After limping into the All Star break with an anemic 4-4 record in their final eight games, everyone has been anxiously anticipating the return to action - where the Warriors will have supposedly found a new focus.
In their second game for this final push through the last trimester of the season, Golden State will face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder - a dangerous team that matches up disconcertingly well against the Warriors.
WHO: Warriors vs. Thunder
WHEN: Saturday, February 24; 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Oracle Arena
RADIO: 95.7 The Game
A roster shake up, a renewed focus?
Coach Steve Kerr loves to tinker with his bench rotation, but a non-playoff change in the starting lineup is fairly unusual. Still, coming out of the break, Kerr pulled the trigger by switching out stalwart starting center, Zaza Pachulia, for the explosive dynamism of Javale McGee.
Did it work? Well, the guys seemed to have fun, and the team definitely came out with an increased level of focus and determination. In short, the answer is that it’s probably too early to say for sure, but early returns point towards the answer being “probably.” It’s the smallest of samples, so should be taken with a grain of salt, but as per Anthony Slater of the Athletic:
They held the Clippers to 23 first-quarter points on 10-of-24 shooting. In the past month, opponents have torched them for nearly 48 percent from 3 in first quarters. On Thursday, the Clippers went 1 of 10 from deep in the first 12 minutes. The Warriors, after getting outscored by 67 points combined their last 12 first quarters, won this one by 11.
But the proverbial switch hasn’t really been flipped, not in any meaningful way. As Slater goes on to say, the Clippers ended up shooting 50% on the night - not a great defensive performance. And Kevin Durant talked about giving up at least 34 points in each subsequent quarter - ending in a game that was a little too close for comfort for anyone looking for a powerful and significant change in the team’s dominance
Kevin Durant saw the same thing, critiquing their overall performance while acknowledging the encouraging start, “[W]e started the game off well, now we have to put the full game together.”
Like most aspects of success for the team, the Warriors largely rode their stars. Curry led with 44 points on a jaw-droppingly efficient 19 shot attempts; Durant had a relatively quiet 24 points and eight rebounds, and Klay Thompson poured in 17 of his 19 points in the first half.
Although close to a return from a high ankle sprain and bone bruise, athletic rookie Center Jordan Bell is not yet available. Based on team rumors, I think it’s likely we see him return Monday versus the Knicks.
Also concerning, Draymond Green is listed as questionable. His shoulder was injured early in the season and has become exactly the sort of lingering troublesome injury that teams hope to avoid heading into the playoffs.
Injury report for tomorrow's game vs. Oklahoma City: Draymond Green (right shoulder soreness) is probable. Jordan Bell (left ankle inflammation) & Patrick McCaw (non-displaced fracture, left wrist) are out.— Warriors PR (@WarriorsPR) February 24, 2018
The OKC Thunder, and the challenge they represent
When the Thunder acquired Paul George, many of us were dubiously nervous. Already a solid defensive team, the addition of George was seen as one of those synergistic moves that could easily push the Thunder up into a higher tier.
Now, the Thunder have faced the Warriors twice and dominated both times. It is just the regular season, and the Warriors are a significantly better team on paper, but the solidity of the trouncings they’ve handed us in the first two meetings is a bit concerning.
As Dylan Murphy points out, it’s their defense that has been the most dominant factor:
The defensive end, however, is what has propelled Oklahoma City to consecutive victories. Through two games, the Warriors have been held to offensive ratings of 100.3 and 88.4 (according to NBA.com) — marks that would rank them as the worst offensive team in the league. While it’s unreasonable to expect Oklahoma City to continue its dominance to this degree, the consistency points to more than aberration.
Even after an injury to critical defensive wing, Andre Roberson, the Thunder have still been more than able to adequately contain Golden State’s scoring threats. Since the Thunder are a top ten team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Warriors are going to need to figure out a way to crack the game open a bit and it doesn’t necessarily matter if it is on the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
The Thunder offense is something of an antithesis to the Warriors’ style of play. They are not great shooters (ranked 19th in team shooting efficiency), but they rebound exceptionally well, especially on offense, and are superb ranked #1) at forcing turnovers.
This just pairs poorly with the Warriors, who have never been a strong rebounding team - ranking 19th and 24 in offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively. Coupled with a propensity for turning the ball over a lot, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to visualize how the Warriors could struggle against the Thunder.
Here’s a telling example of how the Thunder are so good at gumming up the Warriors offense by disrupting the passing lanes with a bevy of long-armed defenders:
Something I left out from my piece on OKC-GSW: GSW’s ability to hit the roller cleanly in pick-and-roll is underrated, and unlocks much of their ball movement. But OKC is one of the few teams that can significantly disrupt this pass to create deflections. The power of length. pic.twitter.com/bL2bVBQ3OJ— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) February 23, 2018
Hopefully though, the switch has been flipped enough for the Warriors to finally beat this team. If not, prepare for a lot of hot takes about what that could mean come playoff time. As for tonight’s game though, a victory would be a soothing comfort to fans and coaches alike, who are probably beginning to sweat the details, just a little.