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Oklahoma City Thunder’s keys to defending the Golden State Warriors and Kevin Durant

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How can the Thunder defense slow down the Warriors’ offensive juggernaut? Here are the secrets.

Kyle Terada @ USA TODAY Sports

With the Golden State Warriors rolling into town, a buzz rarely found in mid-season games has excited both Oklahoma City and the entire NBA fan base. According to TicketIQ, Kevin Durant’s return game to OKC is the most expensive return game ever in the secondary ticket market, even outpacing LeBron James’ return to Miami in 2014. However, despite being one of the most anticipated games of the season, many don’t give the Thunder a fighting chance to emerge victorious. Many view the Thunder in the role of Rocky I; able to absorb blows and keep standing ‘til the end, but so over-matched that even this result would be found remarkable.

Perhaps the assessment is correct. After all, Golden State has 4 all-stars to Oklahoma City’s 1, and the Warriors’ best player wasn’t even a part of the core group that set an NBA record for wins last season. However, as has been proven 8 times already, with the right approach, any team can lose if the opponent has the right approach, consistent execution, and, of course, a bit of luck.

As I’m sure you recall, the Thunder did not have much success in the first two match-ups against the Warriors. While there are asterisks of sorts associated with those games (playing the first on a back to back in only the 4th game of the season, and then missing Steven Adams in game 2), the reality is that Oklahoma City was not ready to stay competitive for the entire game, particularly on defense, allowing 53% shooting overall from the floor, and 47% from deep. The Thunder simply didn’t have what it takes to slow down the Warriors high-flying offense.

However, this young squad has played with confidence and renewed moxie on the defensive end of late and parlayed that into an outstanding showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers. If there was ever a time for a David to stand against a Goliath or a Rocky II vs Apollo Creed type rise of the oppressed over their oppressor, this is it. With the entire NBA watching, these Thunder “young guns” can remind the entire basketball world that they will not roll over and let these golden boys push them around.

However, no such glory is attainable without a plan, one that includes an ace up one’s sleeve perhaps, and it is imperative that this young OKC team prepare for the 48 minute onslaught that is sure to await them on Saturday night. Here are 5 keys to upsetting the Warriors.

1. Keep Hands Up and Active

When facing the Warriors in the playoffs last season, the Thunder defense was able to frustrate their stars with length. Golden State loves to play small and fast, but they also play with poor fundamentals when it comes to moving the basketball.

One particular Warrior weakness: rather than using quick bounce or chest passes to deliver the ball, they like to throw passes over the top of the defense. While this does allow them to flip the defense with a single pass, it also gives multiple defenders chances to disrupt the play.

This play demonstrates precisely why this pass is risky. While Livingston is able to get a step ahead of his defender, the pass over the top of Richard Jefferson allows for multiple defenders to make a play on the ball. Lebron James ends up getting the deflection and steal, but had he missed, Kevin Love was also in place to intercept the pass.

The key here is pressuring Draymond Green when he is attempting to initiate the offense. While it is tempting (and even logical) to leave him open from this range, he is the quarterback of that offense. Forcing him to make tough passes while running off-ball action for one of the stars increases the odds of forcing a turnover. At worst, this approach should move the receiving point of the pass to a lower percentage spot further from the basket.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is better suited for disrupting passing lanes than any other player in the NBA. The Warriors love to pass across traffic because they want to take shots from behind the arc, but if the players in the lane keep their hands ready and active, they can either get deflections, allowing time to recover and set the defense, or come up with steals.

In addition to having active hands to come away with steals, it is imperative for the defense to keep their hands up; as the saying goes, “Hands down, man down.” Decreasing the window in which a player can get a shot up, blocking a part of their vision, or serving as a distraction are all important results of defending with a hand in the opponents face. Additionally, by keeping their hands straight up and vertical, the refs cannot be baited into calling reach in fouls like they can when a defender's hands are below the shoulders.

There are times when a Warrior’s shooter gets open on the catch. Staying with the play until the release is difficult and taxing. However, it also can pay dividends. Whether the shot goes in or not, forcing an opponent to shoot through hands every possession will eventually result in frustration, bad choices, and missed shots.

When it comes to successfully contesting shots, the Thunder's biggest hurdle this year is the measuring tape. In last year's Western Conference Finals, Oklahoma City had tremendous success frustrating the Warrior's shot-makers. However, two of the starters from that OKC squad are gone, and their replacements lack the same length. With Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant joining Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams in the starting 5, OKC averaged 6’8.4” in height with a 7’1.3” wingspan. This season, with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis starting, the team's average height decreased to 6’7.2” with a 6’11” wingspan. Overall, the Thunder lost 6.25” of height and 11.5” of wingspan in the starting lineup. This loss reduces the impact of contesting passes and shots, and places a premium on maintaining discipline and staying close to shooters.

2. Run Off the Perimeter

Gregg Popovich devised a plan last season that proved the most effective method for defending the Warriors. Rather than attempt to prevent easy looks at the rim, the Spurs sold out entirely to prevent three-point shots. This often resulted in LaMarcus Aldridge getting switched on Curry 30 feet from the rim, playing him tightly despite the quickness disparity. Because the shooters could not hope to get a shot off, they had to drive toward the rim. The help defense rotated, and by the time a dump off pass could occur, the big had recovered.

