I recently reread the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and I can't help but feel like this post-season for OKC parallels that story. A quick summary: in the novel, a young boy named Ender Wiggin is sent to battle school as one of the last hopes to save the earth from an alien race. While in battle school, he is assigned to lead an army. He is heads and shoulders better than every other leader, and so to test him, the teachers begin stacking the odds in every way possible. He is placed in command of a completely untrained army. He competes 7 times more often than anyone else,. He is placed in strategically disadvantaged situations. He has to fight in 2 against 1 odds. Despite this, he never loses a battle.
It feels like this Thunder team is being similarly tested. The first series against the Mavericks was sort of a warm-up, just to teach the young guys about the playoffs. After cruising through that round, OKC faced the San Antonio Spurs, a great team owning the best home record ever, and owners of home court advantage. Despite a mortifying loss in game 1, OKC rallied and won handily in 6. If that wasn't enough, OKC is now up against the defending champions who feature both the league's MVP and own the best regular season record of all time. After the Thunder completely dismantled the Warriors in game 4, they are primed to close things out in five games, against all odds. If OKC wins, they will likely have a Cleveland team that has gotten to loaf their way through the playoffs, but still features an all-time great player with two All-Stars to run with him.
All of this to say, we may well be watching the greatest postseason run of all time. Enjoy it, because what this Thunder team is doing is truly remarkable.
I want to split this article into two sections. The overall goal is to see what the Thunder is doing to disrupt Golden State's game plan. The Warriors look uncomfortable and flustered on both sides of the ball. Why are the Warrior plays that worked to perfection all season suddenly resulting in turnovers and missed shots?
The biggest advantage this OKC team has right now is in the physicality department. OKC is longer, faster, and more energetic than Golden State. The Thunder can run out a tall, long lineup without giving up any athleticism. Golden State is used to facing one of the two: size or speed. They simply aren't adjusting well to being faced with both.
This combination showed in game 4. The Thunder finished with 16 steals and 8 blocks, but even beyond that, passes were being deflected, shots altered or passed up, and the offense was forced to initiate from further away.
Right now, every player has an important piece they bring to the defense:
- Adams is the enforcer inside, not allowing anything easy and always in the right place.
- Serge is the help side rim protector who seems to have rediscovered his ability to block shots.
- KD is the long-armed disruptor, playing as a combination of Roberson and Serge, deflecting passes and blocking shots.
- Roberson is the energy guy who is always in the right place and always active.
- Russ the instinctive one who has continually jumped passing lanes at just the right time.
- Dion is the versatile one, playing great defense in the post or on the perimeter.
- Foye is the guy who you just never notice (which is a good thing on defense).
Together, they simply are not giving anything easy up to Golden State, and it seems like they've managed to break the will and composure of the Warriors. Let's take a look at how they've done that.
This is the most casual steal I think I've seen. Barnes sees Green floating to the corner and tries to make a cross-court pass to him. It's not a great decision, but against a lot of teams this would probably be okay. Roberson sticks up his incredibly long arm and just swats it down to Adams. What is particularly nice here is that OKC has their entire defense back. Because Roberson is supposed to pick up Bogut in this transition set, he can play passing lanes until Bogut gets down the floor. It looks like his original plan was to deny Curry here, but he is able to get a hand on the pass to Green instead.
This general defensive scheme got OKC in trouble in game 2, but how they execute it is the difference between succeeding and failing. In that game, when Adams would slide with Curry, Russ would sort of play 3 or 4 steps behind, never really committing to either man. This time, he floats with his left side right in the passing lane. Curry could possibly slip a bounce pass in here, but it would put Bogut so far from the basket that Serge would be in place to help.
Curry seems to be trying to follow Green through the gap on this play. It isn't a bad idea, as Green rolling has taken Westbrook with him, which would theoretically open up the 10 foot range in the paint. KD's feet are open in the wrong direction, and he shouldn't be able to recover. However, Durant has such long arms that, despite playing this incorrectly, he is able to reach in and poke the ball out. Again, length is the difference on this play.
I really like Durant in the post against Green. It seems like he has spent a lot more time on him the last 2 games, and his length has really caused some problems. In general, though, this is a very well defended play. The handoff of players between Roberson and Westbrook is executed perfectly, allowing Russ to effectively front Klay on the cut while Dre denies the ball to Curry. Green makes a risky pass (compounded by having to get it by KD) and Russ gets the steal.
This is a measure of hustle, energy, and communication. Green slows the ball down just a fraction when he sees that OKC has numbers. No one on the GS team lets him know that Roberson is sneaking up behind. A beautiful wrap around poke pops the ball right into Dion's arms for the transition opportunity. These sort of plays break an offense. The exasperation on Draymond's face here is simply beautiful.
Again, length is the key to stopping sure points here. This isn't even a risky pass in most cases, but you cannot throw over the top of this OKC team. The reach that KD has is insane, and while this possession doesn't end in points, it allows OKC to get into a set defense, rather than giving GSW a fast break dunk.
