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How the Thunder’s defense is bringing the Warriors to their knees

How has the NBA's 12th-best defense shut down the greatest offensive show in the modern NBA? By blending its old, aggressive style with a newer approach developed over the course of the season.

Here's a strange fact for future generations to ponder: The team that's turned the game's greatest offensive show in years into a haunted house of missed shots, sad drives, hilarious turnovers and slumped faces, finished behind the Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and eight other teams in defensive efficiency this year.

Was the regular season even the same sport? Because if that fact is true (it is), it makes no sense that the Thunder are bringing the previously unstoppable Golden State Warriors offense to its knees. Did the Thunder imprint a defense simulator program into their brains like the characters in The Matrix? Did they sell their souls to learn how to help the helper? If not, it seems impossible to imagine them creating the blueprint to slow Stephen Curry and company.

And yet, the Thunder really are running the 73-9 Warriors off the floor, utilizing an approach that begins and ends with a terrifying mix of athleticism and discipline. In hindsight, their success in taking a 3-1 series lead seems obvious. How many teams start three seven-footers on the front line, a 6'8 converted power forward at "shooting guard" and a 6'4 power guard at the point? How many teams also have players that can slide their feet with the speed of a guard and explode off the ground like dunk contest champions of lore?

Yet, for whatever reason, the Thunder's defensive skill didn't show in the regular season. They had the physical tools, but too often lacked the mental acuity.

Now, they're finally blending that athleticism with the precision needed to close driving lanes, the communication necessary to trade assignments and the effort to contest every single shot even when they're beat. Their new-found devotion to less glamorous grunt work is making their glamorous physical tools easier to spot.

* * *

There's an explanation for the Thunder's uneven regular-season defense. Under old coach Scott Brooks, the Thunder swarmed pick and rolls and gambled that their speed and length would beat opponents' ball reversal.

The strategy was effective, but it was also physically taxing and one-dimensional. The limits of Brooks' approach became evident in his final season when an injury-riddled roster clung to the same strategy with the wrong parts and sunk to the bottom half of the league in defense.

Enter Billy Donovan and a more conservative philosophy that called for big men to drop into the paint instead of swarming the ball. The decision mirrored league trends, but also forced Thunder players into new positions. They no longer could go from zero-to-60 on every possession and often lost concentration over a long 82-game season. Inexperience with the system combined with a lack of focus can prove deadly on the wrong NBA night.

Ever the tinkerer, Donovan knew that the Thunder could always summon their old frantic energy if they needed it. The purpose of changing the system was to make the Thunder less dependent on a single defensive style. Regular-season struggles were growing pains as the players learned to drive 30 miles an hour instead of always speeding.

Donovan's willingness to throw on a lab coat also led him to the experiment that's now scaring the Warriors witless. When the two teams first met in the regular season, Donovan flipped his forward matchups. Durant, the nominal small forward, shifted over to Draymond Green, while power forward Serge Ibaka guarded Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala.

In effect, Donovan turned Durant into Green himself. KD became the adaptable forward to vaporize the league's most unstoppable pick-and-roll play, except he's five inches taller, many more inches longer and arguably just as quick. With Durant switching that action, the rest of the team could freely switch, too. They knew Durant blanketed the perimeter and Ibaka covered the paint, or vice versa.

The move didn't bear fruit in the regular season, but the seeds were planted then. Miscommunications and botched coverages caused enough breakdowns for the Warriors' orderly chaos to exploit the Thunder in February and March. But that also telegraphed an obvious area to improve.

In testing his players in multiple systems, Donovan was nurturing a collective need to think on the fly. Whereas Brooks masked that problem with constant activity, Donovan slowly worked to solve it, even if it meant short-term sacrifices.

* * *

The result is the maelstrom you see now. Using Durant as the catalyst, Oklahoma City is passing Curry from assignment to assignment, forming a never-ending series of obstacles at the three-point line.

The Thunder understand the threat of the Warriors' stars is more dangerous than the stars themselves. The Warriors want to force double-teams because that triggers the chaotic scramble situations in which their spacing and passing thrives. They force defenders into a never-ending series of help decisions with on- and off-ball screens layered on top of each other.

But by switching all those plays, the Thunder block every potential advantage, turning possessions into Tic-Tac-Toe stalemates.

