I wouldn’t say this is a must-win game for either team, but it’s standing next to must win with its arm around it. The Warriors don’t want to be down 3-1, it’s hard to picture them winning three straight in this series. The Thunder don’t want to have a 2-2 series with two games left at Oracle, where it will be difficult to win again. Here are four questions where the answer will help determine the outcome of this game, and maybe the series.
1) Which small ball lineup wins? Going into the series, I thought the Thunder would stay with bigger lineups because they didn’t want to go small and try to out Warrior the Warriors. Except that’s exactly what they did in Game 3 and they won definitively. Lineups with Kevin Durant at the four (with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka all getting time at center) where quicker, allowed for more switching, and it allowed the Thunder to get out and run more — and run it right down the throat of the Warriors small ball lineup. Golden State’s “death lineup” was -22, and Steve Kerr was right in saying that lineup (and the starters in general) tried to isolate against defensive mismatches rather than keeping the ball moving, they settled for quick shots, and the Warriors offense stagnated.
The key to the small ball lineup for the Thunder is the same that has driven the success of the Warriors’ small ball for the past two seasons — they still played great defense. The Thunder are long and athletic on the perimeter, but the combination of Durant and Adams or Ibaka still did a fantastic job of protecting the rim. Those stops turned into transition buckets the other way — Russell Westbrook and the Thunder players attacked the rim, and the Warriors played some of the worst transition defense we have seen from them. It may well come down to this again in Game 4: Which team’s small unit does a better job defensively, then can convert those stops into buckets at the other end.
2) Can Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters have another big game for Oklahoma City? The Warriors’ defensive strategy this series has been to ignore Roberson, put a rim-protecting big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green) and let them patrol the paint, daring Roberson to shoot and beat them. In Game 3, he was 3-of-5 from three, and while those came as part of the Thunder Can’t Miss run, if he is hitting and scoring it is a problem for Golden State. Dion Waiters used to be the guy to leave alone on this roster, but he has blossomed under Billy Donovan — he was 6-of-8 in the first three quarters of Game 3 and in these playoffs has played the best ball of his career. You know that Westbrook and Durant are going to score (and they scored very efficiently in Game 3), but if the Thunder are getting that kind of quality play from their role players they become almost impossible to stop.
One other thing to watch: When Stephen Curry picked up an early foul, the Warriors tried to protect him by putting him on Roberson, but that meant a big man had to guard an offensive threat that took them away from the basket. Suddenly the Thunder were in a layup line at the rim. Don’t expect that adjustment again — and if Steve Kerr is rolling out a lot of minutes for Anderson Varejao and Ian Clark again, it’s a bad sign.
3) Can Draymond Green take control in the paint? Forget the kick to Steven Adams’ groin… well, Thunder fans aren’t going to forget, they are going to boo Green mercilessly. But that’s not the point, that play and the punishment (a fine and a flagrant two but no suspension) are in the past. What matters for the Warriors is Green was awful in Game 3 — 1-of-9 shooting with four turnovers on offense, and his rotations and rim protection were a slow on defense. When you talk about what was wrong with the Warriors trainsition defense, it starts with Green — he looked stuck in mud all game. That can’t happen again if the Warriors want to win. They need All-Star, Top 10 player, world-class pest Green in Game 4. He is crucial to what they do. If he loses his poise (as he did in Game 3) or just has an off night, the Warriors are in trouble.
4) Is this the game where the Warriors figure out the Thunder? Or, can they figure out the Thunder? Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game that they were not worried, his team had been in this position before — down 2-1 to Memphis last playoffs, and down 2-1 in the Finals to Cleveland. In each case they made an adjustment — ignoring Tony Allen against the Grizzlies, going small against the Cavaliers — and from there took over the series to sweep it out. They believe they can do it again, and it’s hard to bet against them because they have done it, they have shown versatility, and another gear not team seems to be able to match. But this series feels different — they already ignored Roberson and tried to play small and they are down 2-1. Is there a magic adjustment out there, or is it simply a matter of them executing what they like to do better against the most athletic defense they have faced in a playoff series? Just figuring out the Thunder is not that simple.
Less than a magical adjustment, the Warriors need to knock down shots. Not the rushed shots when they lost their poise during the Thunder’s second and third quarter run, but before that — the Warriors moved the ball and got good looks early, they just didn’t hit them. That can’t happen for them to win — this isn’t Portland anymore, the margin for error is too small.
Finally, and this is just obvious: Stephen Curry needs to be MVP Stephen Curry. The Thunder can throw athletic defenders at him, their bigs can challenge him a little, but the Warriors need him to be transcendent. Because Westbrook and Durant will be.