We've been looking for someone to challenge the Warriors all season, someone to make this perfect run at another title a little messy. It wasn't the Clippers. It wasn't the Cavaliers. It wasn't the Spurs, at least not yet. The Thunder didn't beat the Warriors on Saturday night. If they had, the reverberations around the NBA community would have been jarring.
It was almost the Thunder. The final tally understates just how close Oklahoma City was to beating the Warriors in Golden State on the eve of the Super Bowl, with the sports world in town and American royalty courtside. We were ready for this: for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to wipe that smirk off the Bay Area's face, even for one night. But as is seemingly always the case in these big games, the Warriors found buckets and stops when needed and finished the victory. They are still smiling.
Still, go ahead and add OKC to the list of teams that can challenge the Warriors, that can put them on the rocks and make them sweat. It's a short list to be sure, but the Thunder belong there after erasing a 20-point deficit, tying the game late and coming within a couple of clean Durant looks from claiming victory.
All along we've been looking for the right combination of offense and defense to challenge the Warriors. For San Antonio, we thought Kawhi Leonard's otherworldly individual defense could slow Stephen Curry in one-on-one situations. Nope. The Thunder don't have a wing defender of that caliber so they instead sent traps at Curry, forcing him to be a passer. Curry is a phenomenal and willing passer, and he played the part of the playmaker.
But by taking the ball out of Curry's hands, especially in the second half, the Thunder forced the Warriors to rely on supplemental scorers. It often worked for Golden State -- Mo Speights, Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa and Klay Thompson all had big scoring nights -- but the typically flawless Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll didn't materialize much or result in a lot of open floor easy scores. Credit Serge Ibaka for scaring the Warriors just enough that Golden State often screened from somewhere else.
On the other end, OKC opened the game by attacking Curry with Westbrook off the ball and raced to a 9-0 lead. As they do, the Warriors adjusted quickly, hiding Curry on Dion Waiters, who couldn't make the reigning MVP pay. That position remains OKC's weak spot: Waiters was just 1 for 5 from the floor. (He did disrupt the Warriors' offense in the second half with a few steals; he remains a great ballhawk despite middling defensive contributions overall.)
Westbrook had a tougher time scoring on Thompson for the rest of the game, though he pulled out some Westbrookian attacks to the rim during the Thunder's madcap comeback. Curry can't guard Westbrook, not even close. So OKC has to find a counter at shooting guard or use Waiters in picks-and-rolls to keep Curry from getting a breather on defense. That's the weak spot in the Warriors defense, especially against violent point guards like Russ.
Durant is really the one the Warriors need to worry about. Leonard is the only defender in the league who can consistently limit KD and the Warriors aren't special in that regard. They don't possess some other secret Kryptonian weapon that renders Durant mortal. Durant hung 40 on a combination of Barnes, Green and Andre Iguodala. The Warriors contested 18 of KD's 25 shots, and he still shot a shade under 50 percent while drawing a ton of fouls. He's too long and too damn good. In the second half Billy Donovan had Durant run a series 3-5 picks-and-rolls, drawing Andrew Bogut away from the rim. Bogut was useless on those possessions (as Mark Jackson gleefully noted) and Durant slipped to the rim on two dribbles with ease.
The Durant puzzle is impossible to solve, though getting Festus Ezeli back might help with those Bogut blow-bys. The thing is, the Warriors are good enough to survive a 40-point night from Durant and still win. Oklahoma City needs more defense. With André Roberson out, Waiters is really the best option at the two-guard spot, and Thompson got some nice looks a little too easily in the first half. Ibaka (who was invisible on offense) did a nice job limiting Green's scoring, but he and Steven Adams allowed too many Golden State offensive rebounds.
The Thunder only have one elite positional defender (Ibaka) and a few other plus defenders. The Warriors have two or three elites (Green, Thompson and Iguodala, if it were possible to assign Iguodala a position) and a few more pluses. That's the difference in this matchup: one team has a lot of places in which to look for stops, the other team mostly has prayer.
Still, OKC is in as good of a position as anyone to make the Warriors sweat this spring if they meet. Even the Cavaliers and Spurs folded when down big to Golden State recently. OKC never even flinched. That's worth some credit even were it all for naught. These Thunder aren't afraid of the Warriors or anyone, and that's worth respecting.
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Unstoppable: If Kawhi Leonard can't slow Stephen Curry, maybe nobody can