— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 25, 2016
It was all good just a week ago.
The #3 Oklahoma City Thunder blew out the #1 Golden State Warriors for the second game in a row at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City was swept by the Warriors during the regular season, but after upsetting the #2 San Antonio Spurs in the Semifinals, the Thunder was one game away from dethroning the defending NBA champions. Taking a 3-1 series lead sounds familiar…
Okay, so how was Oklahoma City doing it against Golden State?
Through the first four games of the series, the Oklahoma City lineup of PG Russell Westbrook, SG Andre Roberson, SF Kevin Durant, PF Serge Ibaka, and SG Dion Waiters in place of C Steven Adams was used for a total of 30 minutes. Amongst the two teams, that was the 4th-most frequently used lineup, behind only both team’s starting lineups and the fabled Golden State “Death Lineup”. The Oklahoma City small lineup had a net rating of 68.5, the most effective of any lineup that played more than three minutes through the first four games of the series. The Westbrook-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka-Waiters lineup outscored Golden State 98-49 through four games. By contrast, the Golden State lineup of PG Stephen Curry, SG Klay Thompson, SF Harrison Barnes, PF Draymond Green, and SF Andre Iguodala in place of C Andrew Bogut 94-67 in 34 minutes, compiling a net rating of -35.3.
In Golden State’s Game 2 win, the game was played at a pace of 94.8 possessions per 48 minutes. Oklahoma City found success by cranking up the pace. In the Game 1 Thunder comeback win at Oracle Arena, the pace was 104.8 possessions per 48 minutes. In Oklahoma City’s 133-105 Game 3 win, the pace was a series-high 108.1 possessions per 48 minutes. And in Oklahoma City’s Game 4 win, the pace was 107.7 possessions per 48 minutes. Perhaps unsurprising is the fact that of all lineups to play at least ten minutes through four games for both teams, the Westbrook-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka-Waiters lineup had the fastest pace: a blistering 111.0 possessions per 48 minutes.
Game 4 was particularly impressive from a defensive standpoint for the Thunder. With Durant literally everywhere (11 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks), Golden State was held to only 15 assists on their 33 field goals, an assist rate of 45.5 percent. That was the lowest assist rate in a game coached by Golden State head coach Steve Kerr ever – regular season, postseason, last year and this year. That may sound fluky on Oklahoma City’s part, but consider that in Game 4 of the Semifinals against the Spurs, they did the same thing. In a 111-97 Thunder win, the Spurs were held to only 12 assists on their 40 field goals, an assist rate of 30.0 percent – the lowest of the Gregg Popovich era, going back to 1996.
Would the Clippers have been able to stress the Warriors out like this?
After all, they’re the last team to beat the Warriors in the playoffs, a fact that Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers still holds onto even though Golden State has changed coaches since 2014. Like the Thunder, the Clippers were swept by the Warriors during the regular season. Like the Thunder, the Clippers eliminated the Spurs in the playoffs. Also like the Thunder, people who like to make excuses about injuries can point them out about the Clippers when discussing shortcomings and possibilities.
(I’m clearly not the type to condone #WhenHealthy discussions. But let me humor you all.)
The Clippers and their untimely injury history has been well-documented. Well, the Clippers would have looked very different against the Warriors this postseason than they did during the regular season. In the November meeting at Oracle Arena, the Clippers were rolling out SF Lance Stephenson as a starter and C Josh Smith as a key rotation player, while SF Luc Mbah a Moute and C Cole Aldrich picked up DNP-CDs. 15 days later at STAPLES Center, Mbah a Moute saw mere seconds while Aldrich was still a DNP-CD, while SG Jamal Crawford had to start in place of an injured SG J.J. Redick. In February, the Clippers were without PF Blake Griffin and PG Austin Rivers, while PF Jeff Green was in uniform for the very first time. Griffin was still out when the Warriors completed the season sweep of the Clippers in March.
