OAKLAND -- The box score from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is a bit of a liar – which suits the Oklahoma City Thunder all too well.
On a night when their two best players missed two-third of their shots, the Thunder’s two best players still made the difference that explained Oklahoma City’s 108-102 victory . . . and in doing so helped frame the immediate future of this series.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did not shoot well by anyone’s standards, least of all their own, and they never really found the beat they were seeking (although Westbrook took quite the assiduous beating), but they and their mates did what was required when the requirements are most stringent, and deconstructed many of the things that make the Golden State Warriors the Golden State Warriors.
Mostly, the Thunder did this by persistently refusing to go away – falling behind by double digits and then closing the lead in a hurry, therefore causing the Warriors to forget that their true task night in and night out is to find the rhythm that causes other teams to shrink from the pace.
Instead, in the words of Steve Kerr, who has had to explain this more often than he would like, “I do think we lost our poise a little bit. Taking quick shots . . . tough shots . . . and we tried to rectify the situation in a few plays rather than letting the situation play out.”
Most of this happened after a first half that, while it was challenging for the Warriors was not discomfiting. Westbrook couldn’t find the floor with a dribble, let alone the net with a shot, and Durant struggled to assert himself in the usual Durantian way, while Golden State got their usual Curry/Thompson fixes to establish a seemingly safe 60-47 lead.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Warriors cough up lead, Thunder steal Game 1]
What the Warriors didn’t get, though, was help from the rest of the roster. Draymond Green finished with 23 but only five rebounds, and everyone else was harassed and annoyed and neutralized enough to make Curry and Thompson seem utterly alone . . . which led to those shots early in possessions, and Curry’s seven turnovers (nostalgia for those who remember the Curry of three years ago), and the fact that Steven Adams (16/12/held Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli to two shots and three rebounds in 25 minutes) and Serge Ibaka (11/11) won their individual and ever-changing battles to make the Warriors depth seem, well, not so deep at all.
The Thunder, in short, made the Warriors the thing they rarely are – uncomfortable in their own skins. Careless passes, usually the result of forcing plays where they aren’t, hurried hero shots (Curry and Thompson were 7 of 21 after the break, 1 for 10 in the fourth), and Oklahoma City’s superior second-half interior defense, which caused the Warriors to take only 17 shots inside the arc and leave the rebounding to Durant, Adams and Ibaka – all of it conspired to make the Warriors look like playoff newbies rather than belt-holders.
More specifically, the Thunder crowded Curry out of his normal shooting spots, pressed Thompson at the arc as the game went on, and made the others “get out of character a little bit,” according to Curry. Plus, they started to care for the basketball in the second half rather than get rattled by Golden State’s series of mini-runs, and run more aggressively toward the basket to induce fouls that put them to the line 16 times in the third quarter alone.
Seeking the micro, though, obscures the macro, which is that Oklahoma City is better at controlling pace than most other teams, that Westbrook and Durant are getting theirs even if it isn’t necessarily efficient (53 points in 51 shots is kind of ordinary), and so are Curry and Thompson, and that this series will likely be won either by the Green/Iguodala/Livingston/Bogut/Ezeli conglomerate, or the Adams/Ibaka/Dion Waiters/Enes Kanter/Andre Roberson amalgamation. The Warriors are supposed to be deeper, but the Thunder assembled a game that first removed other five and then squeezed the best two into poor second halves.
And the box score won’t say a thing about that. It will, however, say, “Thunder, 1-0,” and “Warriors, 0-1,” and there are plenty of lessons in those two data points for everyone involved.