On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca talked to ESPN’s Golden State Warriors beat writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss about what, if anything, is wrong with the greatest team in NBA history. A transcript of that interview is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
Josh Levin: On Sunday night in Oklahoma City, the Thunder beat the Warriors 133–105 to go up 2–1 in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t really love the phrase “wasn’t as close as the score would indicate,” but it’s a valid phrase to use for this game. The lead got way, way up there; it was a lot more than 28. What’s going on with the Warriors, and do you feel like this game was just a blip, or are there bigger problems here?
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: I think this is what’s fun about the playoffs, where we’re not sure if we’re overreacting or we’re just reacting. You’ll always have someone trying to be savvy—they’re like the political pundits who fancy themselves serious and above the fray, who say, “No, no, things are fine, don’t overreact,” and then the season is over. I don’t want to underrate what’s going on.
At the same time, every championship team, or almost every championship team, has a moment like this—a moment of extreme doubt, a moment where you don’t know if they’re truly going to regain their form. The Warriors had two of them last year, when they went down 1–2 against the Grizzlies and down 1–2 against the Cavs. But in the case of this particular series, other than the Thunder being damned good, there are a few issues.
One of them is that Steph Curry doesn’t totally look like himself coming back from his knee sprain. He still has pain in his knee, he has not said he’s 100 percent. I don’t think he really had the burst on Sunday night to beat big men off the dribble and to really get the space that he needs off switches.
The Thunder are just so talented that when the Warriors went to their Death Lineup, their small-ball lineup with Draymond Green at center, the Thunder pushed that lead in the first half from 13 to 25 at the close—and then piled on more in the second half. It’s such a great asset when part of your “small-ball look” is seven-foot Kevin Durant at power forward, and Serge Ibaka who’s also quite mobile. The Thunder have a small-ball look that can at least counteract what the Warriors are doing.
I also thought that the Warriors foolishly chased offensive rebounds in that small-ball look, and that opened them up to getting attacked in transition. Finally, I think the Warriors have a sick defensive set up for containing the Thunder, and they went away from it one minute into the game after Curry picked up a foul.
Levin: What is that setup and what did they go to as an alternate?
Strauss: The Thunder’s best defensive wing is Andre Roberson. He’s an iffy three-point shooter. The Warriors do not guard him on the perimeter—they actually have Andrew Bogut with the assignment on Roberson, so a center guarding a shooting guard. All Bogut does is hang out in the paint.
Then you also have Draymond Green guarding Steven Adams. Steven Adams doesn’t shoot, so Draymond Green, when he’s not accidentally kicking Steven Adams in the nuts, is sagging off him on defense, so he’s around the paint.
Klay Thompson, a shooting guard, is guarding Serge Ibaka. Serge Ibaka essentially acts like a shooting guard, even though he’s a center-slash-power forward and can’t really punish Thompson in that way. And he’s not a great three-point shooter, so Thompson is sagging off of him.
So basically there’s nothing in the paint. The only weakness perhaps is that your star player and perhaps least imposing defensive player, Steph Curry, is the one chasing Westbrook around, but I still think the positives outweigh that particular negative.
One minute into the game, Curry bit on a Westbrook pump fake. Steve Kerr, who’s done an amazing coaching job in his two seasons with the Warriors, immediately jumped up and yelled out to Steph to switch the coverage and to guard Roberson so he didn’t risk getting another foul. And then the Thunder were off to the races from there. So I think the Warriors abandoned the defense that was best for them and I think it really hurt them.
Stefan Fatsis: The Warriors did come back—it was 40–40 in the second quarter. That was the moment in typical Warriors games where you go, “Oh, OK, this is now reverting to form, and they will be up by 13 at half and we’ll be on our way to what is supposed to happen.” But the exact opposite happened.
