With 4:04 left in the first half, Billy Donovan’s Thunder team was down six and he decided to experiment against the Warriors: He would go small. Serge Ibaka moved to center, Kevin Durant was at the four. Warriors coach Steve Kerr quickly responded with his small ball “death lineup” where Draymond Green is the center.
By the half, the Warriors were up 13. Donovan learned he couldn’t out Warriors the Warriors.
So in the second half he stayed big — including playing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for 7:45, in which time the Thunder were +14. Yes, they had a rebounding advantage and that mattered, but the real change was that the Thunder defended better in the second half. All that size protected the rim — the Warriors were 8-of-19 shooting inside eight feet of the rim in the second half. The Thunder were smarter about switching and playing the pick-and-roll. The size slowed the game down. The Thunder were more disciplined about chasing the Warriors off the arc, but Golden State didn’t make the Thunder pay when they drove.
“A lot of quick shots, too many quick shots,” Kerr said of his team, which shot 26 percent in the fourth quarter.” Five minutes to go in the game, we’re down four, and we were acting like we had 20 seconds left.”
Size mattered and the Thunder came back to take Game 1 108-102. Game 2 is Wednesday.
The length of the Thunder defenders seemed to bother the Warriors. So did the quickness of Russell Westbrook.
“He’s probably the quickest guard in the league in terms of getting his hands on loose balls, long rebounds, getting his hands in on a steal, whatever,” Kerr said. “There were several key ones in the second half when we kind of lost our momentum. Careless passes, when we didn’t have the flow to whatever set we were running. I thought when we lost our momentum a lot of it had to do with his speed and aggressiveness.”
Westbrook was on Stephen Curry much of the night (although with switches and cross matches in transition Curry had a number of guys guard him.) That didn’t make Curry’s life easy,
“They didn’t make many mistakes on the defensive end,” Curry said
“One of them was to my fault early in the year… more trying to have guys make reads in pick-and-roll coverages — where the ball gets to, when we should late switch it, when we should trap it. At times, to be honest with you, I think it was a little too confusing for them, and it was too much,” Donovan said. “Then we simplified some things, made things very clear and a little more concrete.”
Donovan has become more comfortable making adjustments, and the one he made to stay big and when to switch the pick-and-roll worked in Game 1. The challenge is that Kerr and the Warriors have been fantastic at adjusting the past couple seasons, and they have the versatility to do it.
But the first statement of the series goes to the Thunder defense.