Billy Donovan made the initial salvo when it comes to the chess match between the two coaches by starting KD on Green on defense. That was a great adjustment by the OKC coaching staff and it had a number of benefits for them over the course of the game. The most important was that it allowed them to switch the Draymond/Steph Curry pick-and-roll without having to contort the rest of their defense. That's the John Stockton to Karl Malone P/R combo of the modern NBA and the only way to even try and defend it is to switch it and let the other 3 defenders stay at home on their man. Beating the Warriors starts with figuring out how to contain that P/R and putting either your SG or your SF on Draymond is the best counter I've seen for it yet.
What really makes it effective is Draymond doesn't have the height to be a go to post scorer and take advantage of the mismatch. For one thing, he's only 6'6 and KD is 6'11. Guarding Draymond with a PF is playing right into the Warriors hands because he'd much rather have the speed edge than the power edge on offense and he's a better defender when he's giving up size than when he's giving up speed. There are 3 other storylines to this match-up that will be important to watch going forward:
1 - Can KD keep Draymond off the offensive glass? KD is used to using his supernatural length to be a factor on the boards but he has to put a body on Draymond, especially late in the game. Not doing that in the last 2 minutes of the 4Q resulted in Draymond keeping the possession alive and eventually finding Steph for a lay-up.
2 - Can Russ handle Draymond in the box? The Warriors didn't try to exploit the mismatch on the switch too much in this one and that's one adjustment to the Thunder's adjustment that they can make going forward. Draymond isn't a great back to the basket guy but he does have a significant height advantage on Russ and if he can pick up any cheap fouls on the switch that would be huge, especially considering the reckless style that he plays leaves him more vulnerable to foul trouble. The one thing the Thunder can't do is start doubling him in the box because you want to make him beat you as a scorer and not a passer.
3 - Can KD handle Steph on the switch? Sometimes he did on Saturday and sometimes he didn't. A lot of it was hand down man down but a lot of it was just Steph's ability to hit stupid shots. There's a very good chance that the final minutes in a few games of a potential WCF comes down to Steph going 1-on-1 against KD. The Narrative kind of writes itself with that one.
2) Serge Ibaka on Harry BarnesSteph Curryhttps://t.co/jMBjXb04A1— Bre (@bre_88) February 7, 2016
The domino effect of putting KD on Draymond was that it left OKC's PF guarding GSW's SF and that was a little more troubling for the Thunder. Golden State squeezed a lot of offense out of Harry B in the first half because Serge was very uncomfortable chasing him around screens and guarding him 25+ feet from the basket. On the other side of the floor, it's not like the Thunder were going to run a lot of offense through Serge anyway, regardless of who was on him. Barnes and Ibaka are two huge X factors in a potential playoff series and I don't think OKC can win if this happens consistently:
Barnes: 19 points and 4 rebounds on 13 shots
Serge: 8 points and 3 rebounds on 5 shots
When it comes down to making adjustments in a 7-game series, it all comes down to the domino effect. One switch has a cascading effect on everyone else in the line-up and shoring up a weakness in one spot can create one somewhere else if you aren't careful. That's what makes going up against the Warriors so tough and why it's going to be almost impossible to beat them 4 out of 7 times - they don't have a lot of discernible weaknesses in their line-up so Steve Kerr can make just about any type of adjustment over the course of a series and not worry about negative side-effects. That's what happened against Memphis and Cleveland - Kerr made the right adjustment and the opposing coach couldn't find an adjustment to his adjustment because there was nothing to exploit.
Here's where things stand with Golden State at the moment: You need a perimeter defender on Draymond but you still need a perimeter defender on Klay, Steph and Barnes, which leads me to my next point.
3) You aren't going to beat the Warriors playing 3-out
That was the story of last year's playoffs to me. A bigger team can't exploit the Warriors lack of size upfront without giving up too much on the other end of the floor. If you are going to beat Golden State playing two big men at a time, you need two big men who are elite post threats, elite passers, elite perimeter defenders and elite interior defenders. You need two guys who can give you all the pluses of having extra size on one end without any of the minuses of playing all that size on the other. In other words, if you cloned Karl Towns you might have a chance to beat Golden State playing 3-out.