Strauss: I think a lot of that was missing open shots, which is going to happen from time to time. In the Memphis series, in the Cavs series, you have this variance when it comes to three-point shooting. The old cliché that coaches use, that it’s a “make-or-miss league,” is pretty true. You can’t tell readers this, you can’t tell fans this, because it sounds like you’re making excuses. But sometimes, they shoot open shots and those shots—they miss.
Offensively, even though Kerr was criticizing his team for taking quick shots, I don’t really buy that. I think those shots are fine, and I see a totally different reality where they take all those quick shots and those shots go in and nobody has any issue with them. The real problem wasn’t so much the offensive execution; it was the transition defense where they got roasted.
Mike Pesca: Maybe it was such a blowout that there was no turning point in Game 3. But, two-and-a-half minutes left in the first half, the score was hovering in the low double digits, and I said to myself, “Alright, the Warriors need to get this to single digits, eight, go in at halftime, got a shot.” And it went to 25.
During that sequence, there were breaks to the basket, but boom, the Thunder would come and block it. And I said to myself, “My God, I’m not saying the Warriors don’t want it more or aren’t hustling. But it does seem like the Thunder are just jumping out of the gym.” I just sensed that there was a lot more intensity on the Thunder side during that minute, and then the game got out-of-reach.
Strauss: The Warriors were a bit flat, and a lot of people’s take on the game was “the Warriors gave up.” I don’t know if I necessarily felt that way. I don’t think that every time you get your ass kicked it’s for lack of effort. Sometimes the other team gets rolling and especially in the Thunder’s home arena—that building is an incredible place. The atmosphere, it’s just so galvanized, and the Thunder get a lot of energy from that, especially when things are going well. I think it’s a bit of both. I think the Warriors perhaps didn’t bring a lot of their energy, and maybe they lost their composure.
They don’t love being reffed by Scott Foster and Tony Brothers. I think they went in thinking, “Oh shit.” They’ve had four playoff losses with Scott Foster reffing, and I don’t believe there’s any bias but I believe that teams often buy into that and worry when they get certain refs. And then when a series of events happen and they don’t like certain calls, they can assume that the sky is falling and play worse from there. So I think that might’ve been a factor, too.
Levin: Draymond Green had a really fascinating game in a negative sense. Everything that he does well typically to make the Warriors great—he did the opposite. He didn’t finish around the rim. The most notable thing he did was kick somebody in the nuts. This was just a terrible game from him and a huge contrast from what he usually provides to this team.
Strauss: Dion Waiters was also blowing by him at points of the game. It was the worst game of his career. Especially when you throw in that nut shot, where things really went off the rails from there. I’m not sure if it’s because Steven Adams is kicking his ass in certain ways, or that’s just how it goes in a small sample size. He was awful. The most fascinating thing that he did was this bizarre leg kick to the nuts that we’re analyzing like it’s the Zapruder film. It’s a testament to how bad things went.
Fatsis: A testament to the testicles. We are speaking before the NBA announces whether or not Green is going to get suspended. He was assessed with a flagrant 1 foul. He was on the court, you could read his lips saying, “I’m going up, I’m not trying to kick him in the nuts.” Everyone seemed to agree on TNT after the game that it was inadvertent, but he was also trying to sell contact to draw a foul. That very well could be cause for a one-game suspension. Your colleague Tom Haberstroh did a very thorough history of the groinal-contact issue in the NBA. What did you make of it courtside? Do you think this is suspension worthy?
Strauss: What increasingly fascinates me about the way sports are analyzed is how retroactive it is. How people with creeping determinism convince themselves that they felt a way that they didn’t actually feel at the time. At the moment, nobody knew what had happened. People are now saying, “It was so obvious, it’s so blatant.” They didn’t feel that way at the moment of impact, when Steven Adams went down. The announcers were wondering if it was his thumb. It was not his thumb—spoiler alert. When you use slo-mo replay, I think people interpolate an amount of intent that’s not necessarily there. I think Draymond was trying to sell the foul and he was adamant about that after the game. Obviously he’s an unreliable narrator because he wants a certain outcome from all of this. His voice was quavering a bit like a man who was under interrogation.
