Like the rest of the free world, I’m trying to figure out how the Warriors — after going an NBA-record 73-9 in the regular season — are suddenly in a 3-1 hole to Oklahoma City after two consecutive blowout losses to the Thunder.
Some short answer theories: Steph Curry isn’t 100 percent, and it’s taking a toll; the Warriors, after chasing history for 82 games, are exhausted mentally and physically; Thunder coach Billy Donovan, the architect of Florida’s NCAA titles and a conference semifinals upset of San Antonio, is a brilliant coach; the Thunder is clicking at the right time and can present matchup nightmares for the Warriors.
There might be some combination of all those things (and others) at play here, but let’s focus on the last two — which in a way go hand-in-hand. Let’s also examine them in this context: Can we make the claim that the Thunder is using the blueprint provided by the Timberwolves in a late-season win at Golden State as the main means for dismantling the presumptive favorites?
I think we can use that argument, albeit carefully.
When the Wolves won 124-117 in overtime at Golden State, putting the Warriors’ run at the record in jeopardy by handing them just their ninth loss of the year, they did it down the stretch using a small lineup: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins. Towns is the only true center/power forward in that group. That lineup outscored the Warriors by 12 points in the heat of the fourth quarter and in overtime, utilizing quickness and an attacking mentality.
Muhammad had perhaps his best game as a pro, putting up an absurd 35 points off the bench. Wiggins had 32. Towns had 20 points and 12 rebounds. That was the big three, with LaVine chipping in with 16 points and Rubio running the offense. Gorgui Dieng was 5 for 8 from the field but the Wolves were outscored by 15 points in his 19 minutes on the floor.
Clearly you need the right personnel to win when you go small, and the Wolves — particularly when Muhammad is playing like that, since he is aggressive enough to play bigger than he is — have the right players to do that. It paid off in a signature win.
Fast-forward to Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder went with a very similar lineup — one that hadn’t worked well during the season, in fact — with great results in what ended up being a blowout win. Per ESPN.com:
The Thunder’s rout of the Warriors in Game 3 could be attributed to the Thunder using a five-man group that featured Serge Ibaka as the only power forward/center on the floor. The Thunder’s best five-man lineup was Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Kevin Durant and Ibaka. That unit was plus-30 in 12 minutes and shot 64.0 percent (16-of-25). This marked only the fourth time that Roberson and Waiters scored in double figures in the same game. Entering Game 3, that grouping was the Thunder’s worst five-man unit this season (including playoffs), getting outscored by 38 points.
The effect of the smaller lineup gave Golden State matchup problems. Warriors big man Andrew Bogut only played 11 minutes in Game 3 and had the same total in Game 4 Tuesday — when again the Thunder used a small lineup to dismantle Golden State.
All five of those aforementioned players from the Game 3 small lineup again were dominant — with each posting at least a plus-22 mark when on the court and all scoring in double-figures again. By contrast, traditional Thunder center Steven Adams was a minus-7 in his 25 minutes. OKC won by 24, meaning the squad was plus-31 in the other 23 minutes of smaller-ball.
Now, going small is not a revolutionary concept. But Donovan is a smart coach — and smart coaches know 1) how to poach good ideas from other teams when they work and 2) that it’s smart to keep pounding away with good ideas when they are working.
The Wolves had the personnel to go small, and it paid off. The Thunder is doing the same thing. If the Wolves win was stunning at the time, what the Thunder is doing is downright shocking. But maybe taken together, we shouldn’t be as surprised?