Maybe San Antonio can do it. Maybe. They at least have four big men who can legitimately kill you in the post and whom can all play high-low and at least space the floor out to 20+ foot to give their frontcourt partner a chance. The question with all of their big men is what happens on defense. I'm not sure any of their 5 bigs - Duncan, LMA, West, Diaw and Boban - can guard 25+ feet from the basket and only Duncan and Boban provide much rim protection.
That goes double for the Thunder because their big men can't even beat you with size on offense anyway. The only one you would be comfortable posting up is Kanter and we already know the types of problems that he can have on defense. The story of the first half of this game was the way the Warriors absolutely shredded the Thunder's two big men line-ups. It doesn't matter whether you are playing Kanter and Adams against Golden State's 1rst or 2nd unit or some combination of the two. They can't play together in this series.
4) Billy Donovan can see two feet in front of his face
As someone who watched plenty of Florida basketball over the years, I wasn't too big a fan of the Donovan hire. This wasn't a Brad Stevens at Butler situation - Donovan wasn't winning all those games at the NCAA level because he was running rings around people with his X's and his O's. He won all those games because he had better players and he got out of their way when he could. It's no knock on the coach to say that a lot of guys could win at the NCAA level with Joakim Noah and Al Horford upfront. That's just unfair.
But while Donovan hasn't exactly lit the world on fire in his first few months in the NBA, he does seem to be learning. He learned and made adjustments in real-time over the course of the game on Saturday, which is not something I was seeing Scotty Brooks doing all that much. The story of the first-half was some of the silly line-ups that Donovan had out there - you can't have Russ and KD out at the same time against Golden State, you can't play Adams and Kanter together and you don't want to have all your bad defensive players in the same line-up.
None of that happened in the 2nd half, which is why the game got so interesting, Donovan cleaned up a lot of his mistakes and he stopped giving the Warriors any own goals. His first half line-ups still probably cost them the game but that's not a big deal as long as he uses it as a learning experience. That's what regular season games are for - figure out what works and what doesn't work. The Thunder had a lot of things that didn't work tonight, which might be the most encouraging aspect of the game for them considering how close the final score still was.great lineup by okc. GSW has to decide whether to roast kanter, payne, or singler and maybe that will confuse them.— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) February 7, 2016
5) Steph looked mortal in this one
The flip side for the Warriors is that they still won the game despite the MVP scoring 26 points on 25 shots and being only +3 in 38 minutes. Steph is such an alien on offense that it's hard to analyze anything that he does one way or the other. He missed a lot of stupid shots but those are the shots that he usually makes at a crazy high clip and you have to figure they will start going down more often the next few times they play OKC. That said, I do think that the switching defense did have some effect on Curry. That's not to say that he's not going to get his points next time but that the odds are so much in his favor that you have to do everything in your power to even them out on every possession just to give yourself a chance. I don't like trapping him on the pick because that lets him split it or start ball movement that winds up in an open 3 and I don't ever want to have a big man guarding him on the P/R if I can help it.
6) Golden State can't get cute on KD and Russ on D
It's the same thing with OKC's two superstars. This game featured the best 3 scorers in the world (all of whom are 27 years old and at the very peak of their abilities) which means you never want to give them something easy because they can beat you when you are giving them something hard or nothing at all. Golden State started the game with Steph on Russ and Harry B on KD and there's no reason for them to do that. It's nice that Steph is more willing to guard his man on D and not count on Klay to switch but discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to guarding Westbrook.
As far as Harry Barnes goes, it's the same thing as with LeBron in last year's Finals. He can't guard elite players and there's no reason to make him do so when you have Andre Iguodala on the bench. The Warriors are probably going to want Iguodala to mirror KD's minutes as much as possible. Or at least Livingston. They tried Draymond on KD in the 4Q and that didn't really work. KD's longer and faster than him - he can shoot over the top of him and get around him pretty easily and he's pretty immune to Draymond's bully-ball tactics on D. KD is going to get his but you at least want to give him a challenge. He had 40 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists on 25 shots on Saturday, though the 5 turnovers is something he's going to want to clean up.
