All is well and peachy in the Golden State after Saturday's epic come-from-behind overtime victory. A national TV audience got to witness the Warriors' ultimate signature win -- on the road, in the last game of a long trip, against a top rival who had circled its wagons.
Except maybe we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite an 0-2 mark against the defending Champions this season, Oklahoma City made a few blunders that turned the result in Golden State's favor. If not for a play here or there, the Thunder should have won at home against the Warriors. They outplayed the Warriors the vast majority of the night, and successfully exploited several advantages that the Warriors don't have a good answer for. If the two teams face each other in the postseason, the Thunder should have a blueprint to beat the mighty Warriors.
The great news is that no one else in the NBA really has the same tools to use that same blueprint.
1. Coaching blunders
First, let's talk about those self-inflicted wounds. Yes, there was the awful Kevin Durant giveaway at the end of regulation. There was also the poor close out (don't let a desperate shooter create contact there!). But those only happened because the coaching staff opted to play "prevent offense." And there was no good reason to do so.
With 4:50 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder were up 11 points, 96-85. Their offense was dominating possession with an absurd +30 rebounding advantage (more on that later). With the exception of Stephen Curry, no one in a Warriors uniform could find a way to score. Worse, no one in a Warriors uniform could figure out how to slow down Kevin Durant, who was every bit as effective as Stephen Curry up until that point: if those two went at it possession by possession, it seems unthinkable that the Thunder could lose such a lead.
Nevertheless, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan ordered his squad to milk the shot clock on every possession to close out the game. This may work in college, but against a world class defense like the Warriors, the prevent offense gave the Thunder little hope to consistently score. They made themselves a predictable one-on-one offense on purpose.
For the season, Kevin Durant is a meager 36.4% from the field with four seconds or less on the shot clock, with an effective-FG of 40.9% (the Thunder were shooting nearly .500 as a team at the time). The point is: no one can consistently produce buckets at the end of the shot clock, period. It's not even a viable strategy anymore. The entirety of an offensive possession needs to be a deliberate attempt to find a quality field goal, and if it is not, even a mediocre defense will make a team pay.
What the Thunder did Saturday night was the equivalent of a football team, up 7 points, kneeling out its final fourth down to give the ball back to their opponent with plenty of time on the clock. This is an unacceptable strategy.
The iso-Thunder quickly squandered its next nine possessions (0-of-7 field goals with two turnovers). The Warriors, who shot poorly all 53 minutes, went on an improbable 11-4 run to make a game of it with a 33 seconds left. From there, a few Kevin Durant mistakes (and outstanding late-game execution) sent the contest into overtime.
The Dubs can't expect Donovan to make this mistake twice. By running a clock-eating offense, Donovan gave the Warriors the extra help they so desperately to send this game to overtime. There's almost no chance of that happening if the Thunder play the full 48 minutes.
2. The Super Big Lineup
This is just a bit of coaching logic. A team shouldn't try to counter the Warriors' Small Ball Death Squad (lineups with Draymond Green at center, and Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes at power forward) with equally small, but lesser players.
The SMDS smashes most opponents into pieces because Green can out-defend and out-rebound guys larger than him, while the rest of the team switches on every movement, morphing into a modern-day Chicago Bulls doberman defense on the perimeter. Screens don't work because there are no more mismatches: interchangeable Warriors wings like Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson can stay inside opposing jerseys all possession long without fighting through screens. By going small, teams play right into Golden State's trap.
It may not be a perfect answer, but it's the logical answer: go big. Teams can win the rebounding battle, and the possession battle, and dramatically slow down the Warriors' pace with a bigger lineup of competent two-way players. No team should expect to out-rebound the Warriors as badly as the Thunder did, Saturday (that rebounding advantage owed a lot to Golden State's tired, road-weary legs, and won't be a factor in the playoffs), but the right teams can expect beat the Dubs on the glass.
The Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers are the three teams in the NBA with the potential to do this. The Thunder can roll out a front court of Kevin Durant, Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka -- one of the most versatile fronts the entire league can muster as far as defensive ability and shooting range. They will still struggle to fully contain the Warriors (particularly in the open court, as will any group of players), but in a half court set, they can do real damage. Their ability to pack the paint and earn second chances will turn the game in their favor by depriving the smaller Warriors of possessions, and live ball turnovers with which to push the tempo in-game. This is essentially what happened in the first three games of last year's NBA Finals, as the Warriors trailed the Cavaliers 2-1 in the series.
Consider Saturday a very exaggerated result, but not a flukish result. But the Thunder are capable of winning the rebounding battle against the Warriors in any game they want to, and those extra shot attempts can even the odds against a sharp-shooting team like the Dubs.
3. The Warriors have yet to solve Kevin Durant
Granted, no one really has. Durant's a four-time scoring champion for a reason. And yes, the Thunder may have an even bigger Stephen Curry problem (seemingly every retired NBA player in history does). But still: last season in the NBA Finals, this Warriors team limited LeBron James to a ghastly .398 shooting percentage on 32.6 FGA per game. This season against the same Warriors team, Kevin Durant is averaging an absurd 38.5 points, 13 rebounds and five assists on 49% shooting (small sample size alert!).
If Durant keeps putting up these kinds of numbers while defended by all-NBA defenders like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala (as he was Saturday), the Warriors may have to take drastic measures to slow down the former MVP -- and those measures will have consequences. So far this season, Kevin Durant is the only player in the entire Association who does to the Warriors what Stephen Curry regularly does to everyone else: render them helpless with elite shooting and unselfish play.
As good as the Warriors are, even they cannot let a series with the Thunder come down to Stephen Curry versus Kevin Durant, because that's a battle that the Thunder have a chance of winning!
The Thunder, more than any other team in the Association, have the tools to pull off the epic upset. But they must play to their strengths, hope for a little luck, and get out of their own way when the time comes. If they can do that, the Warriors will have their hands full in May. This isn't to say that they will beat the Warriors, or that this humble writer expects them to. But the Oklahoma City Thunder could have a legitimate chance at a victory. And not just a puncher's chance.