In February, when the Oklahoma City Thunder hopelessly trailed San Antonio and Golden State in the Western Conference standings, general manager Sam Presti expressed faith that coach Billy Donovan and his players could unearth a different sort of team before it was too late.
"We would be concerned if, at this stage of the season, we felt we had discovered all there is to know about ourselves," Presti told ESPN.com. "We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season."
I didn't think much of it then. It is the kind of thing a GM says about any good team not quite playing its best. But it was clear Presti believed it. The Thunder had just started using big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams together, it had barely been a year since they planted their flag on Waiters Island and Donovan was still feeling out his roster -- juggling lineup combinations, fiddling with big-versus-small questions that define a team's identity and finally getting a buy-in from forward Kevin Durant to stagger minutes with point guard Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder have found something since a humiliating Game 1 loss against San Antonio in the second round, and it looks more dangerous with each monstrous road win. Oklahoma City is a huge, physical team that understands it can wear opponents down if it stays focused over 48 minutes. The Thunder have become aware of their collective length and how dangerous it can be -- how quickly it can close gaps that would be fatal to other teams, provided that OKC is in tune enough to prevent those open spaces from getting too big.
The Thunder veered away from that identity for a stretch of the first half in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals -- but like any good coach with a deeper understanding of his team, Donovan corrected course. The resulting second-half rampage at Oracle Arena led to a 108-102 victory over Golden State on Monday night.
After one rip-roaring game in this potentially epic series, it almost feels like the key terms of engagement are set:
The Thunder will not win this series playing small ball with Durant at power forward, especially if Andre Roberson is on the floor. It effectively gives the Warriors two hiding spots: Curry can deal with Dion Waiters instead of Westbrook, and Draymond Green can play free safety off of Roberson -- a smart strategy that allows Green to stay near the basket, where the Warriors badly need his rebounding.
Oklahoma City's wings just aren't talented enough to out-small the Warriors. Golden State knew this going in, and the Thunder appear to know it now. The Warriors outscored such lineups by 10 points in just five first-half minutes, and the Thunder played two big men for the entire second half (minus a couple of isolated end-of-game possessions).
Warriors coach Steve Kerr will play the Death Lineup -- Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, with Green at center -- more often to stretch Oklahoma City's defense to its breaking point. Kerr altered his substitution pattern, swapping Iguodala in for Barnes much earlier than usual, so that he could bring Barnes right back in for center Andrew Bogut and steal an extra two minutes in which the Death Lineup would face the defensively challenged Kanter.
Donovan is rightfully reluctant to play the Adams-Kanter combination against the Death Lineup. He did not do so Monday night and, given how things went, he might not do so in Game 2 -- or ever.
Kanter looked predictably helpless on defense during his first-half stint, but Donovan stuck with him against Golden State lineups featuring a traditional center for him to guard -- a task that gets easier when Curry rests at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
But the Thunder will stay big against the Death Lineup, with Adams and Serge Ibaka manning the frontcourt slots. One will defend Barnes, and the other will take Iguodala -- or Shaun Livingston if Golden State is using Version B of the Death Lineup (i.e., the Coma Lineup). Durant will defend Green to dissuade Golden State from using the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, since Durant can simply switch to Curry and at least contain him.
Green set just eight ball screens for Curry on Monday, one of the dozen lowest single-game marks of the season, per SportVU data provided to ESPN. (Green made contact on just three of those picks.) Another of Golden State's lowest such marks came against the Thunder in early March. Perhaps the Warriors are overthinking things and might benefit from going to their bread and butter more often -- provided Curry is healthy enough to jitter and scoot by Durant off the dribble. They'll also draw at least a few traps, unleashing Green to play point guard in those 4-on-3 situations that produce a hail of open corner 3s.
The Thunder will switch almost everything away from the ball. There were possessions on which four different Thunder players defended Thompson in a five-second span. Given how the Warriors move and screen for each other in a blur, it is brutally hard to switch that often without conceding something, somewhere. You will make mistakes.
When the Warriors know you are going to switch, they change their patterns of movement in unpredictable ways specifically designed to catch you in that terrifying netherworld in which the switch is about to happen -- but hasn't happened yet.
Watch Green, at the top of the key, creep down to set a pindown for Thompson. Green knows his man, Roberson, might lunge out to switch to Thompson, so he aborts the screen before it happens and streaks to the basket at the exact moment Roberson shifts his momentum toward Thompson:
But Roberson recovers well, and perhaps the threat of his long arms plays some role in Iguodala lofting the pass a hair too high.
Curry and Thompson have a genius screening chemistry. When Curry is sure an opponent will switch that action, he'll slam his body into his new defender, force that guy toward the 3-point arc and then veer immediately to the rim. It usually gets him a layup. It didn't work in crunch time of Game 1 because Durant, Curry's new defender on the play in question, is so long and fast:
Again: Golden State will puncture little holes. The Thunder were disciplined enough to plug them quickly enough.
