The Golden State Warriors didn’t just lose Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and the rest of the greatest team in NBA history have been humiliated by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Warriors, who finished the regular season a record-setting 73–9, didn’t lose two consecutive games all year. They’ve now lost back-to-back games by a combined 52 points, and it’s looking extremely unlikely that they’ll be able to stave off elimination by winning three in a row. Teams in their position—down 3–1 in the conference finals—have an all-time record of 2–37.
It’s far from unprecedented for amazing regular-season teams to lose in the playoffs—think of the 2007 New England Patriots, or the 2001 Seattle Mariners. It is unusual in the NBA, though, where four of the five teams that have won at least 68 games in a single season went on to win the title. (The Warriors are the sixth. The one exception to the Rule of 68: the 1972–73 Boston Celtics.)
So, what’s going on with the Warriors? ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss floated a couple of theories in an interview with Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Below, I’ve collected a bunch more, listing them in order from least to most plausible.
The Warriors were never really that good.
Remember, we’re starting with least plausible. So yeah, this is dumb. Golden State won 67 games last year, seven more than any other NBA team, then won the championship without losing more than two games in any series. The Warriors were even better in 2015–16, piling up 73 more wins; Golden State’s total of 140 victories in back-to-back seasons is just one fewer than the 1995–97 Chicago Bulls’ all-time record. The Warriors did have a (relatively) easy path to the championship last year, beating four teams—the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Cavs—that all had injured point guards. But the fact that they caught some breaks doesn’t mean they lucked into a title. The Thunder are by far the best team the Curry-Thompson-Green Warriors have faced in the postseason, so it makes sense that they would struggle more than they have in the past. But not this much.
Let’s pause near the top of this long list of explanations, rationalizations, and excuses to give a shoutout to the LOL-nothing-matters crowd. In every sport, the playoffs are a crapshoot—the season ain’t over until the narrative-building random-number generator sings. But the NBA playoffs are less of a crapshoot than all of those other crapshoots. This isn’t hockey. The Thunder aren’t smashing the Warriors because Serge Ibaka accidentally blocked the ball with his face one time or Kevin Durant kicked the ball into the net with his skate. You could argue that the Warriors might have won Game 1 if a couple small things had gone their way. You could argue that a bunch of unpredictable, uncontrollable factors—injuries and foul calls and bounces of the ball—determine who wins and loses a great number of NBA games. You cannot argue that the Warriors have outplayed the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State might be ahead in this series if the league gave out bonus points for nailing opposing players in the nuts or if gravity worked differently. But under current NBA rules, and considering these games are played on Earth, the Thunder have earned their 3–1 series lead.
Steve Kerr is screwing up.
On Hang Up and Listen, Strauss argued that the Warriors’ coach made a mistake in Game 3 by going away from the team’s defensive plan. In his previous eight games against the Warriors, Russell Westbrook shot 34 percent from the field. Golden State’s primary defender against Westbrook in those eight games was Stephen Curry. In Game 3, though, Kerr switched Curry off of Westbrook due to an early foul, and the Thunder scored 72 points in the first half on their way to a 133–105 win.
In Game 4, Curry was back on Westbrook … and the Thunder scored 72 points in the first half on their way to a 118–94 win. OK, so maybe that was a mistake?
As Lowe acknowledged, there don’t seem to be any right answers for the Warriors this series, and so it seems silly to blame Kerr for much of anything. Deadspin’s Kevin Draper pointed out that Warriors special assistant Nick U’Ren got much of the credit for Golden State’s series-tilting decision to move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup during last year’s finals. So, maybe this is all U’Ren’s fault. What have you done for us lately, video guy?
Billy Donovan is doing a fantastic job.
It’s generally been a very, very bad idea to hire a famous college basketball coach to run your NBA team. Look at this list and weep: Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Mike Montgomery, Jerry Tarkanian. Brad Stevens, who made the transition from Butler to the Boston Celtics, looks like a huge exception to that rule. Billy Donovan, who led the Florida Gators to two national titles before moving on to the Thunder this season, might be another. The high-rolling pro basketball gambler and Twitter gadfly Haralabos Voulgaris hates pretty much every NBA coach. He treated Donovan with particular disdain, roasting him as recently as a month ago for his poor lineup construction and inability to understand simple pro basketball concepts.
