As of last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder are leading the Golden State Warriors 3-1: a result that almost no one expected heading into the Western Conference Finals. Given the Warriors’ record-breaking 73-9 regular season record, this series now has legendary upset potential.
Going into the playoffs, Golden State played dominantly to the point where it went beyond just their W-L record. They were beating both bad and good opponents by an absurd margin. Here’s a look at the kind of company that the Warriors historically have for their regular season success.
I would write something like “these aren’t your dad’s teams,” but given some of the teams on the list, it’s probably safe to assume that many of them are. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that within the top ten greatest teams ever per SRS, only the 1972 Bucks and 2016 Spurs didn’t end up winning an NBA title, with the Bucks losing to the No. 3 team on the list and this year’s San Antonio team losing to Oklahoma City.
If the Thunder can close out their series against the Warriors, they will have the highest combined SRS of two consecutively defeated opponents ever. Here’s the secret to how Oklahoma City is now one game away from making history.
The Thunder brought the Warriors’ three-point shooting to earth.
Going from a collective .416 to a .355 three-point percentage makes a huge difference for a team like Golden State that shoots more than a third of its field goal attempts from the arc. This resulted in a drop off from a 114.5 regular season offensive rating to a 103.9 offensive rating in the series so far. The Thunder are making the Warriors play more like the Bucks.
In order to understand how much worse the Warriors are shooting this series, it’s important to look at Curry’s return to mortality. Curry’s 24/5/5 (rounded up) box-score stat line on a 58 percent TS% might look deceptively pretty, but consider his 30/5/7 average on 67 percent TS% from the regular season. His current performance is quite different from what many people, myself included, considered to maybe be the best individual season ever. When you’re that good, the standards are that high and make that much of a difference for your team.
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Kevin Durant (who has done excellently in defending Curry in isolation situations) and the rest of the Thunder’s defense may not be shutting him down, but they don’t need to if they’re holding him beneath his averages on a mix of strong isolation defense and giving Curry different looks. Of course, Curry missing wide open three pointers by virtue of bad luck and possibly injuries also helps, even if he denies it.
That’s not to say Curry is to blame for his team’s disappointing performance in the series. Klay Thompson’s subpar .317 three point shooting percentage hasn’t helped either. In fact, Draymond Green might actually be the biggest factor in his team’s sinking performance.
What’s up with Green?
Per Basketball Reference’s calculated offensive rating stat, the Warriors with Green on the floor have averaged an 84 offensive rating, which would put them as the worst team in the league. While this is a box score-calculated +/- stat, rather than a more predictive metric like Real Plus Minus, it’s not like raw +/- has Green rating favorably either.
Take a look at his now-infamous -73 rating over the last two games against the Thunder. For the series, Green has shot at a pitiful .167 three point percentage. Even if you doubled how well he shot, he would still be playing below average. That’s a huge change in fate for a guy who is currently No. 2 in the NBA in RPM. Think him going from superstar to LVP could have anything to do with the Warriors’ twist of fate?
Normally the heart and soul of the Warriors’ team-heralded passing, Green has also turned the ball over 13 times in the series, while having only 16 assists. Rather than letting his versatility as a premier passing big man intimidate them, the Thunder are using their lengthy group of defenders, from Durant to Steven Adams to the 6”11 wing-spanned Andre Roberson to play Green tightly.
His struggles aren’t unprecedented. When the Cleveland Cavaliers briefly led the Warriors 2-1 in last year’s NBA Finals, Green received a lot of flak for his disappointing performance before eventually shooting well again and helping Golden State win three more games. In this series, his struggles could be attributed to both a combination of luck going against him, as well as great help defense from the Thunder.
That said, though much of Oklahoma City’s success can be attributed to both their own play and the Warriors’ sudden mediocrity in shooting, they’re also doing something that Golden State fans might want to consider before dismissing the series as a fluke.
Oklahoma City is straight up beating Golden State at its own game.
Statistically speaking, underdogs tend to play at a slower pace when facing traditionally “better” teams. If there is a talent difference between two teams, a lower amount of possessions innately emphasizes high-variance aspects of basketball (like loose ball situations and fouls).
However, in this series, the Thunder have been more than willing to play the Warriors’ game – and to a ridiculously successful point. Rather than trying to slow down the tempo of each game, Oklahoma City have been playing chiefly in transition, with both teams playing at a 100.3 pace. The Thunder have clearly kept up the pace against the normally comfortable Golden State squad, often going for steals early in a possession and attacking on the fast break.
In addition to making Golden State’s offense look inadequate, Oklahoma City has been scoring at will, averaging a 111.6 offensive rating. That’s less than their regular season rating (which ironically ranked only behind the Warriors), but consider the expectation heading into a series against the No. 6 defense in the NBA, per defensive rating.
Perhaps most surprisingly is how effective the Thunder are neutralizing Golden State’s small ball lineups with their own. Long known as the vaunted “Death Lineup,” the mix of Curry/Thompson/Andre Iguodala/Harrison Barnes/Green (outscoring opponents by 45 points per 100 possessions against opposing lineups, per 82games.com) struggled immensely this series against Oklahoma City. Per ESPN, the lineup of Russell Westbrook/Dion Waiters/Roberson/Durant/Serge Ibaka killed the Death Lineup to a 55-13 tune over the last two games.
Can the Thunder keep up the good work? Much of Oklahoma City’s success has come from Westbrook (arguably the NBA’s playoffs MVP so far), Roberson and Waiters shooting above 40 percent from the arc this series: a far cry from Oklahoma City’s below average three-point shooting percentage for the year. Moreover, like last year’s NBA Finals, the Warriors’ relatively cold shooting for this series could be by virtue of players missing open shots.
While only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit, it would be silly to count out the Warriors. If teams like the 1981 Boston Celtics, 1995 Houston Rockets and 1968 Celtics can both make those comebacks and win NBA titles, it’s reasonable to predict Golden State to join that group of teams, considering its legendary season so far. But at the same time, Warriors fans might have to deal with incoming heartbreak.
Either way, exciting history is in the making.