The Oklahoma City Thunder were never going to win Game 5. At least, that’s what it felt like for most of the night — not against that team in that situation in that arena. Though for one long moment, as a Kevin Durant 3-pointer hung in the air with 35 seconds remaining, nobody managed a breath. For a moment, the impossible seemed suddenly plausible.
But the ball caromed off the rim and into the hands of the Golden State Warriors, and Oklahoma City's hope of a comeback victory went with it. Oracle could once again find oxygen.
While Thursday night’s victory may not have been any kind of surprise considering the team we’re talking about here, the way it was won was interesting, to say the least. For the first time in recent memory — hell, maybe even the last two seasons — the Warriors didn’t take this one on their terms; the Thunder forced them to play their way.
Billy Donovan has been deservedly lauded for the decisions he’s made over the last two rounds. First, he outmaneuvered Gregg Popovich, changing rotations mid-series in a conference semifinals that was arguably controlled by San Antonio until the final five quarters, when the Spurs lost hold of the rope and couldn’t deal with the size and length of Oklahoma City’s frontcourt. Then, through the first four games against reigning Coach of the Year Steve Kerr and Golden State — a team that plays with a much, much different style than San Antonio, mind you — he showed flexibility with his lineups most coaches would be terrified to demonstrate at this point of the season. He’s made better adjustments on the fly than two of the NBA’s best coaches. But it was Kerr’s turn Thursday.
Much has been made of the Warriors’ murderous ‘Death Lineup’ over the last two years. The Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry group has destroyed opponents, forcing them to succumb to relentless pressure, speed at every position and killer shooting all over the floor. But this lineup has encountered a major problem over the first four games of these conference finals: When the Thunder go small and play the game Golden State wants to suck the opposition into playing, they’re bigger, faster and stronger.
The Death Lineup has been on a suicide mission until Game 5. It was outscored by more than 35 points per 100 possessions in 34 minutes on the court. Oklahoma City was playing Golden State’s game and eating them alive.
So, instead of staying with the status quo and playing the way the Warriors have played since Kerr took over, he decided to play the Thunder’s way. And he beat them at it. Golden State stayed big all night, resorting to its trademark small-ball lineup for only two minutes at the end. Andrew Bogut, whose play in this series had been ineffective for four games, was a monster, controlling the paint all night and forcing OKC into difficult forays to the basket.
Consider this: Oklahoma City, the best rebounding team in basketball, was outrebounded by Golden State in the 30 minutes Bogut was on the floor. This may seem like a minor statistic, but that’s one of the biggest advantages the Thunder have — they kill you on the glass. You could argue it was the single greatest factor in their victory over the Spurs.
Ah, but there’s more Bogut talk for the Bogut-lovers out there (this is what you came for when this series started — Bogut talk all day, right?). Oklahoma City averaged nearly 20 field goals made in the restricted area at a 65.3 percent clip through the first four games; on Thursday, they 8-of-17 on such attempts. Furthermore, when the big Australian was in the game, the Thunder went just 3-of-10 in the restricted area.
Golden State decided it had to keep Oklahoma City out of the paint, and the plan worked despite the Thunder launching 30 shots from the 3-point line and connecting on 13 of them. For the first time in the series, it felt like the defending champs’ plan of attack was better than its challenger’s.
And yet, this is where things seemed a little wonky. Despite the Warriors playing big-ball in Game 5, Oklahoma City still ran out their best version of a small-ball lineup (Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Russell Westbrook) for 10 minutes. It was outscored by three points during that time. And in a weird twist, the lineup that ran the Thunder off the floor in a six-minute stretch almost looked like something out of a preseason game. The five-man group of Leandro Barbosa, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights outscored Oklahoma City by 35.9 points per 100 possessions. If you’re the Thunder, that can’t be the lineup that makes the difference against you on the scoreboard.
Donovan has shown the ability throughout these playoffs to mix things up, not just mid-series, but mid-game. And yet, interestingly enough, the pairing that killed the big-ball Spurs, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter — OKC outscored San Antonio by 27 points in the 66 minutes the two spent on the court at the same time — played one measly minute together Thursday. Was Donovan apprehensive to utilize them because he felt the Warriors would counter immediately with small-ball, or was it simply not a part of the game plan heading into that elimination game? Why play that small group so much when Golden State spent so much time with a traditional center on the floor?
On the flip side, was Kerr’s decision to all but abandon the Death Lineup more of an act of desperation than it may seem on the surface? His starting lineup is obviously effective as well, but it’s interesting to see Golden State not utilize one of, if not the best lineup in the NBA. If the Thunder are ready to play big again, can Golden State beat them at their own style in three consecutive games? The moves and countermoves over the final two games are going to be fascinating to watch.
Most NBA coaches will tell you the majority of series adjustments come within the first few games. At that point, you already know what the other team is doing, and you just play things out from there. But here, as we head into Game 6, it feels like the chess match has only just begun.