This is another example of how KD is bothering Green. This set for GS is designed to get Livingston a look while cutting. Since Livingston has a height advantage on Russ, if you could get him the ball cleanly at about 10 feet, you generally can get a decent look. Again, though, you simply can't throw over the top of KD. Golden State has used passes over the top all season, and they can't break the habit now even though they aren't being successful.
This is exactly how to handle a 5 on 4 from a defensive perspective. Russ fell into the stanchion on the other end, and he arrives about 7 seconds late. Dion initially denies Curry the opportunity to penetrate, forcing the kick to Livingston. Livingston isn't a 3 point shooter, so this effectively kills the personnel advantage. Roberson sits on the inside man until the ball swings to Klay. At this point, Curry is one pass away, so Roberson slides out. Klay was planning to swing it to Curry, but when he sees Roberson slide, assumes that means the inside man is open. Russ gets back just in time to intercept the pass.
Note how Adams and Roberson play 3 guys for most of this play. Those two always seem to be on the same page and are the key to this play blowing up.
This inbound play actually works better than most of Golden State's sets in that it generate a cut where the player isn't being fronted. Roberson and Durant trade off guys to deny Klay a look, and that allows Green to be available for the pass. Waiters being the right place forces the pass to float just a little bit, allowing Roberson to reach around and spike the ball. Serge fights for the loose ball, and OKC comes up with another steal.
Curry makes a silly choice here. He gets Adams in an isolation set, which is probably a good look for Golden State. However, when a guard gets to go at a big man in an ISO look, he has to move laterally to get space to go vertically. If Curry moves quickly to his left, he may well get a step on Adams, allowing him to cut the ball toward the rim. Instead, he chooses to dance in place. Adams is a big guy; he can't move fast enough to be shaken off by these. He basically can stand still until Curry shoots, and then jump to contest.
Kudos the Adams here, though. He is apparently one of only two defenders to block a Curry jump shot this season, and I believe he's done it twice now. (I cannot verify this stat, but the TNT announcers said it, so I'm choosing to believe it).
I actually love how OKC approaches this, despite them leaving a man open inside. Golden State likes to run lots of scrums to force switches, but OKC isn't scared to make many of these switches. Because there are two big men involved, OKC immediately has an advantage: a guard will always be able to pick up Curry. Roberson swallows Curry off the initial switch but is grabbed and pulled back by Ezeli. Adams recovers enough to prevent the 3 ball, and both Roberson and Adams trap Curry aggressively. Despite this, he is able to get the pass off. Serge rotates inside, Durant slides inside to get Serge's man, and vintage Serge stuffs Ezeli on the hook attempt.
Again, there isn't a single open Warrior player here, despite having the switch several times. To get the ball in the post, Livingston has to pass to Iguodala 30 feet out. He is able to get the ball inside to Green, and Green gets to the rim (sort of) when Russ pulls the chair (and tries a reach around steal). Serge rotates for the block, KD slides in to box out, but Speights is able to tip the ball back to Green. I believe that Roberson blocks Green on the second attempt before he is able to tip it back in.
While GS got points from this play, being blocked at the rim altered future shots. If you don't believe me, look at some of the layups GS missed. There was one in particular in which Curry actually looked over his shoulder while trying to lay it up because he knew Durant was closing from behind. Because he looked away, he missed the layup.
With the small lineup OKC has been using (the small ball lineup of resurrection, because it undoes death? It needs a good nickname), they can afford to switch everything without giving anything up. It's hard to sort out all of the actions Golden State runs here, but despite this, they never get an open look. The pass to get the ball in to Green is difficult because Russ is fronting the post. They succeed in getting the pass in, but KD meets Green at the rim. Green manages to get the pass around KD to Livingston, but somehow KD turns around and jumps to block Livingston at the rim.
I love how many things OKC does right on this possession. First, Roberson strips Curry on the break. This allows OKC to get set to play defense. Klay slides behind KD to get the ball inside, but Durant recovers quickly enough to force the ball outside. Adams is able to slide just well enough to discourage the inside shot, and Serge moves from his help position to force Barnes further from the rim. Serge again shows his old self by blocking this shot. Even more impressively, he is able to come down with the rebound.
Sometimes OKC uses length to recover from bad defensive plays. Klay being hot in the third forces Waiters to overplay here. Speights slips the screen, and Kanter has to step up to Klay. Roberson isn't in position to deny the ball and is late arriving. Generally, having a big man at the rim with inside position against a guard is sure points. But Roberson is just so long that he smothers this shot from behind.
At this point, the game was over, but any chance I get to show Draymond getting smothered is a win in my book. Everything he tried against Durant was futile. Here, he drives out of control into the paint, and he attempts to go up over KD for a layup. KD just reaches out and blocks the ball before he can get the shot off. The adjustment of having KD play on Green more was a fantastic one by Billy Donovan.