Here’s what Voulgaris says now:
What has Donovan done right? He’s staggered the minutes of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, ensuring that one of the Thunder’s two stars is on the floor at all times. Rather than benching Andre Roberson after a poor start against the Warriors, Donovan unleashed him as a cutter on offense, finding a way to keep his best defender on the floor. He also decided to take one of his best offensive players, Enes Kanter, out of the rotation, because the Turkish big man doesn’t match up well against the Warriors.
Voulgaris is impressed:
So is Magic Johnson:
If Donovan is such a genius, then why doesn’t this rank higher on the list? Because a coach—even a great one—can only do so much. Donovan is putting his players in position to win, but it’s the players who are doing the winning.
The Warriors got tuckered out chasing the all-time wins record.
With Golden State lurching toward a record-setting 73rd regular-season victory, Kerr urged his star players to rest. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss reported back in April, Draymond Green wasn’t having it:
“Think about the year we’ve had: started 24–0, haven’t lost two in a row all year, have had several streaks of seven-plus wins in a row, yet we’re still sitting here needing three in a row,” Green said. “That tells you how hard this is to do.
“So to get this far and kind of just tank it and say, ‘Aw, never mind.’ … Let’s face it, we probably will never get to this point again. That’s why it’s only been done one time. I think most guys in the locker room are all-in.”
Did the Warriors’ refusal to take it easy—both at the tail end of the year and throughout the arduous regular season—do them in during the playoffs? Here’s what Strauss said on Hang Up and Listen:
I think they burned up a lot in chasing the regular-season wins record. … 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.
Even if you agree with that premise, it’s impossible to say how much the Warriors might have benefited from punting on the record and resting their starters. Consider the case of the San Antonio Spurs, who won a remarkable 67 games this year in large part due to their amazing, minutes-eating bench. The well-rested Spurs, whose starters played an average of less than 25 minutes per game in the first round of the playoffs, got rocked by the Thunder in Round 2. It doesn’t matter if your starters are tired or if they’re in peak condition: Oklahoma City is coming for you.
Draymond Green is having an awful, awful series.
Steph Curry, the NBA’s unanimous MVP, is the best player in basketball. Draymond Green is the guy who allows the Warriors to play the way they play. Green’s passing ability unlocks the Warriors’ offense—when opponents double-team Curry, the undersized power forward leads a devastating 4-on-3 attack, penetrating and finding open shooters. On defense, Green shuts down opposing centers, enabling the Warriors to crush opponents on the other end with its small-ball Death Lineup.
Thus far against the Thunder, Green has kicked Steven Adams in the downtown business district and … done nothing else that’s worth dropping into the back half of this sentence. Green has been unfathomably bad against Oklahoma City. He has been bad by his own standards:
And he has been bad by historic standards:
For the last two seasons, Green has transcended his physical limitations and maximized his considerable skills, outwitting and outrunning bigger players and bullying smaller ones. The Thunder have exposed his weaknesses and blunted his strengths. Oklahoma City’s long-limbed interior defenders have made it tough for him to finish at the rim, and he’s struggled to defend the basket on defense. Green, who is fueled by grievance, could make the Warriors great again; he did it in last year’s NBA Finals, closing the series strong after shooting eight for 30 in the first three games. If he doesn’t get better fast, Golden State will lose, badly.
Steph Curry is hurt.
Steve Kerr says he isn’t:
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who might have better sources than Kerr, says he is:
Curry has been a shell of himself—missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something—no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Nineteen points on 20 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
Wojnarowski’s description—“no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price”—is a bit of an exaggeration. Curry drove past Oklahoma City’s big men repeatedly in Game 4. But when he got to the rim, he biffed layups that he usually makes.
Curry missed six full games in the first two rounds of the playoffs due to an injured right ankle and a sprained right medial collateral ligament. In his first game back from the knee injury, he scored the most points ever in an overtime period, putting up 17 in five minutes to beat the Portland Trail Blazers. Nevertheless, I believe the following three things to be true: (1) Curry is clearly off; (2) though Curry is clearly off, he’s only off a very tiny bit; (3) Curry is off a very tiny bit against the team that’s best positioned to take advantage of even the slightest physical weakness. On offense, Curry has to dribble around and shoot over five defenders who play like they have a combined 15 arms. On defense, he has to keep up with Russell Westbrook. Nobody keeps up with Russell Westbrook.
I wrote a piece in February headlined “Stephen Curry Is Not a Human Being.” I’d now like to issue a correction: Stephen Curry is a human being. ESPN’s Pablo Torre, who wrote a long feature about how Curry overcame his chronic ankle injuries, put it best:
The Thunder are a matchup nightmare for the Warriors.