Defensive Player of the Year is probably going to come down to Kawhi Leonard vs. Draymond Green and I think I'd give the award to the guy who can do the best job on KD. Being able to play great D against garbage teams is great but who cares really. Let me see you play great D against the best of the best.
7) Dion Waiters couldn't guard Klay Thompson
Thompson didn't have a huge game from an efficiency perspective (18 points on 15 shots) but I thought he was able to pretty comfortably shoot over the top of Dion Waiters, which wasn't a huge surprise since he's 6'7 and Dion is 6'4. Klay is another X factor in this series because the Thunder need to use Russ and KD to try and corral Steph and they really can't afford to switch either on to the Warriors 2nd option. What Steve Kerr is really going to want from Klay is the ability to dictate line-ups - Klay needs to make Andre Roberson guard him and force Waiters, Singler or Morrow off the floor if they get stuck in this match-up. That would force Billy Donovan into a lot of tough decisions and that's why I think OKC is going to have to make a trade to find a legit 3-and-D wing.
I've been saying this for awhile - Courtney Lee for Mitch McGary makes too much sense not to happen.
8) The ghosts in the box score
Both teams had a pretty clean slate of health coming into this game and there were only two notable absences from the proceedings - Roberson and Festus Ezeli. OKC is going to have to be very careful when it comes to using Roberson in a series because of how comfortable GSW is going to the no-respect defense and ignoring bad shooters. I think where he'd have the most value is on the 2nd unit when he could guard Shaun Livingston and where his lack of shooting wouldn't be as big an issue with OKC going to smaller line-ups. The Warriors didn't really miss Ezeli in this one because of the unexpected emergence of Marreesse Speights but he would provide a nice counter at the C position because he gives you more speed than Bogut and more defensive ability than Speights.
9) Can Andrew Bogut play in this series?
Bogut had the worst plus/minus (-11 in 20 minutes) of any of the Warriors starters and I don't think that was a coincidence. The Thunder don't have a post scorer that Bogut really needs to guard in their starting line-up - Adams is more of a roll man and they were able to put Bogut in the 2-man game with either KD or Russ and really expose his lack of footspeed. Nor is he much of a threat on offense in the 2-man game, which is big because the only way for the Warriors to get the Thunder big men involved in the pick-and-roll on defense is to utilize Bogut heavily. When you start breaking down the minutes and allocating a huge chunk of the ones at 5 to Draymond Green, I wonder whether the Warriors need Bogut at all in a series against the Thunder. I'd rather have Festus or Draymond out there and Speights has shown he can be a nice little change-up too. I wouldn't be surprised if A) the Thunder played him off the floor or B) Kerr pre-emptively took him off the floor like he did against the Cavs in the Finals.
10) KD at the 4 and all 4-out, all the time
That was the big take-away from this game for me. If OKC's going to pull off the upset, they are going to need Kevin Durant to play 40+ minutes a night at the PF position. I'm not wasting any time not playing optimal line-ups against the Warriors and the only reason he's coming off the floor at all is so that he doesn't collapse on the court. If it came down to a Game 7 in Oracle, which would be one of the biggest games in the history of the NBA, I'm coming into the game thinking that KD is playing all 48. Russ needs a break because of the way he plays but KD is just so valuable on and off the ball for the Thunder that they can use him even when he's not dominating the ball and he's taking a few plays off.
With KD at the 4, you run 4/5 pick-and-rolls with either Kanter, Adams or Ibaka right down the Warriors throat and you run Bogut off the floor. All you need from there is enough shooters to space the floor and that's where a trade comes in. The problem with running KD at the 4 full-time is that the Thunder barely have enough wings to throw out there when they are running 3-out, much less 4-out. They are one piece (a 6'5+ wing who can give them 40+ minutes of versatile D and 40+ minutes of 3-point shooting) from being right there with the Warriors and giving us possibly the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Let's make this happen and let's have these teams play 7 times in June.