For two quarters the Golden Sate Warriors did indeed play liquid basketball, as they have done for most of the season. With 9 seconds left in first half Shaun Livingston brought the ball up the court, surely his only intention to get the ball to Steph Curry for the final shot. Curry got tangled up between Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson and seemed to be unavailable to receive the basketball. Somehow though he fought free, sold Roberson with a delicious pump fake, stepped casually to his left and drained the buzzer beating 3 pointer. In the immortal words of Alan Partridge ‘SHIT. Did you see that!’
At that point all seemed to be going to plan for the Warriors. The ball movement was excellent, Curry and his fellow splash brother Klay Thompson were hitting 3s at will and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had been kept well under wraps. Golden State was even out rebounding the bigger and more athletic Oklahoma City squad. When Curry hit that buzzer beater, to put the Warriors up 13, it looked to be a dagger in the heart of OKC that ended any chance of a comeback. But as they showed us against the Spurs, this Thunder team are a resilient bunch.
In the 3rd quarter sloppiness started to creep into Golden State’s game. They started to turn the ball over and settled for too many quick shots of the dribble. Crucially they also played sloppy defence, committing 10 fouls, leading to 16 free throw attempts for OKC. It seemed like the Warriors collectively thought, ‘hey these guys really can’t beat us’, what this complacence allowed was for Westbrook to find his groove. Having being held to 3 points in the first half, on 1 of 10 shooting, Westbrook exploded for 19 points in the third to draw the Thunder to within 3 at 88-85.
We have become accustomed to watching the Warriors dominate 4th quarters this season. Whenever they have been pushed through 3, they have found another gear in the final period to streak away down the stretch. Think of their fourth quarter evisceration of the Blazers in game 3 of the second round. However, last night the world was turned upside down. The Thunder who have elevated fourth quarter bottling to an art form this season, think Tottenham on steroids, found a way to come back, take the lead early in the 4th, and then crucially close it out for the 108-102 victory.
The Warriors improved defensively in the fourth but their offensive rhythm had been broken in the third, they never regained it and were held to a season low 12 points in the final period. Golden State weren’t getting the good shots they usually create and they weren’t hitting the tough shots they usually make. Every time they had a chance to retake the lead the Warriors failed to take advantage ultimately costing them the game. One of the most incredible aspects of this historic season for the Warriors has been the ability to recover from defeat. They haven’t lost back to back games all season and they will surely be locked in for game 2.
It is cruel for the Thunder that more will be made of Golden State’s failings than their outstanding second half display. However, there really are so many positives for OKC to take forward in to game 2. In the second half they finally made their size count, controlling the glass and giving themselves extra possessions. Both their star players had excellent games and didn’t wilt under the pressure of carrying the offensive load. Durant didn’t shoot as well as he can but he hit big shots at crucial times to keep the Thunder in touch down the stretch. Westbrook was simply outstanding in the second half, scoring 24, and punishing the Warriors ill discipline at the free throw line. But what was most impressive was his defensive effort guarding Curry, Westbrook prevented Steph from going off offensively in the second half, and putting Golden State out of sight. I have been critical of Westbrook this season, suggesting that the gaudy numbers he puts up sometimes distract from crucial mistakes, but last night he was something else. To be that good offensively, whilst also taking the most difficult defensive assignment in the NBA right now, is something very few players in the league can do.
OKC showed us last night that they can hang with the Warriors. Having been dominated in the regular season by Golden State, the belief the Thunder will get from this win will be massive. They will really believe that they can take this Warriors team out and it looks like we’re in for a thriller of a series.