Yes, the Golden State Warriors remain the class of the NBA. Yes, it’s early February, the long, cold and dire doldrums of the NBA season, and picking any other team to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy come June still seems like a sucker’s bet. Still: you did see what the Oklahoma City Thunder did on Tuesday night, right?
Billy Donovan’s team strolled into Oracle Arena, punched the defending NBA champions in the mouth, and never stopped. Russell Westbrook sliced and diced his way through a Warriors defense that has basically hit the snooze button since New Year’s Day, making his first five shots and orchestrating brilliantly in the pick-and-roll to set the table for his teammates, looking every ounce a reigning MVP in a dominant 21-point, four-assist, three-rebound, one-turnover opening quarter.
Don't try to go one-on-one against Paul George. Or to throw a pass near him. Or to do anything on offense when he's on the floor, really.
Basically, just punt the ball into the stands and trot back, I guess. pic.twitter.com/nbCZf3ezqd
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 7, 2018
Not sure I’ve seen a player *read* a better game this season than George did last night at GSW. Pippen-like specter on the defensive end
— Todd Spehr (@toddspehr35) February 7, 2018
… and by icily devastating Golden State’s defense at all levels, in whichever way and at whatever time he decided to do so:
OKC went up 20 before halftime and never looked back, keeping the throttle down and pulverizing the Warriors, 125-105, to snap a four-game losing streak this season and earn their first regular-season win in the Bay in five years. Golden State participated in its own demise, reverting to the time-honored sin of chucking the ball all over the place by committing 25 turnovers against the NBA’s most opportunistic defense, but the Warriors didn’t throw this game away. The Thunder took it, forcefully, on the strength of precisely the one-two punch many envisioned leading the way just before the start of free agency: 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists from the overwhelming Westbrook, and 38 points, six steals, five rebounds and three assists from the smothering George.
One name notably absent from the discussion thus far: Carmelo Anthony, added late in the game this summer in an attempt to raise Oklahoma City’s title-contending ceiling, but at times a complicated two-way fit into Donovan’s machine. Anthony suffered an ankle injury six minutes into the game and missed the rest of it. The Thunder rolled, getting excellent minutes from the other members of its long-limbed wing/forward rotation — Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines and jumbo two-guard Josh Huestis — to plug gaps on the defensive end and finish plays while Westbrook and George took care of the rest. (Rookie Terrance Ferguson, who has made 12 starts this season and opened OKC’s previous five games, came off the bench and played on 2 1/2 minutes on Tuesday.)
There are flaws in that game plan. Elite defenses playing at the top of their game are better able to answer questions asked by two capable scorers and facilitators than by three, and for Anthony’s warts, you’d understand Donovan, Westbrook and George being more comfortable going to war with him in the postseason than becoming more heavily reliant on the Grant/Huestis/Abrines/Ferguson collective. In broad strokes, though, Westbrook plus George minus Anthony plus long, active, athletic and aggressive dudes has been an equation that’s worked wonders for OKC.
According to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data, Oklahoma City has outscored its opposition by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in 248 minutes when Westbrook and George share the floor without Anthony. The trend holds true even if you control for the absence of All-Defensive wing Andre Roberson, recently lost for the season to a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee: with Russ and PG on the floor, and Melo and Roberson off it, the Thunder have crushed opponents by 15 points-per-100 in 173 minutes.
With Roberson out for the season, it’s reasonable to think that Oklahoma City needs to pursue an upgrade on the wing, either before Thursday’s trade deadline or in the buyout market, to feel fully prepared to do damage in the postseason. The Warriors’ second unit that has dragged of late could be re-energized by the heat of the postseason. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell will be back to take some of the minutes that seemed ill-suited to the plodding Zaza Pachulia. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson don’t typically tend to look this disjointed for that long. Golden State remains the 800-pound gorilla until proven otherwise; the last few years have proven that not much works against the Warriors when the Warriors are the Warriors.
But before everything changed two summers ago, Donovan had an awful lot of success against the Warriors’ galactic offense by using length, size and athleticism to choke it out, beat the hell out of it, envelop Curry and reduce Golden State’s precision to rubble. Maybe Kevin Durant being on the other side would render that dynamic untenable in the playoffs this time around; maybe the presence of a healthy Anthony would dissuade Donovan from rolling with Grant, Patrick Patterson and company alongside Steven Adams, George and Westbrook when it matters most. But we’ve now got two games of evidence suggesting that this Thunder team can give Golden State problems that few others can match — the kind that come when, for once, you don’t have the two best players on the floor.
“It’s not about them, it’s about our team,” Westbrook said after the game, according to Royce Young of ESPN. “I don’t want to make the story about them, that we beat them. It really don’t matter who we played tonight, our job is to worry about our team, this locker room and that’s all I worry about.”
And maybe, just maybe, that’s enough to give a Warriors team that looks like it’s lost a bit of the fire in its belly something to worry about, too.
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