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The Thunder’s athleticism is spooking the Warriors

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The Warriors have never faced an opponent as physically intimidating as the Thunder. It's showing.

There's something beautiful about the way the Warriors play basketball, with tons of ball movement, unselfish play, picture-perfect jumpers and a perpetual search for the best possible look. Basketball purists fawned over this Warriors team for reasons that went beyond their 73 regular-season wins. They were doing so because of the way Steve Kerr's crew notched all those victories.

But as much fun as it is to watch a team whip the ball around the perimeter and knock down open threes, basketball at its core is still a game of athleticism. More often than not, bigger, faster and stronger wins out.

And the Warriors' opponent is bigger, faster and stronger. The Thunder handily beat the 67-win Spurs last series by using those physical advantages. Now, following a dominant 133-105 Game 3 home victory, the Thunder have the winningest team in NBA history looking rattled and confused.

Oklahoma City's success starts defensively, where its size, strength and length give the Warriors all sort of fits. The openings Stephen Curry and Co. leveraged all season into highlight dunks and open jumpers no longer exist. Seventy-seven percent of the Warriors' shots in this series against the Thunder have been contested, according to NBA.com's tracking data.

The Warriors didn't suddenly forget how they won a title last season and set the all-time wins record this year. The difference is their go-to plays no longer repeatedly result in wide open looks.

Take the Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll, widely considered the NBA's most dangerous play. Switch it, and you're essentially handing the Warriors three points by forcing a big man to guard Curry. Momentarily hedge, and Curry either gains an uncontested jumper or a clear lane to the hoop. Trap Curry, and Green gets the ball at the top of the key in a 4-on-3 situation. Opponents have searched for answers to this play for two years, to no avail.

But on Tuesday night, OKC found one. They realized their athletes are actually more athletic than those on Golden State.

By now, we're all familiar with the Warriors' dreaded Death Lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Green. That small unit outscored opponents by a gazillion point this season (OK, just 47 per 100 possessions, per NBA.com). Many teams figure they can't match Golden State's quickness and speed, so they try to go big and punish them inside.

But the Thunder are not most teams. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan tried something new Tuesday night: a center-less, five-man grouping of Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. That "small" lineup played 12 minutes in Game 3 and outscored the Warriors by 30 points over that span. Many of those minutes came against the Warriors' Death Lineup, which has amazingly been outscored by 18.7 points per 100 possessions in 22 minutes this series, per NBA.com.

For once, Golden State had no answers. It wasn't for lack of trying.

There's a reason we highlighted this particular pick-and-roll play before the playoffs (see item No. 2). Sets like this have flummoxed opponents for nearly two years now, both because of the pick-and-roll itself and all the action that comes before it. This is the type of sequence that usually clears an easy path for Curry and Green to do their thing.

Technically, it worked here too. The Thunder blitzed Curry, who made the correct read and dropped a pocket pass off to Green with nothing but open floor between him and the hoop. The difference is most teams don't have athletic freaks like Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka manning the back line.

Even the Curry and Green pick-and-rolls that technically worked were sniffed out by the Thunder's rangy wing players. This Thunder trap created the 4-on-3 scenario the Warriors desired, and Iguodala was momentarily open. That he didn't immediately fire away shows how rattled he and his teammates are by Oklahoma City's speed.

These plays are emblematic of the issues Golden State ran into in Game 3 and all series, save for one big stretch from Curry in the third quarter of Game 2. The Thunder had no issue defending any of the Warriors' pet plays in Game 3, and Golden State looked even more puzzled with every subsequent possession.

The Curry-Green pick-and-roll wasn't the only play that failed. Flare screens for Thompson, even when they resulted in Thunder switches, weren't leading to open shots.

You can almost see the wheels spinning in Thompson's head. I know I'm supposed to be open, but I'm not, but since I normally am, I'm going to shoot anyway and wow that didn't work.

Meanwhile, the other Splash Brother ran into similar issues against all Thunder lineups.

Steven Adams became just the second player this season to officially block a Curry three-pointer (Danny Green was the other). While Curry did manage 24 points in under 30 minutes, he finished just 3-for-11 from deep.

More problematic: Only two of his 13 first-half shots came below the foul line. Curry launching bombs is obviously a decent strategy, but his ability to break down opposing defenses ignites the Warriors' explosive offense. He was unable to do so in Game 3, which meant more jumpers, which meant more long rebounds, which led to waves of Thunder fast-break points.

OKC broke out for a whopping 29 points in transition in Game 3, 15 more than the Warriors surrender in an average game this postseason. Many of these came off missed jumpers like the play above, but others were off blocked shots and other defensive stops.

The Thunder made it a point to push the pace whenever possible. The Thunder had 108 total possessions in Game 3 and have been averaging 103 this series. To put that in perspective, only six teams averaged over 100 possessions per game in the regular season, none of which were the Thunder.

Donovan has given his team and its two uber-athletic stars the green light to go. Durant had 13 fast break points on Tuesday, while Westbrook had 12. That's how you turn one of the best defenses in the NBA into the Washington Generals.

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Can the Warriors figure out a way to get back into this series? Perhaps encouraging Curry to take the ball to the hoop more will help. Maybe the Warriors need to concede offensive rebounds to get back on defense. Draymond Green pulling his head out of his rear would help, too, if he's even allowed to play in Game 4 following his kick to Steven Adams' groin.

But before finding schematic solutions, the Warriors need to ask themselves a different question: How do they get their players to believe again? As of now, they are playing like they have no hope against the Thunder's superior physical tools and athleticism. It's not often you see self-doubt creeping into the defending champions' brains, and certainly they can draw on past success to push themselves through.

Then again, this Thunder team might be one of the most athletic the league has ever seen. There just may not be an answer.