We may not have a website yet, but there was no chance we’d let a Western Conference finals of this magnitude slip away without comment. Four Ringer staffers share their thoughts on last night’s shocking Game 1.
Bringing Back the Feeling
Danny Chau: These playoffs have been a testament to the Thunder’s resilience. The Warriors and Thunder played a game within the game in the first half of Game 1, and, uh, it looked a lot like football. Dion Waiters was out here catching balls like Antonio Brown and Russell Westbrook was getting brutalized by the Warriors secondary. The Thunder were slinging more long passes than usual, which was actually an interesting move against the roving Warriors defense. But it works only if the passes connect; seven of their 10 turnovers in the first half came on bad passes. It was the kind of messy, flailing effort that had defined the Thunder’s regular season at its lowest points.
In the second half, Westbrook managed to drag the Warriors down into the chaos he’d stirred up. He had seven steals and five deflections in the game. For all the turnovers the Thunder committed in the first half, the Warriors finished the game with more. Westbrook played manic, physical defense on Steph Curry for possessions at a time. He’d commandeered the flow of the game. If he was going to have a terrible time shooting, so would everyone else on the court.
That feeling of inevitability that Oklahoma City possessed in the past — the feeling that no opponent’s lead was safe — had devolved into the sinking feeling that the Thunder would find a way to spoil their efforts. The Warriors had multiple leads of 14 points in the game, only one point away from the lethal 15-point margin that spelled victory for 114 straight games from 2014 to 2016. Even as the Thunder mounted their comeback, we waited for the Warriors to initiate their customary morale-deadening 3-point barrage. Up to the very end, even with their 3-point attempts growing wilder and wilder, it still felt like the Warriors’ game to lose. Golden State had taken hold of that air of inevitability, and that colored the way we saw the game unfold. But the Thunder have spent the past six games trying to reclaim their season’s narrative. They’re succeeding.
The Man Within the Cape
Chris Ryan: Sixty-nine points and 19 assists in the final two games of Golden State’s second-round series against Portland was enough to make most people forget about the MCL sprain that had kept Steph Curry out of most of this postseason. He was back; the Express for Men cape was billowing; bring on the Thunder. But in a reckless, fast-paced game that was draining for everyone involved, that injury re-emerged as something to watch.
Curry’s seven turnovers (accounting for half of the Warriors’ 14) were certainly a product of the blitzing, hands-on defense applied by the Thunder. But his waning late-game production (just three points in the fourth quarter) probably had more to do his not-quite-right right knee than anything Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook did. In the first quarter, David Aldridge reported that Curry had said his knee wasn’t feeling much better, or much worse, since the end of the Blazers series. And he played like it — there were the usual flashes of brilliance (I mean, what the shit?), but there was something just off with his timing. He lacked that little bit of horsepower to take over the game, and toward the end of the night — getting blocked by Durant and then missing a pair of 27-footers — he stalled out almost completely.
Weaving dribbles and walk-off 3s can suspend disbelief: As long as he’s out there, you think Curry can fly. But he’s human after all. And over the next few games, we’re going to find out how much that matters to the Warriors.
Staying Big and Standing Tall
Jonathan Tjarks: Coming into the series, the big strategic question was whether the Thunder would use the big lineups that were so successful against the Spurs or whether they would have to downsize to match up with the Warriors’ Lineup of Death. Billy Donovan flirted with four-out lineups in Game 1, but he stuck to his guns in the second half, staying with a three-big-man rotation of Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter and living to tell the tale.
When the game is on the line, Steve Kerr is going to go small and play Draymond Green at the 5. Conventional wisdom says it’s almost impossible to play two traditional big men against that kind of lineup, and there were sequences where Adams and Kanter looked like fish out of water trying to defend the 3-point line. However, OKC’s two giants were able to grab enough rebounds and make enough plays around the rim on offense to make up for any points they gave up on defense.
The Thunder have found an identity playing big over the past few weeks. It has brought success in the postseason, but it also reveals an important issue with the rotation: they don’t have many other options. If Durant plays at the 4, that means going with either Andre Roberson or Randy Foye for large stretches of the game, and those two were the only Thunder players with a negative plus-minus in Game 1. The Warriors were playing 10-15 feet off of Roberson on offense while Foye was having trouble staying in front of anyone on defense.
Going forward, Golden State will have to do a better job of exploiting mismatches on the perimeter without turning the ball over. That means fewer wild forays to the rim from Draymond Green and fewer careless passes from Steph Curry. The key is to extend the Thunder defense so far past the 3-point line that it breaks. Because if OKC can keep its big men on the floor, the Thunder have a real chance of pulling off the upset.
Jason Concepcion: In the second half of Game 1, social media was busy applying a headlock to Enes Kanter’s long-deceased defensive reputation. Unfortunately, the Thunder would claw to within three by the start of the fourth quarter and would go on to win the game. All those Twitter barbs — including a GIF of a cat’s futile pursuit of a laser pointer light and several Freddie Mercury Photoshops (may he rest in peace) — were wasted. But what if they didn’t have to be?
Sports are at their best when athletes are inspired and fans feel like they’re part of the experience. When the pressure of the moment inflames emotion and the substance of a player’s true self is revealed. That’s why, if I was the commissioner of the NBA, I’d install display screens on either side of the shot clock so players could watch themselves get roasted on social media in real time.
Imagine a world where Billy Donovan pulls Kanter because the big man is getting rattled by memes. A better world, where Dion Waiters flies into a rage because I tweeted that he doesn’t pick up his feet when he runs and never ends up hitting those implausible, late-game 3s.
It’s the world we should all live in.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 17, 2016.