The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the league-leading Golden State Warriors on the road, 116-108. The Warriors have made a habit out of laying waste to the entire National Basketball League, and it was widely believed that the Thunder, with their porous defense, would not be able to contain Stephen Curry and the league's best offense. For a half, those people were proven correct as the Warriors put up 73 points and created any shot they wanted.
However, the Thunder made tremendous defensive adjustments during halftime, and those adjustments showed immediate benefit as OKC held the Warriors to only 18 3rd quarter points. If not for some missed opportunities on offense, the Thunder might have gotten closer.
In the 4th quarter the Thunder continued their defensive strategy where they were willing to cede the roll man out of the Curry pick and roll with the idea that by denying the MVP open looks, their athletic big men in Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams could adjust and help to guard the paint. It was an effective gambit, even though at times they yielded easy buckets in the lane. In games like these, against the league's best, you have to decide what you will take away and what you will yield, and OKC's plan gave them a chance to win.
Unfortunately for OKC, after pulling even, they could not generate any more good open looks on offense. On the other end, the Warriors were able to make just enough plays to hang on.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 40 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal. The Warriors were led by Curry, who finished with 26 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, and multiple clutch buckets to seal the deal.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Do we look at this game as glass half empty, or glass half full?
73 first half points and allowing 60% shooting. Egads.
Thunder critics will argue that they gave up that many points and the Warriors weren't even shooting well from 3-point range, but that kind of misses the point. The Thunder were committed to guarding the 3-point line, and with the exception of several open Harrison Barnes shots, they did the job. Where they failed was in basic defensive positioning and awareness, which allowed so many easy baskets.
Color analyst Jeff Van Gundy made the astute observation that the Thunder defenders simply weren't playing competent fundamental defensive basketball. I think he's right - the greatest schemes in the world will fail if your players aren't going to perform their tasks to the best of their abilities. The reason the Warriors built their early 20 point lead was not through a 3-point barrage, but because they kept getting into the lane and getting and-1 opportunities, which sadly has been a common theme for the Thunder defense. Until these issues are permanently corrected, OKC will continue to struggle against good teams.
The Thunder were starting to look punch drunk against Golden State in the 1st half, just like the Cavaliers, Spurs, and every other team has over the past year. And then they weren't. I believe that is one of the rare things about the Thunder duo of Durant & Westbrook - they have an ability to adjust their performance on the fly to do what is needed when things aren't going well against good teams.
After giving up 73 1st half points, the Thunder had held the Warriors offense to only 27 second half points with just over 5 minutes to play. OKC did it with a better understanding of what the Warriors were trying to do, continued to guard the 3-point line, and eventually started to take away the passing lanes that had been previously exploited.
OKC put themselves in a position to win, despite a disastrous 1st half and a subpar offensive effort in the 2nd half while relying on the one thing that every critic is arguing that they can't do - play consistent defense.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
There are perhaps 20 different reasons why you could argue that OKC came up just short, but we can also boil it down to championship types of moments where Golden State rose to the occasion and OKC did not.
The Thunder defense had held the Warriors to only 13 points in the 4th quarter with 3:25 remaining. Improbably, they had stopped the defensive bleeding and chipped away at the 20 point deficit and found themselves deadlocked at 104. At that point, OKC had 3 possessions to either take the lead or tie, and every time they produced a poorly executed, low percentage shot. Meanwhile, the Warriors got 2 Curry layups and a wide open Thompson 3-pointer. In fact, OKC never got another clean look on offense, and the Warriors ended the final 3:25 on a 12-4 run to close it out.
Regardless of where the two teams are on a relative basis, those are championship-winning plays that Golden State made and OKC did not.
Where does that leave OKC?
Go back to the half-full/half-empty analysis. Where do you fall on the spectrum? OKC had a shot to win despite playing F-level defense for a half, Durant/Westbrook operating at about 75% peak effectiveness, and the bench, sans a surprising Enes Kanter, was a huge liability. Despite being the superior rebounding team, the battle of the boards was nearly a wash (50-46, losing ORB battle 13-12). They got nothing out of Ibaka and Dion Waiters. Rookie Cameron Payne was taken to school by former youth prodigy and now sage veteran Shaun Livingston.
And yet they were right there. Against the champs. On the road. Where the home team hadn't lost a regular season game in an entire calendar year. OKC had a shot. Why?
Here is the answer that should give Thunder fans hope - It was clear by the 4th quarter that Golden State doesn't have anyone who can consistently guard Durant. As long as OKC puts KD in a position where he doesn't have to dribble around too many defenders, has a roll man like Adams or Kanter who can catch and finish, and he doesn't hoist too many 3's, Durant can do what he likes.
It's not a win, but it's not nothing, either.
Thunder Wonder: Durant, 40 points and yeoman's work on the boards
Thunder Down Under: Enes Kanter, 14 points, 15 rebounds, and not a total defensive liability
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, with only 8 points and 3 rebounds in 36 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Curry aside, Marreese Speights continues to be a strange thorn in OKC's side
Next game: @ Phoenix Suns on Monday, Feb. 8th at 8PM CDT