Golden State’s small-ball quintet of Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes has obliterated the NBA for the last two seasons. But in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder have murdered the Warriors’ fabled Death Lineup.
The Thunder’s smallest fivesome, meanwhile, is doing serious work.
The Warriors’ small players aren’t quicker than the Thunder’s, and they definitely aren’t bigger or stronger. Oklahoma City’s “little guys” are enormous. Draymond Green, who’s listed at six-foot-seven, is more agile than most players his size. But the Thunder present matchup problems up and down the lineup. Kevin Durant is 6-foot-11—maybe even 7 feet. Serge Ibaka is a long-armed 6-foot-10 forward who blocks shots like a center and shoots like a guard. Russell Westbrook is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and plays like height and weight are constructs that do not apply to him.
Golden State likes to play fast. The Thunder can play faster. Golden State zips the ball around the court, using crisp passes to find wide-open shooters. Durant has made a snack of those crisp passes. The Warriors’ small lineup usually makes the court seem bigger—Curry and Thompson stretch defenses out to near half court, leaving their teammates to dart around and through all manner of wide-open spaces. The Thunder have shrunk the court and closed off those wide-open spaces.
Another theory, one that I didn’t include in this story, is that the Warriors just aren’t playing well. Although this is undeniably correct, I didn’t mention it because it’s both (1) unsatisfyingly nonspecific; and (2) takes away all agency from the team that’s making the Warriors play so badly. I (mostly) don’t believe the Warriors are doing this to themselves; Oklahoma City is doing this to Golden State. The Warriors have no room to shoot, no room to pass, and no room to breathe.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are awesome.
Let’s stipulate that Draymond Green has stunk and that Steph Curry isn’t playing like an MVP. This seems like a minor problem compared with the fact that the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the Warriors do not.
As Jack Hamilton wrote in Slate on Tuesday, “[LeBron] James aside, Westbrook is the most physically talented player in the NBA, a guard with the vertical explosiveness of Jordan and Kobe and the speed and quickness of Iverson or Chris Paul, while physically stronger than any of them.” Durant, for his part, is the second-youngest player in league history to reach 15,000 points. When you put one of the best athletes in NBA history alongside one of the best scorers in NBA history, incredible, filthy things are going to happen. After Game 4, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote that the Thunder duo “are the most terrifying, physically dominant two-man force in basketball since prime Kobe and Shaq.”
Durant and Westbrook led the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012, with assists from James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City traded Harden after that season and hasn’t made it back to the finals since. But the Thunder haven’t just been missing Harden. They’ve missed Westbrook (he got hurt in the 2013 playoffs), and Ibaka (he got hurt in the 2014 playoffs), and Durant (he was hurt for most of 2014-15, and the Thunder didn’t even make the postseason).
Everyone’s healthy now, and just in time. Westbrook and Durant, both 27, are still in their primes, and still under contract in OKC. They already took out the Spurs, who finished the year 67–15 and appeared to be the Warriors’ toughest challenger. Now, they’re terrorizing Golden State. If the Thunder finish off the Warriors, it will already be the greatest run in postseason history. If they take out LeBron and the Cavs, they should just shut down the league. (If they take out Bismack Biyombo and the Raptors, that’d be cool too, I guess.)
The Thunder are playing really, really well.
It’s tempting to fantasize about how many championships the Thunder might have won if Durant and Westbrook hadn’t gotten hurt. Those sorts of counterfactuals are fun but dumb. As previously discussed, stuff happens, every year and to every team. And right now, in this specific matchup against this week’s version of the Golden State Warriors, the stuff is happening to the other guys and the Thunder look like the greatest team in NBA history.
Billy Donovan is making all the right calls. The guys on the court are playing smart, and they’re playing together. Steven Adams is controlling the paint if not his nethers, Dion Waiters is looking like James Harden’s puffier younger brother, and Andre Roberson—Andre Roberson!—is knocking down shots. Kevin Durant is forcing turnovers on one end and drilling jumpers at the other. In Game 5, Russell Westbrook might destroy the sun.
On Hang Up and Listen, Ethan Sherwood Strauss said the Thunder were “peaking at the right time.” Though Strauss felt abashed to lean on such a sports cliché, there’s not really a better way to say it. The Thunder weren’t all that impressive during the regular season. They’re way more than impressive now.
Research assistance by Darian Alexander.