Most people are going to point at the late-game decisions made by the Golden State Warriors as the reasons behind their backbreaking defeat to Oklahoma City Thunder, in a game that they led by as much as 18 points.
The two ill-advised Klay Thompson shots that were well defended, well contested, and virtually had zero chance of going in. The much-advertised non-decision to foul up three which resulted in Chet Holmgren — who put in a career high 36 points to go along with 10 rebounds and 5 assists — hitting a three at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The late-game heroics of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a bona fide superstar and an All-NBA-level talent. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 40 points on an 18-of-29 clip from the field and 66.9% True Shooting.
But the game was really lost in the third quarter — won by the Thunder, 34-26. A 61-51 lead at the half by the Warriors ballooned into an 18-point lead at the 6:54 mark of the third quarter (79-61). By the end of the third, that lead was cut down to only two — 87-85.
After a half where the Warriors corrected a few of the things they needed to address on defense after the first game against Thunder, a few details were overlooked in the second — especially in the little things.
It might sound like I’m picking nits, but at this level, this is what the Warriors have to pay attention to if they’re looking to contend. “Okay” isn’t fine. “Good enough” is actually not enough. “Close, but not quite” is still a loss.
The Warriors need to be elite and near pristine — and as of this moment, the brutal truth is that they’re miles away from being those.
The details I’m pertaining to, for example:
When Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins come over to double Jalen Williams, it’s Thompson’s responsibility to help the helper and “sink” in against Holmgren. This involves getting in front of Holmgren, fronting him, and making it hard for him to catch any passes cleanly.
But Thompson doesn’t get in front and ends up letting Holmgren catch the lob.
Other moments involved a clear lack of effort to put up resistance, especially at the point of attack. Gilgeous-Alexander is an elite scorer and finds ways to get buckets even against the toughest of defenses, as his overtime heroics proved.
But instances such as the one below — where he just plainly blows by Andrew Wiggins without much effort — were also commonplace:
Dario Šarić as the lone center in lineups is also something I don’t think the Warriors should be doing. The defensive responsibilities being heaped upon him as the five have been too much for him to handle — and against teams with supreme pick-and-roll operators and who are masters of scoring in space, having a defensively compromised player defend in space is just too much to ask of him.
With Šarić as the roll-man defender in the pick-and-roll, he goes up to the level of the screen against Gilgeous-Alexander, with Wiggins trying to push him away from the screen and against the sideline. But Gilgeous-Alexander takes matters into his own hands by rejecting the screen, changing gears, and going at Šarić, who fails to contain him and gets blown by.
Nearly the same possession happens later on:
With the Thunder running “roll-and-replace” action — with Isaiah Joe lifting from the dunker spot to the top of the arc at the same time Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren run ball-screen action — Šarić steps up to the level of the screen. But with Jonathan Kuminga falling behind and not in a position to switch late onto Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander engages Šarić and places a lob to Holmgren for the alley-oop.
In the possession below, the Warriors switch their pick-and-roll coverage: Kuminga switching onto Holmgreen at the point of at screen, with Šarić expected to switch onto Gilgeous-Alexander. However:
Once Gilgeous-Alexander sees that Šarić is giving him too much space, he steps back and calmly drills the three in front of Šarić.
It certainly felt like Gilgeous-Alexander could do whatever he wanted with Šarić at the five:
Šarić being played as the lone big has been defensively untenable. Prior to this game, Warriors’ opponents have been scoring 116.6 points per 100 possessions in lineups where Šarić is the five (353 possessions), per Cleaning The Glass. That is the equivalent of the 25th-ranked defense in the NBA with garbage time eliminated.
But when slotted at the four with someone who can legitimately play center next to him (Kevon Looney, Trayce Jackson-Davis, or Draymond Green), Warriors’ opponents have been held to 102.4 points per 100 possessions (208 possessions) — nearly four points stingier than the best defensive team in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Both the numbers and the eye test are coming to the conclusion that Šarić is not a true center who can anchor a half-court defense. He needs a true center next to him to thrive and to ease his responsibilities on the defensive end.
A turnover by Kuminga means the Warriors have to quickly match up on the other end — which means the chances of a mismatch occurring are higher. Šarić is forced to defend Gilgeous-Alexander in isolation, and while he forces the miss, that means the only big is pulled away from the rim — and Holmgren can easily haul in the rebound and putback.
Another turnover the next possession over — an over-the-head pass by Curry that teams have pretty much scouted extensively and are expecting — leads to another Thunder bucket:
It was one of 16 turnovers the Warriors committed that led to 26 points off of turnovers by the Thunder. At this point, the turnover problem — while not as bad as it was last season (yet) — is something everyone will have to accept that comes with the package. The answer is obvious: just don’t turn the ball over. But with their style of play and the way they want to score on offense, turnovers are the high risk that will always be present if they want the high reward.
Those — along with lineup decisions, positional conflicts, and the little details they must attend to in order for them to succeed at the highest level — are what they need to address. There’s still plenty of time for that. But they’re reaching the point where bad habits will be extremely difficult to kick.