After a couple days off in New York after their win over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night, the Warriors traveled to Oklahoma City to renew their rivalry with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Of course, this game has a special feel to it because Kevin Durant left the Thunder to join the Warriors and his return to Oklahoma City last season was a tense and emotionally charged game. Unlike the past seven contests between the two teams, the Warriors did not emerge victorious as the Thunder won the game 108-91. Watching the game, four things stood out as to why the Thunder not only won, but did so in such a dominating fashion.
The Thunder’s Big Three shine
Make no mistake about it, the chief reason the Warriors lost this game is because the Thunder’s three stars all put in great efforts. Not surprisingly, Westbrook led the way, posting a season-high 34 points to go with 10 rebounds and 9 assists. Two of Westbrook’s points came on this emphatic slam dunk in the second quarter that pushed the Thunder lead to 13.
Russell Westbrook, yeesh pic.twitter.com/low92XtZcx— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) November 23, 2017
Not surprisingly, Westbrook was locked in and ready to face his former teammate, Durant.
What made the biggest difference for the Thunder on this night was that Westbrook had help as both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George had great nights too. Anthony scored 22 points, shooting above average for him this season and putting in a performance reminiscent of his great games of Olympic basketball.
Carmelo's been quietly huge tonight: 20 points on 7/14 FG. Got OKC going early, nailed some timely 3s since. OKC up 22.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) November 23, 2017
George, meanwhile, added 20 points and 11 rebounds. The Thunder’s three All-Stars, along with Steven Adams who scored 14 points, had nearly as many points as the entire Warriors team (90 for the Thunder four, 91 for the Warriors). Last season, when it was just Westbrook more or less on his own, the Thunder gave up leads when he left the game or he was missing shots. Now with Anthony and George on the roster, there are other players who can pick up some of the slack and can anchor a lineup while Westbrook rests on the bench. When the Thunder’s three best players are all playing that well, they are a tough team for anyone to beat.
Bad breaks for the Warriors
In addition to the strong play by the Thunder’s best players, the Warriors had a rough shooting night and their all-stars all had their struggles. The Warriors shot 41.3% from the field, well below their averages for the season. Klay Thompson had a particularly horrendous night on Wednesday, going 3 for 12 from the field and 3 of 8 from 3-point range for just 9 points. Draymond Green also had a rough offensive night, shooting just 1 for 6 from the field, not making any of his three 3-point attempts and finishing with just 4 points.
Durant and Stephen Curry were able to shoot around 50% for the game and each scored 20-plus points, but both players missed open shots, shots they usually make. They also had a tendency to miss shots that could keep a run going and that, after getting the rebound, the Thunder would convert into points. After Curry and Durant, the third-leading scorer for the Warriors was Omri Casspi and he picked up the bulk of those points when the game was basically decided. That the Warriors were unable to get offense from anyone besides Durant and Curry meant that beating the Thunder, especially after falling behind, was going to be very difficult. While there are things Warriors need to work on coming out of this game, some of this loss stemmed from an abnormally bad shooting night the likes of which this team will only rarely experience.
Thunder Defense (and the Warriors lack thereof)
While some of the Warriors shooting woes were just a team having an off-shooting night, the Thunder’s defense deserves some credit too. They hounded Warriors shooters throughout the game, pressuring them into bad shots or (as we will address shortly) turnovers. Jerami Grant, in particular, took the ball away from Durant twice as he went for a driving layup or dunk in the first half. With Anthony and George on the roster, the Thunder look to be playing the long, stretching defense they played with Durant and that gave the Warriors trouble in the 2016 Western Conference Finals yet again.
While the Thunder’s defense was better than it had been thus far this season, the Warriors put in a substandard defensive effort in Oklahoma City. Beyond Green, who played another stellar game on that end of the court, the Warriors’ defense left much to be desired. Some of that was due to Durant getting into early foul trouble and thus not wanting to challenge and risk picking up more fouls. This led to the Thunder getting 13 offensive rebounds, allowing them to extend possessions and get more chances at scoring.
Whatever the cause, the Warriors’ defense was not at its best and that kept them from ever getting back into the game. Every time the Warriors would start to make a run and look like they might come back, the Thunder answered with points of their own to nullify what the Warriors had done. The Thunder were able to get stops and sustain runs and the Warriors weren’t and, in many ways, that was the difference in this game.
Lazy, sloppy, and out of control play
Though the Warriors might have been hurt by some unlucky bounces and missing shots they generally make, they did enough to lose this game on their own. The Warriors turnover problems again appeared, with 22 in this game while only tallying 22 assists.
A reminder: OKC leads the NBA in deflections, steals and points off turnovers. #Warriors were fully aware of that. And still . . .— Monte Poole (@MontePooleNBCS) November 23, 2017
While the Warriors are prone to turnovers on any given night, the Thunder are a team particularly capable of exploiting that weakness in the Warriors’ game, and that’s what they did on Wednesday. Those Warriors turnovers led to 34 points for the Thunder as they were able to take those miscues and convert them into easy points.
But in addition to being careless with the ball, the Warriors also appeared to playing with too much emotion and thus lost their focus.
To be certain, no one was buying the “this is just one game” talk because it clearly isn’t and that showed. I mean, did you see that dunk by Westbrook? But beyond giving the game an importance beyond a regular season game in mid-November, the intensity of the game took the Warriors out of their element by leading them to play with more emotion, specifically anger. While Westbrook was able to feed off of that energy and intensity, the Warriors were negatively effected as they tried to match the Thunder in that regard.
The Warriors usually out-poise out-execute. They tried to play emotional tonight and it didn’t work— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) November 23, 2017
The Warriors, to borrow some Star Wars terminology, play best when they’re using the light side of the Force. Restrained, calm, at peace, in control, this is when the Warriors play their best. While Phil Jackson is known as the “Zen Master” with his teams seen in that light, those ideas might apply even more to the Warriors for they play their best basketball when they are mindful and conscious and calm rather than out of control. The Thunder, by contrast, draw on emotions, feelings of anger and desire, that are much closer to the dark side of the Force. The Warriors tried to play the Thunder’s game, giving into the dark side, and it took them away from the things they need to do to play their best.
Now I certainly don’t think the sky is falling because the Warriors lost a game in November in a hostile environment to a team that both needed a win and really wanted a win against this specific team. But I do think that we are getting to a point in the season when the issues that have plagued the Warriors so far need to be addressed so that, in these matchups of marquee teams, the Warriors can earn a few victories.
However, the Warriors will look to get back to their winning ways on Friday night against the Chicago Bulls back at Oracle Arena.