It appears that this method will still work. In fact, the shot charts split between wins and losses is a testament to this.

Hexmap - Wins

Notice something about the shot chart during games in which the Warriors won. The distribution is actually pretty even, with the outside shots being about equal with the shots in the paint. Midrange shots are less frequent, and there is a weak zone in the middle of the floor (more on that later), but the shot distribution is pretty evenly spread.

Hexmap - Losses

In losses, the Warriors are taking a higher frequency of shots at the rim with great success. However, that isn’t translating into consistent scoring, as 5 of their losses were among their worst offensive outputs of the season. In victories, Golden State shoots 41.3% from deep. In losses, that drops to a paltry 27%.

Notice how the Grizzlies continue to sell out on shooters. There is a chance in each case that they give up a drive (though Golden State lacks explosive players who can get great separation), but it is worth it to prevent the outside shot. The result of this play is Draymond being isolated in the post with 9 seconds left on the shot clock, 20 feet from the basket.

3. Bump - Grab - Push

Golden State has one of the least physically imposing rosters in the NBA. With a lack of quality big men and a plethora of skinny shooters, playing a physical style of defense is only logical.

Kevin Durant has been one of the thorns in OKC’s side in the previous matchups. While I think this was partly due to poor matchup decisions, some of the issues might be the Thunder not defending him with the right mindset. If you recall those many series that Oklahoma City played against Memphis, Tony Allen was almost always smothering Durant, even on the opposite side of the floor. At the time, it was frustrating to watch Durant be grabbed around every screen, bumped on every lay-up, and pushed around when posting up. However, it also provided the blueprint to defending him.

Durant is a rhythm player. He knows his zones on the floor, he knows the timing of this shot, and he’s so tall that, once those components align, defenders don’t have a chance. The key is to do the work before he catches the ball. When matched up with a physical defender, Durant will begin to force difficult shots, compromise his timing, which eventually disrupts the flow of the offense.

It’s important to stay intelligent about how and when to make contact, however. When he does not have the ball, there is much more leeway for using arms and hands to move him around. However, when he catches it or is driving, the contact has to come from the lower body. Refs usually won’t call contact made with the interior:

This is a great example of defensive subtlety. Tony Allen knows what angle Durant needs to take to get to the rim, and precisely when he needs to make his turn, he gives him a little bump at the waist. This throws off the timing and direction of the drive, and Durant never recovers.

4. Funnel Offense Through Bigs

Golden State starts an all-star at 4 of the 5 positions. However, it’s that center spot that is a marked weakness for this team. Any time the ball ends up in the hands of ZaZa Pachulia, Javale McGee, or Kevon Looney, it’s a defensive success. As a group, they don’t have great hands, cannot initiate any offense, and as a bonus, they can't shoot. That means other than the occasional open lay-up or dunk, they don't add a lot to the Warriors' offensive production, and thus getting the ball in their hands will often result in a defensive stop.

This can make trapping on pick and rolls very successful. More switching is also an option because mismatches inside aren’t as big a concern and the reduced need to focus on their man will allow the Thunder bigs to offer more help to the perimeter defenders.

5. End the Possession

One of the biggest ways to lose to a great offense is by giving up offensive rebounds. A possession following an offensive board is very similar to a transition attempt; defenders are struggling to find their matchups and player have much more space wherein to operate.

The Thunder are the number 2 rebounding team in the league, the Warriors rank number 7. Controlling the boards and not giving up easy second chance opportunities is absolutely imperative if the Thunder want to steal this win.

In this clip the Grizzlies defend the Warriors perfectly for 17 seconds. The closeout on Klay Thompson forces him to drive. The help arrives, forcing the ball out of Durant’s hands into Anderson Varejao’s. Again, the defense sells out on the shooter, and the result is a Warrior big attempting to make a play.

The problem is there are 24 seconds in a possession and the Grizzlies allow Steph Curry to slip in and secure Varejao's miss. Essentially, the entire defensive effort was for not, and the damage is not just on the scoreboard. Easy second chance scoring is very demoralizing, especially for young players. Further they can take a crowd out of a game and kickstart a run for a team that thrives on making runs. Eliminating these may not result in a win, but failing to stay defensively focused for 24 full seconds on every possession is a proven recipe for defeat.

Concluding Notes

  • In wins, Golden State plays with a pace of 103.16. In losses, that number drops to 101.73. While the Thunder like to play fast, eliminating transition attempts and forcing the Warriors into half court sets is necessary for staying in this game.
  • The Warriors as a team are weakest at shooting in the middle of the floor. Both Klay and Durant like the midrange shot from the baseline or wing better than from the middle. Playing them toward the FT line could prove successful.
  • Many of my scouting report points entering the playoffs last season still apply. You can find that report here.
  • The most important thing is for each player to approach this with a “Do your job” mentality. Defense always starts at the personal level, and success there is the most important indicator of team success.