What a waste of an opportunity. From the beginning, it felt like a conflict between the Thunder defense winning the game and the Thunder offense losing it. And for almost the entire game, the Thunder defense was just good enough to keep the margin comfortable. But when Klay Thompson started raining in impossible shots from everywhere, the offense needed to do its part, and it simply couldn't. Or wouldn't.
When I filled out my bracket for these playoffs, I said OKC in 7 games. I knew that winning in Oracle Arena would be tough, but something gave me irrational confidence in this team (even before they earned it against San Antonio). When I made my pick for the pre-series roundtable article, I said OKC in 6. I refuse to change my winning pick now even though Golden State has the momentum.
It is incredibly difficult to beat a team 3 times in a row in the conference finals. I won't say that it's impossible, but there is a reason very few teams have come back from being down 3-1. It took a historic shooting night for Klay Thompson and a dreadful offensive showing from OKC just to push this to 7. However, that provides little consolation when one considers how likely we are to see one or both of those things again.
Still, I'm picking OKC to win game 7 and move on, and it will be off of the defensive effort. I suspect KD and Russ will be more cognitive of spreading the ball, rather than looking off open teammates repeatedly.
For this article, I wanted to look at something positive. There are plenty of things that made the Thunder lose, but what I care about is what can be taken away from the game in order to win game 7. I thought the effort in the first quarter was fantastic, so I chose that as the topic for this article.
First quarter effort
Here are some first quarter stats to give you an idea of how effective OKC was at guarding the Warriors. Golden State shot 32% from the field, didn't get to the FT line at all, and turned the ball over 5 times. OKC had a defensive rating of 74.1 for the quarter, which is fantastic. Golden State's TS% was 40%, which is a sign of good defensive effort.
The first minute of the game both excited and scared me. In that first minute, OKC had 3 offensive rebounds and a steal, but had only scored 2 points despite having 4 good looks at the basket. In fact, at this point in the game, Golden State hadn't gotten a shot off.
This is the first shot of the game. Durant is isolated against Barnes in the post and shoots a tough runner. Curry really doesn't have a chance to box out Roberson, and because Barnes is the rebounder for that lane, Roberson can slide in front of him to steal the rebound.
This is the next look. Roberson comes out to screen for KD, but Curry doubles off. KD slips a pass over the tip, giving OKC a 4 on 3 with Roberson driving the rim. Green slides in to help cover Adams, and Roberson makes the right read to kick out to Ibaka. The shot misses, and Curry is the only Warrior player in position to box out Adams. Long shots lead to long rebounds, and this plays right into Adams' hands, giving him an easy board.
Adams gets stripped going up after the previous rebound, and Curry is leading the break. Ibaka plays his right hip, causing him to turn to protect the ball, and Adams slips in to poke the ball away. The first man on the floor wins possession, so Adams comes up with a steal.
Isolation ball with OKC guarding their correct match-ups is always going to be a good outcome for the Thunder. Golden State can only attack isolation effectively when they get a guard on big situation. Serge doesn't give ground here, forcing Barnes outside of layup range while maintaining position between him and the rim. Barnes is forced to fade, and Ibaka contests all the way to the release. Westbrook hustles to toss the rebound back in, giving OKC the stop.
Curry makes the mistake of attacking in transition when OKC had the numbers advantage. He gets by KD on the perimeter, but Roberson slides over off of Barnes to prevent the layup. Curry knows that Roberson has the length to block the shot, so he makes the right pass. Serge doesn't have to respect Draymond Green here (there are enough players back to cover for him) allowing him to block the shot from behind.
This is where OKC's length absolutely is psyching the Warriors out. Curry gets a cut to the rim and expects to get an easy layup out of it. He turns his head to see KD, and he knows that there isn't a chance he doesn't get blocked. He decides to instead bring the ball out, but at this point, he has taken his steps and gets called for the travel. Notice what is happening off the ball this entire play. Russ can stay in the passing lane to Klay and Bogut isn't a threat. Roberson and Serge run an uncalled switch here to allow Ibaka to follow the ball. That's what I like about our starting lineup: they are cohesive and work as almost the same mind.
This is just a great recovery and block by Roberson. Again, Golden State decided to run an iso play. Klay got just a slight step on Roberson, but Roberson stayed on his inside hip, and when the shot went up, Roberson was able to use his length and athleticism to block it.