Switching against the Warriors is hardly novel in and of itself. Even the most switch-averse opponent must occasionally take shortcuts to keep its head above water. But the Thunder can switch with towering size at every position, allowing them to take a step back and still contest Curry's threes properly. Their long arms suck up air space, so in effect they enact verticality at the three-point line. It's as if they're traffic cops gesturing to pedestrians.

This is where Donovan's year-long strategy to preach containment bears fruit. When the Thunder attempted this strategy in three games against the Warriors in the regular season, they were too undisciplined to carry it out for 48 minutes. Too much aggression is as bad as too little against Golden State. Fly out of position and the Warriors nail you with backdoor cuts, random screens and stop-and-go moves off the ball, all of which are particularly damaging against big men switched out on guards.

Rev up the engines too quickly, and the Warriors toss the ball around until the exact moment the turbo bar runs out. The Warriors took particular glee in drawing Russell Westbrook out with that trick.

By late May, though, Thunder players had a full year to grasp Donovan's message. The same qualities needed to carry out Donovan's base defense -- positioning, communication and order -- are also required to execute a switch-everything strategy against an opponent that thrives in chaos.

So when the Warriors again tried spinning Oklahoma City's defense in circles, the Thunder were better equipped to sift through the noise, communicate the necessary switches and stay in front of their men. With the exception of the third quarter of Game 2, the Thunder haven't lost their concentration.

In doing so, the Thunder discovered a way to use their length properly. Taking a step back allowed Steven Adams and Ibaka to stay with Curry reasonably well, aided by the residue of Curry's MCL injury earlier this month. When Curry faked drives to step back for three, Ibaka and Adams simply raised their arms and occupied the space Curry's stepbacks created.

The same is doubly true for Durant given his endless wingspan. Against any other small forward, this is a clean look. Against a seven-footer that's raised his arm and kept it high, it's not.

Some will say the Thunder are simply trying harder because of the stakes, but effort was never the Thunder's problem. Concentration was, and effort is rendered useless without proper concentration. Over the course of the season, the Thunder players grew more and more familiar with the precepts needed to carry out a strategy that required pinpoint attention to detail. Learning something new made them uncomfortable, but also allowed them to grow.

* * *

Containment, of course, isn't enough. Even the best defense of all time is bound to get beat. That's where the vestiges of the Thunder's old philosophy come into play.

At times this regular season, one had to wonder if that activity ever would return. In trying to play like everyone else, the Thunder appeared to be forgetting what made their group unique. In their disastrous Game 1 blowout loss to San Antonio, the Thunder looked like robots programmed to stand in specific places, robbed of the instinct that makes them human.

But since then, the Thunder have perfectly married their old aggression with their new pragmatism. They default to keeping the ball in front of them, but as soon as a breakdown occurs, they activate their survival instincts. That's left the Warriors flustered and seeing ghosts.

Take this play in Game 4, for example.

For the first five seconds, the Thunder go through their normal routine. They pass assignments off properly, keep the ball in front of them and spread their arms wide. But the second Durant, Westbrook and Dion Waiters botch the Warriors' convoluted split cut, Durant's Code Red subconscious kicks in. He flew off Curry and hunted Andre Iguodala down until he forced a scared layup attempt.

These hustle plays -- "multiple efforts," if we're using coach parlance -- have an indirect effect on opponents. Passes that are usually automatic for the Warriors must be lofted a foot higher and six inches further forward. If not, they are deflected or intercepted.

These sequences have led to breathtaking defensive plays, particularly from Durant and Ibaka. Their ability to defend every position while still sliding over to protect the basket has been awe-inspiring.

Yet in a twist of irony, the threat of the Thunder's athleticism has become more dangerous than the athleticism itself. When the Warriors offense is rolling, it has defenses paralyzed in fear of a Curry three-point downpour. When the Thunder's defense is rolling, it has offenses paralyzed in fear of violent return-to-senders by Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Adams. That fear is indirectly causing the Warriors to commit "unforced" turnovers and miss "uncontested" shots they normally make.


The Thunder have created the best of both worlds. Not only has their orderly switching ruined Golden State's strategy of inflicting chaos, but their collective id that resurfaces only when necessary injected their own brand of confusion into these games. They aren't just resisting the dizzy feeling that comes with spinning one's head on a baseball bat. They're also forcing the Warriors to spin around themselves.

The obvious cliché, then, is also descriptive. Oklahoma City really is turning the NBA Playoffs on its head.