Fatsis: He was pinned against the wall in the hallway for that interview.
Strauss: It reminded me of a similar incident when we were in Dallas last year, and Shaun Livingston was guarding Dirk Nowitzki, and his hand went from behind Dirk and reached up and hit him in the nuts. Then they played it on the Jumbotron and the crowd just went crazy with rage and Livingston was on the defensive. After the game, he was up against the wall with his hands up saying, “I didn’t mean to do it!” And then Andre Iguodala, who loves tweaking the racial situations of the NBA, shouted into the scrum, “Look how they got the black man over there!” It was an absurd scene.
I asked Livingston about it after the game, and he noted that it was a little bit similar. Everyone thinks you did it and even if you didn’t mean to, people are going to assume things, and Draymond hasn’t bought himself much goodwill with a lot of people.
Levin: When the Thunder play really well, they look like the greatest collection of talent anyone has ever seen. The question with them has always been about coaching, and how they don’t play team ball like the Spurs or the Warriors. Are they playing more together as a team now? When you watch a performance like that, it’s hard not to leap to conclusions.
Strauss: They’re playing a lot better. They’re playing like a 65-win team. Their coach Billy Donovan has made some decisions that make them a more formidable squad. Late in the season, he started staggering minutes so he reduced the amount of time that they’d be playing without both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. That made them better. In this particular case, he’s unleashed Durant as a power forward, which Durant doesn’t love doing, but it’s certainly a strong option and a necessary one in this series. I think they’ve made proper adjustments and here’s a sports cliché, they’re peaking at the right time.
Pesca: They’re playing like a 65-win team, that’s an excellent point. Golden State, they’re a 73-win team, but not if they were playing the Thunder every game. If you simulated a schedule where it was Golden State against OKC, maybe we should only expect Golden State to win 55 percent of the games.
Strauss: Is Golden State the same 73-win team they were during the season? I’m not convinced they are.
Fatsis: They’ve played 95 games in the regular season and playoffs.
Strauss: I think they burned up a lot in chasing the regular-season wins record. This gets tricky because people get offended, and it’s another situation like Draymond’s kick-to-the-nuts where you really don’t know.
Curry’s first injury—which he suffered in the playoffs—was a noncontact injury when he hurt his ankle. Typically, that speaks to some wear and tear. We can’t know that for sure, just like we can’t know if that injury contributed to the knee sprain that he suffered later, in the first game when he came back.
I’m not making an excuse for them necessarily with the 73 wins thing, I just see that as a risk. You’re heightening your risk when you chase 73 wins and when you push yourself incredibly hard at the end of the season to close it out. It’s a heightened risk, it’s done for understandable reasons, but I do think that probably reduces your overall probability for winning a championship.
Levin: Well, the fact that the Spurs didn’t play their starters big minutes, that’s the reason they lost, right? Because they weren’t tuned up enough for the playoffs. They were rusty.
Strauss: That or their guards suck. When you look at that retrospectively, how did that team win 67 games? I know they had the No. 1 defense by far, but the Thunder put their talent in stark relief.
Levin: The Warriors haven’t faced that much adversity this year. They did last year throughout the playoffs. We’ve talked about the hypothetical of if they lose, and all the recriminations. But if they win, then the fact they had to come back from the depths here against the Thunder will make it a more impressive accomplishment—will make it a more exciting series, will make it a more exciting championship potentially. They’re going to be tested, and as a fan I’m really excited to see what happens the rest of this series. And if they make it through, bully for them.
Strauss: That’s what makes the playoffs fun, are these moments of doubt. It’s certainly more entertaining. Hell, it’d be entertaining if they lost, if they ultimately got bounced out and we had to have that recrimination-fest. I think in sports we often conflate probability with inevitability. I think a lot of people thought this would be easy. It’s not—and it’s all the more entertaining for it.