For the first time this season with their entire rotation intact, the Warriors look mortal. The Thunder scrapped and drew blood in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and now the 73-win juggernaut many thought would walk to its second consecutive title has to make adjustments to avoid heading to Oklahoma City down 2–0. To get a sense of Steve Kerr’s possible game plan, all you have to do is look at his history in Golden State. There’s an underlying pattern to how the Warriors adapt when they fall behind in a playoff series.
When the Memphis Grizzlies shocked the Warriors during last season’s conference semifinals by going up 2–1 in the series, Kerr changed his defensive assignments. Draymond Green guarded Marc Gasol and Harrison Barnes guarded Zach Randolph, while Andrew Bogut effectively played free safety by “guarding” Tony Allen. Facing a similar series deficit in last season’s Finals against the Cavs, Kerr benched Bogut and slid Green and Barnes down a position in order to sic Andre Iguodala on LeBron James. Both times, the Warriors put smaller defenders on bigger players and dared the other team to beat them with size, knowing they would have an advantage in speed, skill, and floor spacing.
In that sense, if OKC insists on staying huge on the front line, the Warriors have the Thunder right where they want them. Their identity is built on spreading out bigger and slower teams and running them off the floor behind a barrage of pick-and-rolls and transition 3s. Golden State already had the matchups it wanted in Game 1, it just didn’t do a good job of exploiting them. One quick and easy fix is playing Green more at the 5, which almost feels like a given. Not only does it position him to choke off the Thunder pick-and-roll, it creates room in the Warriors lineup for another perimeter defender.
This is where Shaun Livingston and Iguodala will be essential going forward. In a series of such close margins, the Warriors will have to be proactive in their adjustments on the Thunder’s two superstars; they can’t count on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook going 17-for-51 again. When Westbrook scored 19 points in the third quarter of Game 1, Stephen Curry was his primary defender. Given their length and court awareness at the wing slot, Livingston and Iguodala are the two defenders best suited to defend Durant and Westbrook. Utilizing the tandem more not only puts the Warriors in a better situation to prevent any impending Thunder explosion, but it also allows Curry to conserve precious bandwidth.
Just as important is the havoc Iguodala and Livingston can generate on offense. Since neither is a particularly good 3-point shooter, the Thunder will likely try to hide their big men on them. It’ll be important for Iguodala and Livingston to take advantage of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka in space and generate ball movement by getting to the rim. If the Warriors’ reserve wings can win the matchup against the Thunder’s starting bigs, they could force Billy Donovan’s hand and make him go small. It’s been a while since the Thunder have had to downsize, so here’s a reminder of what that entails: more minutes for Andre Roberson, Randy Foye, Cameron Payne, and Kyle Singler. That doesn’t paint a pretty picture for OKC.
There are consequences to going small, particularly for Draymond, who will have to absorb a massive physical pounding from Adams and Kanter. That’s why the Warriors don’t generally make this type of adjustment until they are down in a series. With their backs against the wall, though, they will have to dance with what brought them here. This series is a clash of styles the Warriors are designed to win. Now they just have to win it.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 18, 2016.