OKC seemed to know exactly what Golden State would try defensively and they methodically picked it apart. All 6 major rotation players scored in double digits, and the Thunder finished with 23 assists. OKC scored 118 points in a game when they got 11 bench points, Russ shot 44%, and KD shot 33%. Yet they still got great offensive production in part because Andre Roberson submitted a double-double and scored a career-high, and the team got to the FT stripe 40 times.
This early assist was a great way of getting Serge involved. Golden State sells out on Russ early here, content to give up the shot to Serge. This pick and pop action seemed to have generally gone away this series, so it was nice to see early.
I both love and hate this play. It's a risky pass to throw over the entire defense like this, but it makes them pay for fronting Durant. This play sets OKC up to run KD off of baseline screens later in the game, though, so it served its purpose.
In transition, Golden State chose to sell out on Russ. He draws the attention of all 4 defenders, and despite OKC not having a numbers advantage, they generate a good look from 3 because Westbrook wisely holds the play until he creates enough space for Dion to receive the pass. Kudos to Dion for knocking down his 3's, even when contested.
This is a brilliant play. They run it as if it's a screen for Serge to take a 3. It isn't uncommon for Roberson to set pin-downs for Serge, and the defense bites on this action. Both defenders are only concerned about the 3, and Roberson slips under the hoop for a dump off. Russ just has to get a good angle on it to get the pass in, and Roberson gets an easy look. This play specifically attacked GS's plan to ignore Roberson. You can't get away with that when he is near the hoop.
I wish I had a better angle of this, but basically Golden State decided to make Dion act under pressure by trapping him here. Roberson makes a cut across the lane to give him an easy pass and immediately dumps it to Adams in the paint. Adams actually could have swung this to the corner for a 3 from KD (I think), but he instead hits the hook shot over the smaller defender.
This pass from Adams was almost as impressive as the next one I'll show. For some reason, when Russ slips the ball to Adams off of the high screen and roll, Curry and Ezeli double him. This leaves Green to cover Russ and Roberson, and since the gameplan was to make Roberson the 5th priority, he leaves him. Adams looks off at Russ to draw Green out, before he fires a pass to Roberson. It's not a great pass, but it is great vision, and Roberson manages to pull it down for a layup.
This is perhaps the pass of the playoffs. The fast break goes a little awry when Roberson loses his footing underneath. He kicks it to Serge in the corner, but Serge fumbles the ball away. Barnes is probably at fault here, as he decides to recover to Serge rather than pick up the open man, but Curry isn't exactly bothered to hustle back to Roberson. Of course, the man who falls down is often the most dangerous player, because it's easy for the defense to forget about him. Curry also makes the mistake of not seeing the ball here. You cannot turn your back on the ball like this. By the time he realizes he needs to contest, Roberson is going up for a dunk.
This is the same play in which OKC attempts to make GS pay for fronting Durant. The gameplan of leaving Roberson open comes into play as Barnes slides to KD. KD makes a brilliant pass (this angle doesn't do it justice, but it was insane vision and execution) for an open Roberson 3. He drains it, and the Golden State plan for defense is again beaten.
Again, a brilliant play design by Donovan. OKC has used baseline screens to get Serge open in the corner all season, and it's one of my favorite plays. When Green doubles off of Roberson, Dre slides in and acts like he is screening Barnes. Barnes jumps past to get to Serge, expecting the pass there. Roberson immediately slips it and is wide open for a layup. This is a designed set, and it is brilliant.
Roberson is left open in the corner, but rather than settle for a 3, he drives in. Curry recovers slowly (probably expected Robes to swing it to KD up top) and when Green rotates, Roberson dumps it to Russ for a layup. Not a conventional give and go play, but it works.
The Roberson high screen and roll has been incredibly effective in the past two games. He does a good job of swallowing Curry here, forcing Green to double Russ. Roberson slides to the arc, but sees the open lane and cuts. That little step out sets up the passing angle, and Roberson collapses the defense, but the help is too late (I've always wanted to say that). When Roberson is getting to the rim, it truly destroys the defense. Look how open Serge and KD are here. OKC had its choices of good looks.
This is similar to the play run for Serge in the corner, but they run it with Russ. Dion draws the defensive attention, and Roberson sets the screen. Notice who Roberson screens though: he intentionally picks Russ' man rather than the closest defender. Iggy hesitates just slightly because he realizes Roberson is inside. This gives Russ an extra second. He ends up faking, but he has that extra moment because Dre screened Green rather than Iggy.
Overall, the coaching staff for OKC came into the game with a plan to exploit any looks GS used on defense. Their preparation clearly paid off, and Golden State now sits on the brink of elimination and the Thunder have all the momentum needed to finish off the Warriors. GS has pulled out every stop and it still hasn't worked. Hopefully, OKC comes out dominant in game 5 and ends this series.