It wasn't just length and speed, either. The Thunder mostly played a smart, hyper-aware brand of defense that eluded them for much of the season. Watch how locked in they are on what should be a deadly play: Curry slithering around a staggered screen from Festus Ezeli and Green:
Adams scampers with Curry along the 3-point arc and Durant reads it instantly, abandoning Green to check Ezeli. That leaves Green open in space, but Thunder play it so that the worst-case scenario is an open Green floater. Adams, playing his butt off all postseason, runs back in time to challenge that.
The Warriors' super-small lineups have a lot of shared experience running opposing groups with two traditional big men off the floor. It's how they won the NBA Finals last season. Perhaps Donovan discovered in Game 1 that the Ibaka-Adams combination has the speed, hops and guts to at least keep up with it -- especially given that at least two of their partners, Westbrook and Durant, cover the rest of the court with unusual length and speed. (Toss in Roberson with a late lead, and that court gets mighty tight.)
Overreacting to Game 1 is dangerous. We all learned that, like, two weeks ago. The Warriors were the best team in the league this season and they might still be now, even with both Bogut and Curry coming off injuries. There are things they can correct.
Several of their 14 turnovers were dumb, what Kerr used to call Plays of Insanity, including a Curry lefty, around-the-back job in crunch time that was too risky for the context. Green jacked two 3s early in the shot clock that were inexcusable -- one launched as Curry sprinted across the baseline with Adams trailing him, the other with Curry begging for a pass back so that he could attack Kanter in a mismatch.
Kerr and Green have had a two-year, mostly good-natured push-and-pull about Green's shot selection. It had Green gun-shy during the first three games of last year's Finals, when Cleveland gave him acres of space. It contributed to Green's infamous tirade at halftime of Golden State's win at Oklahoma City this season. These shots are why.
Thompson and Livingston took a bunch of hurried jumpers early in the shot clock, when they weren't really in a position of any advantage. Asking the Warriors to be patient goes against their nature; they score lots of points before the TV broadcast has finished its close-up of the opposing player who just hit a basket against them. (Seriously, TNT: This is not the series for those lingering close-ups.)
They thrive in random basketball, and this series, with all the switching and gimmicky matchups, presents them with a lot of cross-matches to exploit. Thompson nailed one quick-trigger 3 in semi-transition because his man, Randy Foye, had to traverse the width of the court to find him. The Warriors are better-equipped than Oklahoma City to just guard the man closest to them when things get scrambled.
The Warriors should push like hell, but should also have faith that if a great look doesn't present itself right away, they might still manufacture one in the half-court.
One way to do that: If Adams and Ibaka are defending second-tier wing players -- Iguodala, Barnes, Livingston -- involve those guys in as many screens as possible. Curry got several open shots by running off Barnes pindowns when Ibaka was on Barnes; Ibaka was confused and late to switch.
On their most important possession, the Warriors put Adams through two picks -- one for Thompson, which forced Adams to switch to the league's second-best shooter, and then a Thompson decoy ball-screen for Curry. Adams hung just close enough to influence Thompson's shot at the rim:
Adams has been awesome in these playoffs, and if you watched the Thunder all season, you could see it coming.
More of this, and more normal Curry pick-and-rolls, and the Warriors will find the right balance. Doing that at the center position will be tough. Bogut was minus-6 in just 17 minutes, but he also dished three assists. His passing makes the Curry-Bogut pick-and-roll a useful weapon when the Thunder trap it. Bogut is a bigger, slower version of Green in those 4-on-3 situations.
Ezeli is faster than Bogut and much more comfortable stepping out high to contain Durant on the pick-and-roll. But Ezeli can't even sniff Bogut's playmaking instincts; even after years of progress, he still struggles to catch the ball in tight spaces. The Thunder in Game 1 made him see a thicket of arms, and Ezeli just can't make plays in a forest. Marreese Speights did nothing.
Westbrook and Durant shot just 17-of-51 combined, but the Warriors would live with a lot of Westbrook's baskets. He ignited the Thunder in the third quarter with a bunch of long, off-the-dribble jumpers that salvaged dead possessions. If those go in, you shrug. Waiters chipped in with a grenade, end-of-clock corner 3 on another stagnant trip. You live with that. Westbrook will shoot better at the rim going forward, but the Warriors are generally pretty damn good at limiting him around there.
Durant slumped before some classic late daggery, but Iguodala had a lot do with that. He played incredible defense, somehow reading Durant's mind with every fake screen and decoy cut.
But some other stuff will tilt the Thunder's way, too. Maybe they'll snag more offensive rebounds. The two teams were about even on uncontested shots, per SportVU data, so it's not as if the Warriors can simply lean on the "make-or-miss league" mantra -- even if they are better shooters, and probably produced better looks on balance.
Sports are fun when they are unpredictable. There is magic in a team coming together in a process of self-discovery at the right time. It is one place where human element inspires something that perhaps the numbers, and even the film, can't quite anticipate. Win or lose, it's happening for the Thunder right now.