Curry is trying to get a switch onto Kanter here, but instead, KD and Kanter double at the 3 point line. Curry makes the right read in passing to Bogut, but Westbrook slides in to contest in the lane. Bogut has no confidence, and since Serge slides onto Green (Westbrook's man), he is forced to kick out to Iguodala. Bogut telegraphs this pass, though, and Serge starts recovering before the ball leaves his hands (Kanter was coming to recover inside). The shot clock is at 7 seconds, so Iggy chooses to throw up a contested 3. OKC will happily concede this shot every time.
Length again disrupts the Golden State offense. Klay has the position to receive this pass (though Roberson is there to prevent any easy looks), and Green leads him to just the right spot. Roberson is just so long, though, that he reaches around and pokes it out. Roberson gets down and pokes the ball to Serge for the steal.
(Apologies for this clip having a weird hiccup in it. Not sure what happened there.)
First of all, the switching handoffs on this play are perfectly executed. Foye and Ibaka pass off players, giving Golden State a slight mismatch (Green on Foye), but Waiters immediately passes Curry to Foye, and the mismatch is gone. This play had two primary options: Curry for 3 or Green in the post. Because OKC switched so effectively, neither one opens up. Now, watch Roberson on Klay. This is why his foul trouble has been such a detriment to the team. He already has him standing at about 30 feet out. Klay takes a couple of swings to try and get some space, but it doesn't really work. He finally pushes off, giving him a few feet of room. But this means he is catching the ball at about 36 or so feet out, which is definitely outside of his range. He catches the ball with only 11 seconds on the shot clock and 35 feet to go. The biggest key to guarding Klay is to make him uncomfortable the entire game, which means fighting him even when he doesn't have the ball. If he is hot, the defense loses the second he catches the ball.
Now look at how that play ends. Klay is going up for a floater. First thing Roberson does is touch the ball on the way up. It isn't enough to knock the ball out, but it does make Klay pull the ball farther back. Roberson then pulls his off-arm away from Klay to prevent the foul call. That second effort to block the shot is also very impressive, and it forces Klay to release much earlier than he wants. All contact comes after the release. This ball should have belonged to OKC (Green is the one who knocks it out), but the defensive effort here was fantastic.
When Golden State inbounds the ball, the shot clock is at 6 seconds. They run an iso look for Klay in the post, with Waiters as the defender. Bad idea. Klay can shoot over Dion, but it is perfectly contested. Notice how Dion positions his body: Klay has no choice but to attempt going baseline, but once he does, Dion seals him. As soon as he starts to turn in order to get an angle for the shot, Dion shifts right into his bubble, not giving him an inch.
This is good effort on the initial contest and great help on the second attempt. Westbrook contests the Curry 3, but the ball rebounds outside to Green. He kicks it to Klay, forcing a hard closeout by Roberson. Klay drives and attempts to fool Ibaka with a ball up-fake. Serge stays down though, and blocks Klay is forced to try a reverse. Serge is so much taller and longer than Klay that he is able to get a piece of the shot.
Don't post up Dion. I don't know how Golden State thinks they have an advantage here, but this is a horrible decision this early in the shot clock. Barnes is trying to fight his way inside, but Dion absorbs the contact without giving ground. As Barnes goes to spin, Dion decreases the resistance just a little bit, making Barnes spin a hair faster than intended. He loses the handle, and OKC gets another possession.
This was the best offense OKC ran all game. KD threw up one of his many bad shots, but Russ darted in for an offensive rebound off of an Adams tip. Iggy and Curry both ran to Westbrook, and when he swung the ball to Foye, both Livingston and Iguodala closed out. Foye swung to KD, forcing Barnes to essentially decide between a KD and a Dion 3. KD (surprisingly) swung the ball one last time for an open 3 from Waiters.
Again, don't post up Dion. Livingston has a height advantage here and GS is going for a 2 for 1. But Dion gives no space on this shot and Livingston misses short. Every outlet pass is covered here (Roberson is swallowing Curry on the cut), which forces Golden State to play right into OKC's strengths.
So while I can't guarantee OKC will win game 7 even with this level of effort, I do know that this kind of intensity is requisite to winning a closeout game in Oracle Arena. Here's to hoping OKC can pull it off.