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The King of Limbs: How the Thunder Put a Stop to the Warriors’ Small-Ball Dominance

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Getty Images

The most stunning part of the Western Conference finals isn’t that the Thunder have beaten the Warriors at their own game; it’s how easy they have made it look. Golden State’s winning formula has been flipped on its head — the Thunder have been the ones forcing turnovers, getting out in transition, and blowing the Warriors off the floor. The Thunder won Game 3 by 28 points and Game 4 by 24 points, thanks largely in part to a five-man unit of Russell Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka that had a staggering net rating of 89.3 in those two games. Oklahoma City has the greatest regular-season team of all time looking completely overmatched.

The Spurs play big ball and the Warriors play small ball, but the Thunder have trumped both with long ball. They can match any style of play because their guards have the length of big men and their big men have the speed of guards. Wingspan has always been a huge component in their team-building strategy, and you can see its impact in this postseason. Westbrook, Roberson, Durant, Ibaka, and Steven Adams are all significant outliers for their positions in terms of arm length. The shortest wingspan of the lot is 6 feet, 7 inches — and that belongs to the 6-foot-3 Westbrook. Getting through the Oklahoma City defense requires navigating a thicket of arms, and when they are all attached to über-athletic bodies playing together on a string, it becomes an almost impossible task.

Durant has taken the responsibility of guarding Draymond Green and completely eliminated him from view. Draymond is the league’s ultimate Cinderella story, but he has turned into a pumpkin in this series, averaging 11 points a game on 33 percent shooting, while turning the ball over 10 times in the past two games. When Durant is his primary defender, Draymond is 0-for-11 with five turnovers. Durant is one of the only players in the league who is longer, faster, and more skilled than Draymond. When he unfurls his arms from the banisters, there is nothing Green can do.

On defense, Green has become a ghost, especially in lineups where he plays at the 5. When Durant and Westbrook have a full head of steam, they can finish over the top of Draymond like he’s not even there. The Lineup of Death was Golden State’s trump card in last year’s playoffs, but it looks like Steve Kerr will have to try something else to get his team back in this series.

The only adjustment Kerr can make is to stay big, except the Thunder have already proven they’re the best in the league at playing a game of giants. The Warriors giving more minutes to Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli means more playing time for Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, a trade Billy Donovan will gladly make. This is to say nothing of Ibaka, who has been the best two-way big man in the series.

OKC’s roster is firing on all cylinders, and the Thunder are in the middle of one of the most impressive postseason runs of all time, taking six of the past seven games from a 67-win Spurs team and a 73-win Warriors team. Perhaps their play in the postseason shouldn’t have come as that big of a surprise, as the Thunder are right in the sweet spot between age and experience. Their top seven rotation players are all 27 and under, while the Big Three of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka has appeared in four conference finals in the past six seasons. The Thunder are both younger and more battle-tested than the Warriors, who seem to be collapsing under the first sustained bit of playoff failure in the Steve Kerr era. Given how young OKC’s roster is, the real concern for the franchise Joe Lacob deemed light-years ahead of the rest of the NBA is that this could be the beginning of the Billy Donovan era.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 26, 2016.