The Golden State Warriors got shellacked again last night by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the worries for the best team in regular season history are beyond real. Everything about the situation they are in can be described in one word: terrifying.
Steph Curry looks like anything but a unanimous MVP and quite frankly I think he's hurt. Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Curry is 70% at best. He is the center of the Warriors eco-system and if he's compromised, the whole thing collapses. The step down in quickness and explosion from whatever knee and/or ankle problems are plaguing him is not allowing him to punish an Oklahoma City defense that is switching everything to make sure he's attended to at all times.
OKC deserves a ton of credit for their execution. Time after time, teams try to switch against Golden State only to be burned by miscommunication leading to wide open shots. However even with that execution, a healthy Curry gets the shots he wants against bigs who switch on him and hits them with Steph Curry type regularity, even when challenged by a very long outstretched arm.
Most jarring though are the open looks that Curry is missing, something he literally never does.
Any shooter will tell you that they key to making shots is in a player's lower half. It's imperative to have a good base. Don't believe me? Just ask Steph Curry. If Curry's legs are not right, it's going to effect his shot miserably. I'd say missing free throws, layups and wide open threes is a good sign something isn't right.
I can hear the screams of fools now. "But what about Game 2? What about the historic overtime in Portland? Were you saying he was hurt then?" I'll let ESPN's Pablo Torre, who has written extensively about sports science and health issues and extensively about Curry, take the first crack at this one.
It wasn't obvious then, but it's pretty freaking obvious now. When a player is recovering from injury, he's going to have good days and bad days. Game 2 was clearly a good day, although Curry actually did most of his damage in a literal two minute stretch. Greatness in professional sports is about consistency and consistency is massively helped by health, or, in Curry's case right now, hindered.
If Curry doesn't have a good day back in Oakland, I don't see how the Warriors won't be staying there to start their off-seasons as opposed to returning to OKC for Game 6.
The second most important cog in the Golden State machine is Draymond Green. In the regular season he was a triple-double machine whose extreme confidence and ability allowed him to guard all five positions. He's a special, special defender whose offensive game had rounded into form to make him one of the NBA's best.
He's a mental wreck right now.
Green's being taken to the hole by role players (see Waiters, Dion...go Orange!) on a regular basis. His rim protection and rebounding have looked wholly inadequate. Then there is his offense. He went 1-7 from the field and turned the ball over six times in Game 4 and you could argue it was his BETTER game of the two in Oklahoma City.
For the past two games, the Warriors have been outscored by 73 points with Green on the floor which is the worst two game playoff stretch since at least 2001 according to Basketball Reference, which is as far back as the data goes and it's got to be the worst in the history of the league. That's astounding on its own, but becomes quite literally unbelievable when you consider the Warriors outscored opponents by 1,070 points with Green on the floor this season, the best in NBA history.
Green knows he's a mess, but the question is can he fix it? Kevin Durant has been something beyond outstanding in this series defensively. His length is giving Green fits and he's not going to get any smaller.
The Thunder's length in general is giving the Warriors fits. "This is probably the longest team in the league that we're facing, and we are continuing to try to throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms," Steve Kerr said after the game. "It's probably not a great idea."
Kerr clearly knows the problem, but the challenge is getting his team to adjust. The Warriors typically play loose and care-free and it works to their benefit. That isn't going to work against the Thunder's length and athleticism, but Kerr also doesn't want his team to press and get too far inside their own heads.
It's a fine line between precision and pressing and this is where the championship metal of a team is tested. The margins at this stage are so incredibly small that walking that line perfectly or not is the difference between going home and going to The Finals.
The Warriors are capable of overcoming this deficit if they're healthy, especially with two of the remaining games at home. However there's no way Curry is going to suddenly return to 100% for three straight games, so they're going to have to figure out how to maximize what they can get out of the MVP, and how to play without him at his nuclear best.
Can they do it? Yes. Will they? Not the way Oklahoma City is playing right now, because for all of the words just typed by me and read by you about Golden State, the Thunder are doing this to them.
These problems don't exist against any other team in basketball. The Thunder is this damn good.
Lee Jenkins wrote a marvelous piece on Kevin Durant for Sports Illustrated yesterday which included this:
“I needed to take risks,” Donovan says. “I needed to get answers. Sometimes you have to throw stuff out there and see whether it’s a good idea or isn’t. I told the guys there would be some rocky roads.” They started 7–6. They lost eight of 12 after the All-Star break. At Florida, Donovan would have said he was playing for March. In Oklahoma City it was for May. Durant required some late-night reassurances, via text, from Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver: Stay with this, they urged. Execs compared Donovan with a masseur, working out long-lasting knots, a process both painful and productive.
The Warriors were able to win 73 games in large part because they didn't change from last year's championship roster or style. There was no implementation of new parts. They hit the ground running and never stopped. It's an extraordinary accomplishment, but it only happens (just as the 72-win Bulls team whose record they broke) with continuity.
The Thunder were bringing in a new coach with new ideas and there were new players to work around as well. Donovan's tinkering surely cost them some regular season games, but those extra few losses pale into the importance of the Thunder's staff knowing what they know now. They know what works and what doesn't and, because they've tried so many these options in the regular season, so do the players.
Russell Westbrook's sheer athletic force is mystifying. I don't understand how it's possible to play that hard for that long and never get tired. He is torching Curry, who has no business guarding him (especially while wounded) and basically anyone else who tries to get in his way. For as many shots as he can and does put up, he's an incredibly gifted passer whose drives to the rim create terrific shots for his teammates on a regular basis. He doesn't play like a "traditional point guard" but that's more than okay for the Thunder because he doesn't produce like one either. Traditional point guards don't break NBA records for triple-doubles. He's another species.
Then there is Durant, the aforementioned defensive monster of arms and length and more arms and athleticism who just so happens to be one of the three best pure scorers in the NBA. He hit a straight-away three last night in transition where he couldn't see the basket because Shaun Livingston's hand was in his face like a mask. He's just that locked in right now.
The Thunder role players are also playing confidently, having figured out where to attack the Warriors defense. Andre Roberson figured out how to be effective, since the Dubs refuse to guard him, by cutting to the basket and being a factor as an offensive rebounder. That activity and confidence seem to overflow into hitting jumpshots, rendering the Warriors strategy horribly ineffective.
Dion Waiters is playing with a healthy amount of confidence instead of an overflow of it, attacking under control and only when it's appropriate. OKC's bigs have been outstanding on both ends, making the Warriors pay for trying to go small by destroying them on the boards and at the rim.
Don't count out Golden State, and I mean that not just because I want to be right in picking them. This team won 73 games! They lost nine times in 82 tries including back-to-backs and all the other scheduling quirks meant to prevent an NBA team from winning that much. However these Warriors look nothing like those Warriors and these Thunder sure as hell don't look like a team that's going to lose three in a row.
In 2012, Oklahoma City beat a Spurs team that had won 20 straight games entering their series after losing the first two games. That means they'd won 22 in a row total before the Thunder beat them four straight times. Although many pieces are different from then to now, Durant and Westbrook pulled unthinkable upsets before versus a dominant team. Beating the Warriors after beating this year's Spurs outfit would complete the greatest back-to-back series wins in NBA history.
With three tries to do it, I'm not going to bet against them, and if they do it won't get much easier. There's a good chance LeBron will be waiting.