The Oklahoma City Thunder have defeated the Golden State Warriors in game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, 118-94. The Thunder continue to evolve as the most surprising yet dominating team in these 2016 playoffs by once again crushing an elite team in the 2nd half on their way to a second consecutive home blowout win. Furthermore, the Thunder are the first team since the 2015 Finals to defeat the Warriors in two consecutive games. The Thunder now lead the WCF series 3 games to 1 and can earn a ticket to the NBA Finals with a win on Thursday night in game 5.
The Warriors, notable not only for their MVP Stephen Curry but also a cadre of stars and support players who propelled Golden State to the best regular season offense we've seen in quite some time, has gone through a reduction of their components to the point where only Curry and on this night Klay Thompson have retained their offensive specters. The Thunder defense, much maligned throughout the regular season (and reasonably so) have morphed into the most dominating factor that these playoffs have seen thus far. If you had asked me mid-season whether this Thunder defense could systematically wear down and shut down the vaunted Warriors offense, I would have rightly asked you the obvious question - why didn't Chewbacca tell Luke that he knew Yoda???*
The Thunder were led by Russell Westbrook, who seems to save the Westbrook bombs for some of the biggest playoff moments, by recording a triple-double with 36 points, 11 rebounds (5 offensive) and 11 assists. Furthermore, Westbrook's maturity in the tensest of moments was on display tonight. While Klay Thompson was showing signs of the kind of player who can score 37 points in a quarter, it was Westbrook who kept his head, kept the offense moving in the 3rd, and nailed the 3-point clutch shot as the quarter wound down to keep the lead in double digits.
The other Thunder player who deserves his own paragraph is Andre Roberson. Even though he 'cooled off' from 3-point range in this game, and especially since the Warriors tried to rattle him and the Thunder by sending him repeatedly to the free throw line in the first half, Roberson played perhaps the best playoff game of his life in recording 17 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals, and 2 blocks in 40 minutes of play. A bit of reflection. In years past when the Thunder played the Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Allen was always a player hell-bent on shutting down the Thunder attack. When OKC drafted Roberson, I truly believed that they did so because they saw in him something that resembled TA - a ferocious approach to defense, inexhaustible rebounding effort, and surprising offense when you least expect it. This series is perhaps the best glimpse into Roberson's full potential as an NBA player, and he did it not by getting hot from 3-point range, but by continuously attacking the rim, chasing loose balls, and even displaying some deft passing by setting up others. Oh, and he also finished this assist from one Steven Funaki Adams:
What is most impressive about this dominant win is that OKC did not play with the same flow and rhythm as in game 3; instead, game 4 was a bit of a grind. The 1st half in particular featured little in the way of offensive flow, but rather it was OKC's ability to draw fouls and work their way to the free throw line that positioned them with a 19 point halftime cushion. This was not an A+ offensive performance. But just like in the Spurs series, OKC is grinding down the Warriors with their aggression, size, and athleticism. And now, improbably, Golden State is looking at heading into the off-season far sooner than anyone expected.
- Russell Westbrook records his 3rd career 30-10-10 playoff triple-double. Only Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson have more.
- Hat tip to Enes Kanter. As great as he had been in the previous round, this is not the series where he can make a lot of contributions. Kanter only played 9 minutes and recorded 1 point and 2 rebounds, but this is what elite competition is about. This is not his series. But he's still working hard, helping with the defense, and even though his offensive talents are not on display, the simple fact that he keeps his head in the game and understands the bigger picture speaks volumes for the young player.
- Klay Thompson. I love his game. He reminds me of a more physical Ray Allen. Despite OKC's best efforts, he put the fear in them during that 3rd quarter explosion where nearly matched OKC's offensive output by himself. There was a time in my life where I enjoyed the And-1 mix tape approach to basketball, but no more. Now I appreciate the economy of motion of players like Klay and KD more than just about anything.
- Serge Ibaka has rediscovered his NBA dominance in this series, and it is perhaps because he is made for this kind of performance. He can stay close to the rim, block shots, and spot up for open shots when the Warriors defense converges.
- However this series turns out, one of the things that we should not neglect to remember is that, even though Kevin Durant's offense has been hit or miss, his defense has been spectacular. In similar vein to Uriah Heap, I shall humbly take privilege in the fact that I argued that stopping Draymond Green, not Steph Curry, was the primary objective to slowing down the GS offense. On this front, Durant has been his team's MVP. Durant's ability to both cover Green in space, guard him at the rim, and keep him off the glass, has been perhaps the most impactful factor in this series. Green is now 2-16 in the last two blowout losses for the Warriors with only 12 points and 5 assists against 10 turnovers. This right here, this is what being an MVP is all about.
Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday, May 26th at 8PM CDT
*Old Grand Dad 114, if you were wondering