The Golden State Warriors are in trouble, so naturally the talk turns to adjustments. Is there some magic trick that can save them? Or are the Oklahoma City Thunder, up 3-1 on the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, simply better in ways that cannot be countered?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr didn't make any significant changes between Games 3 and 4. He was understandably frustrated with his team's effort in Game 3, believing the issues to be bigger than strategy. Now, with the Warriors clinging to life, one can reasonably expect changes headed into Game 5 on Thursday. One complicating issue for Kerr and the Warriors is they already adjusted so much at the beginning of the series.
Thunder guard Andre Roberson is the focus of much Golden State strategy and, currently, a major source of its pain. In Game 1, the Warriors unleashed a nifty plan wherein Draymond Green played the part of rover, sagging far off the shaky-shooting Roberson so he could provide extra rim protection against Thunder dynamos Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. To further confuse Oklahoma City's offense, shooting Klay Thompson was to guard big man Serge Ibaka.
Oklahoma City's first points of the series challenged this tactic: Roberson cut behind Green for an easy layup. Green is an active, high-intensity defender, and he found it difficult to negotiate a territory between "ignoring" and "guarding" Roberson.
In Game 2, Golden State made a solid adjustment to the rover tactic, placing center Andrew Bogut on Roberson duty. Apart from his size, Bogut's best quality is his awareness. As he demonstrated when "guarding" Memphis' Tony Allen last playoffs, Bogut excels at keeping track of a guy who mostly operates off the ball.
Placing Bogut on Roberson worked wonderfully, save for an unexpected problem: Fouls are forcing the Aussie off the floor. Bogut is currently averaging 3.3 fouls per his 14 minutes per game this series, pushing the Warriors into the penalty and reducing Kerr's use of the big man.
That's too bad for Golden State, as Bogut has had a positive effect on an otherwise lackluster defense. In Bogut's series floor time, the Warriors have notched a stingy 96.2 defensive rating. With Bogut on the bench, they've been shredded for a 112.1 rating. As for Roberson specifically, he's struggled to score during Bogut's brief floor time. After the Game 2 switch, he has scored seven points on eight shots in Bogut's 30 minutes. With Bogut off the floor, Roberson has scored 28 points in 56 minutes on 18 shots.
So, unless Bogut is involved, it's looking like the rover tactic doesn't work well. It's perhaps too much of a departure, more complicated than it's worth. Also, Roberson isn't Allen. He can actually knock down a few 3-pointers when given the chance. As a testament to that, in Game 4, Green actually started guarding Roberson like a regular perimeter player on a few possessions.
Steph on Russ
A big adjustment for Golden State in Game 5 might just be a return to the basics: Guard Roberson with Stephen Curry, as the Warriors have traditionally done against the Thunder.
One consequence of roving off Roberson is that Curry then guards Westbrook. That's acceptable when the roving provides Curry with sufficient backup, but one wonders if it's still too taxing a task for the MVP with a possibly gimpy knee. Though, to be fair, Thompson's Game 4 foul trouble in the first half likely pushed the Warriors into more of that matchup than they would have preferred.
Speaking of which, the conversation surrounding whether Curry is 100 percent has been lacking in nuance. It's more a source of argument than speculation, as possible explanations get assailed as excuses. "Were we calling him injured after his 17-point overtime quarter?!" the refrain goes.
First, that "I'm back!" quarter was shocking in large part because Curry obviously wasn't wholly right, often landing on one foot after shots. Second, let us take a step back and acknowledge the backdrop of this particular conversation. Curry has missed action in eight playoff games with two separate injuries, an unusually long absence in a postseason. It would be bizarre if he felt no lingering effects from two intense rehab processes. It would be odd if he easily got back to top form after the first knee injury of his career.
When we've seen MVP Curry this postseason, we've seen him in the briefest of flashes. He delivered the aforementioned 17-point OT in Portland and, in Game 2 of this series, 15 points in two minutes. Those two hot stretches account for 3 percent of his playing time since the first injury, but 28.5 percent of his points. There's been a lot of lackluster in between. The last time we witnessed a Curry-level command of a game for multiple quarters was in the first half of these playoffs, against Houston. Since then, Curry has twice been able to catch lightning, but he hasn't quite been able to seal it in a bottle.
Is that because he's hurt? Who knows. One can raise the possibility without excusing his horrible passing and finishing in Game 4. It's also possible to note the possibility while giving the Thunder immense credit for seizing upon the weaknesses of a faltering player.
Curry had been upfront about his knee pain until this series started badly, and he has since clammed up about it, offering a curt, "I'm fine," when queried. Hurt or otherwise, he knows it doesn't really matter to the public and to history. If you're playing, you're accountable for the results. And whatever his condition, there's little reason for Curry to simply hand Thunder players the basketball at point-blank range.
In any event, the Warriors should adjust by easing Curry's defensive burden. That means more Roberson duty. He has to do a far better job than Golden State has done this series in paying attention when Roberson slashes.
Switch some things
Another adjustment the Warriors should possibly elide is their reluctance to switch on plays involving Durant. Golden State's small-ball lineup has succeeded in part because they switch nearly everything. When Green's been involved in pick and rolls, they've sometimes elected to hedge or trap Durant. This reluctance allowed Roberson (there's that guy again) two easy rolls to the rim late in Game 4. While it's possible the Warriors are afraid of drawing their top rebounder too far from the rim, it might be worth it to just let Green guard Durant.
Again, this would fit the bill of keeping things simple. And that might be the big Golden State adjustment, in general. The Warriors beat Oklahoma City three times in the regular season, largely without gimmicks. Maybe if they get back to basics, they can save their season.