when they appeared at a disadvantage or made the kinds of mistakes that often lose ballgames.
By contrast, the Warriors uncharacteristically lacked poise in crunch time, rushing questionable shots and seeking out daggers even when they were trailing. Fans can quibble with a missed travel that could have given Golden State a chance to tie in the final 20 seconds, but they lost this game because of what happened before that moment. Stephen Curry summed up their failures accurately in his post-game press conference:
Curry with the Warriors’ main adjustment: “We have to be better at being us."
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) May 17, 2016
The point is a good one, because the Warriors did not resemble the group that engineered fourth-quarter comebacks and upped its execution in crunch time throughout their record-setting 73-win campaign. Curry was perhaps the biggest culprit in the loss, throwing iffy passes (which, to be fair, he often puts right on the money) that became live-ball turnovers the athletic Thunder were able to finish at the other end. His seven turnovers matched his assist total and helped the visitors gain extra chances at easy buckets.
While OKC is known as the more mistake-prone team and committed 10 turnovers in the first half, Billy Donovan's group had just two after halftime. Add in an eight-rebound improvement on the offensive glass following two in the first half, and it's clear that OKC created more opportunities on a night when their stars were not scoring at especially efficient rates.
Conventional wisdom said that the Thunder couldn't win with Westbrook and Durant each making just one-third of his field goal attempts, and that seemed to be the case early on. The Warriors looked to have early advantages in every one of the series' key matchups regardless of the score. That was especially true any time Enes Kanter came on the floor. After a series in which Kanter teamed with center Steven Adams to stifle the Spurs offense, the Warriors put him in tricky defensive situations in space by going to their smallball "Death Lineup" immediately upon his first substitution. He looked absolutely overwhelmed any time he switched onto a guard and was made to look foolish by Curry several times in the game.
For that matter, the Warriors stars out-played the Thunder's by a wide margin. Klay Thompson heated up in the second quarter to head into halftime with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting, and Curry put up 14 points with six assists and three steals. This Curry three at the halftime buzzer felt at the time like a statement of intent, a sign that OKC would not be able to get back in it in the second half:
While Durant performed ably early, Westbrook's shooting numbers stood out as a clear issue. At the same time, his 1-of-8 showing was more statistical oddity than a sign of struggles, because Westbrook was probably OKC's most essential player of the first half. A four-minute rest at the beginning of the second quarter caused particular problems, with the Warriors out-scoring the Thunder by nine during that stretch, which was also a big reason for Andre Iguodala's plus-17 in only 15 minutes. While some of those numbers could feature a good deal of statistical noise, they proved just how effectively Golden State won the bench and small-lineup battles.
The Thunder's second-half improvement was chiefly due to their lack of turnovers and the Warriors' confounding shot selection, but it's worth crediting Billy Donovan for making some key in-game adjustments in his first conference finals experience. The biggest change was to pair Kanter with Adams almost exclusively after two particularly poor possessions where he was switched on Curry in the third quarter. Although the switch to a two-center lineup exacerbated many of the Thunder's frontcourt quickness issues, it allowed them to create a more extreme advantage on the boards and let Adams serve as a superior last line of defense in the event of a breakdown. Those changes led to a slower pace, which may have been responsible for some of Golden State's offensive impatience.
It's also clear that Donovan's faith in several oft-criticized role players has paid dividends in the past two series. We've already discussed Kanter, who would have been easy to bench after his early issues, but Dion Waiters (10 points on 4-of-6 FG and four assists) and non-shooting shooting guard Andre Roberson deserve attention, too. Waiters has somehow graduated from internet joke to trusted vet in the span of a few weeks, and Roberson persevered through the immediate disrespect of being "guarded" by a roving Draymond Green to make all three of his shot attempts for seven points. The Thunder reserves matched and arguably out-played the Warriors' vaunted bench by the end of Game 1. They may not play as well in future contests, but they won't need to if Durant and Westbrook improve their shooting form.
On the other hand, Westbrook's third quarter was so good that the Thunder didn't need full-game stardom to win the series opener. He scored in several ways, got to the line, and generally looked like the game-changing player who regularly blurs the line between forcing and creating. The Warriors' struggles were surprising — they had not lost when leading by double digits at halftime and had lost just once before when leading entering the fourth quarter — but it's not as if they were unforced. OKC looked like the more composed team in the second half and has now changed the complexion of what already looked like a classic series in the making.
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