Now, here’s why you the injuries excuse is 🚮 – the Warriors were missing key players too. Bogut didn’t play in the first November meeting or the February meeting. Golden State backup PG Shaun Livingston missed the November meeting at STAPLES Center. Golden State backup C Festus Ezeli missed the February and March games, while SF Andre Iguodala didn’t play in the March contest.
Could the Clippers have found a lineup to go as fast and be as effective as Oklahoma City’s new small lineup? It’s hard to say they would have, but the options would have been plentiful. You could start with PG Chris Paul in Westbrook’s spot. Wesley Johnson would probably be the best option in Roberson’s spot. Durant’s spot is where things get especially dicey, obviously, so you’d have to put Griffin here. Ibaka’s spot is also tough to duplicate on offense for the Clippers, but defensively, they could put C DeAndre Jordan here. The closest Waiters doppelganger would be Austin Rivers. Redick, Crawford, Green, and/or Mbah a Moute could have filled in here too. But it’s hard to see the Clippers playing with that kind of pace and efficiency.
And that’s kind of where we transition to the fact that, for the first time in NBA history, 3-1 leads were blown in back-to-back postseasons. In both cases, the team that defeated the Spurs would go on to lose the next series in 7 despite going on the road to win Game 1 and going home to win both Games 3 and 4. In both cases, the asphyxiation victim would have a lead going into the 4th quarter at home, only to lose and be forced to go on the road for the eliminating 7th game.
In 2015, the lack of depth for the Clippers hurt them at the end of their Semifinals series at Houston. The Clippers outscored the Rockets 788-766 in the series, but the Clippers were only able to play Crawford and Rivers off the bench for more than 13 minutes a game.
Meanwhile, for Oklahoma City, the newfound small lineup disintegrated in the final three games of the series. In 28 total minutes in Games 5-7, the Westbrook-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka-Waiters lineup had a net rating of -25.8 and was outscored 65-49. Their pace also slowed significantly, dropping to 101.4 possessions per 48 minutes. The Golden State “Death Lineup” found its footing late, compiling a 30.0 net rating in 25 minutes from Games 5 to 7, while outscoring the Thunder 72-55. In Game 6, Thompson outscored the Thunder by himself in the 4th quarter, 19-18.
Oklahoma City outscored the Warriors 750-743 in the series, but the Thunder were only able to play Waiters off the bench for more than 13 minutes a game. That blistering pace from earlier in the series? Golden State (yes, the same Warriors team that ranked 2nd in the NBA in pace during the regular season at 101.7 possessions per 48 minutes) got that number down to 105.3 in Game 5, 101.8 in Game 6, and a series-low 89.5 in Game 7.
Mind you, Golden State needed truly special efforts to get out of that 3-1 hole. Curry and Thompson both went to the free throw line ten times in Game 5 while attempting fewer than ten threes each; the only time that both events occurred all season (10+ FTs each for Curry and Thompson, more FTAs than 3PAs for both Curry and Thompson) was when the Bucks visited Golden State in December. Game 6 was the most Splash Brothers game ever; Curry and Thompson combined to make 17-of-31 three-pointers, the most combined makes and attempts in a single game by the duo in their five seasons together. The only other time Curry and Thompson attempted and made even 30 threes was Game 3 of the 2015 1st Round at New Orleans. And the Thunder lost Game 7 despite having fewer turnovers and more rebounds than Golden State – only the 2nd time that Oklahoma City lost in 17 such events this season, including six playoff games and four Conference Finals games.
KEVIN DURANT WILL NEVER WIN THE TITLE AFTER HE SAID "LIL B" IS A WACK RAPPER,
"THE BASEDGODS CURSE"#THEBASEDGODSCURSE ON DURANT – Lil B
— Lil B THE BASEDGOD (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) May 26, 2011
When it comes down to it though, Lil B is probably the biggest reason the Thunder blew that 3-1 lead. At least the Clippers don’t have that hex against them – yet.