Much-maligned Thunder silence the haters with Game 1 upset of Warriors

Stephen Curry was the Golden State Warriors’ leading scorer in Game 1. He also led the team with seven assists.

So what, right? We’re used to Curry topping those statistical categories for the defending champions. There’s nothing unusual there. When he’s the Warriors’ leading rebounder as well, however, there’s something weird going on.

Such was the case on Monday, as Curry was the only Warrior with double-digit rebounds. Golden State played its three centers — Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli — a total of 31 minutes for one very specific reason. Small-ball was supposed to run the Thunder off the court. Instead, the most maligned members of this Oklahoma City squad made all the difference in seizing homecourt advantage for the Thunder in the Western Conference finals.

While not everyone was quick to write off Oklahoma City, there was a resoundingly loud chorus that believed the likes of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter (especially Kanter) couldn’t play in this series. They’d be too out of place against the Warriors’ small lineup. Draymond Green would do just enough on the glass, the thinking went, to negate the size disadvantage. Despite shocking the San Antonio Spurs, this was supposed to be a completely different world for the Thunder.

To some extent, that should still be a concern. Oklahoma City’s comeback win will overshadow much of what Golden State accomplished with small-ball, but the numbers indicate how successful the Warriors were in dictating the style of the game. A lineup of Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green outscored its Thunder oppositon by almost 21 points per 100 possessions. Conversely, when the Thunder starters were in the game — and the Warriors tried to match big for big, mostly with Bogut and Green — OKC had a preposterous +34.8 net rating (via NBA.com).

Yes, for two quarters, the logic held. When Kanter subbed in, the Warriors immediately went small, and the Thunder big men looked confused on defense. They switched at the wrong time. They helped when they needed to protect the rim, and they hedged too slowly. Worst of all, they struggled to clean the glass the way the Thunder absolutely must if they’re going to win this series.

It didn’t help that even Kanter’s good defensive plays resulted in made 3s for the Warriors:

The second half was a different story, one spurred by a flurry of OKC offensive rebounds early in the third quarter. Whether through a change in tactics, a lightbulb going on regarding the fact that they’re much bigger, or sheer chance, the Thunder suddenly became the interior leviathans we expected. Westbrook, Ibaka and Kanter cleared out space around the rim, and Russell Westbrook filled it up with 19 points in the quarter.

He played the entire period, as Durant would in the fourth. The Thunder didn’t really have a choice; the more either sat, the bigger Golden State’s lead swelled — until the fourth, when Oklahoma City took control for good.

And it worked, because coach Billy Donovan has been excellent in this postseason. He continued to stagger his stars so that the Thunder had one or the other on the court for every second. He was quick to get Westbrook back in the game when the offense stagnated, and he made a point to get the ball in Durant’s hands and let Dion Waiters continue to operate as the secondary offensive option when Westbrook sat. Two months ago, the matchup of Steve Kerr and Donovan felt like a chessmaster toying with a checkers novice; at the very least, the two are playing the same game now in the Western Conference finals. 

The tendency will be to draw overarching conclusions from one game. After that Thunder-Spurs series, we should really know better. But we did have three things reinforced in Game 1 — other than the fact that this series is going to be amazing:

1. The Thunder bigs will be a problem for the Warriors if they can continue to rebound well — especially if Golden State continues to go small. Since they played so little, those aforementioned Warriors centers combined for four points and six rebounds on Monday. That seems like a good place to start if you’re predicting the Warriors will bounce back in Game 2.

2. Variance will continue to reign supreme, as much as we hate to admit it. With two teams as talented as these, chance is sometimes all we got. Despite the best efforts of the defenses, and taking nothing away from either squad on that end, one team or the other is going to catch fire at some point. And that might be all it takes to turn the balance of the series.

3. The role players matter more than ever. Stars like Durant, Curry, Westbrook and Thompson will carry their weight. But it’s names like Adams, Bogut, Waiters and Iguodala who will tip the scales. 

Now, if Curry leads the Warriors in rebounding again on Wednesday? Then we might need to reassess everything.