As the NBA world searches for an answer to Golden State's unprecedented winning, it tends to look to the squad with two top-five players. The Thunder played the Warriors close in two previous meetings, closer than close on Saturday. Oklahoma City had that game but for a combination of events miraculous and comically inept.
The Warriors thrive on timing and synchronicity. The Thunder have the length and athleticism to disrupt well laid plans. Oklahoma City's "small" lineups aren't exactly small, a valuable counter to when the Warriors downsize. Their big lineups can crush Golden State on the offensive boards, especially since all that length keeps pushing the Warriors farther from the hoop. Kevin Durant traditionally kills Golden State, averaging better than 31 points against them in his career. The Warriors are replete with wings who've been torched by Durant's hand.
Then Thursday's game started and Oklahoma City began validating that status as top challenger, with the Thunder successfully switching onto Stephen Curry, refusing to cede open 3-pointers. So, how did the Warriors, again, tilt the balance in their favor? How did they pull away from perhaps the league's most athletic team?
Apart from "Stephen Curry," and apart from, "Marreese Speights hits 3-pointers now," it's Golden State's versatility that has decided this matchup. The Thunder have many different kinds of players, but few outside their big three can capably play offense and defense. They're replete with guys who serve singular functions -- or, in the case of Dion Waiters, dubious functions.
Golden State's superstar is augmented by talents who can play both sides, especially on the wings. Take Shaun Livingston, for example. He's a little heralded, idiosyncratic kind of player who occasionally saves the Warriors. Though a point guard, he's wing sized. He posts up like a big man, and occupies the "dunker" spot along the baseline like a center. When he does have the ball, he's backing his man down and firing fadeaways like prime Patrick Ewing. Then the Warriors get a deflection and Livingston morphs into a point guard again, pushing the break with ease.
His second-half defense on Durant was instrumental to turning this game, helping to fuel Golden State's closing 50-26 run. "It's just really making him work," Livingston said after the game. "Sticking to the scouting report. Coaches do a great job laying out the report, tendencies."
Warriors coaches knew more than just Durant's tendencies in the general sense. According to coach Steve Kerr, they've been more than aware of how, specifically, Livingston guards Oklahoma City's superstar wing. "When we signed him, Bob [Myers] and I did a lot of research," Kerr said after the game. "Watched some tape, talked to some former coaches, and he actually guarded Durant quite a bit in the past when he was in Brooklyn, and other teams. That was one of the reasons we loved the idea of having Shaun on our team."
Livingston's presence is especially helpful when the Thunder elect to go with a Durant-Westbrook pick-and-roll. A background guarding point guards leaves Livingston well suited to suddenly switch onto the Westbrook assignment.
The Durant assignment was initially taken by Draymond Green, who did yeoman's work throwing his body in front of the inexorable. "Something I wanted to do, something I wanted to try out" Green said, indicating that he volunteered for the task. He added, "It's fun taking on that challenge."
Durant still managed to score 32 points on 17 shots with 10 boards and 9 assists. This time, at least, he was hounded into nine turnovers. The Warriors will take that result from the player who scores on them easiest.
The Thunder also will probably live with Curry going 5-of-15 from 3-point range, though they'd prefer he refrain from unloading in crunch time. Of Curry's 33 points, 11 came in the last six minutes. His final 3 was roped over the long arm of Serge Ibaka, a reminder of how unstoppable this 6-foot-3 point guard is. Oklahoma City's preference is to switch their athletic big men on Curry when he's beyond the arc. Somehow, he still manages to make a mockery of size, sailing the ball over their swats. According to Synergy Sports, Curry has yet to have a 3-point shot blocked this season. This, despite firing more than 11 attempts a game, despite every opponent obsessively contesting every shot they can.
Perhaps such efforts are acts of futility. Perhaps Curry is always getting his shot off, perhaps a healthy Golden State team is unbeatable in a series. If the team theoretically best suited to beat the Warriors can't actually beat the Warriors, it's an open question as to who can. Actually, it might be a closed question, whether we want to admit it or not.