This article gives a quick look into how the Thunder were able to grind out a win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
In the Bay Area resides one of the most potent small-ball lineups in the NBA with the Golden State's "Lineup of Death", a mix of versatile shooters, defenders and playmakers. When deploying Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the Warriors have scored the most points per offensive chance (1.26 points), allowed the 13th fewest points per possession (1.26) of any five-man unit, and had the best per-chance scoring margin (+0.43). And that's only the deadliest version of the Death Lineup; Golden State also owned four other lineups in the top ten by per-chance point differentials during the 2015-16 NBA regular season that always contained a variation of the combination of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Green.
Since their humiliating loss in Game 1 last round against the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder have quickly found their identity as a lengthy and physical team that can wear its opponents down over a 48 minute span and did just that in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State winning 108-102. If the Thunder want to win this series against the heavily favored Golden State Warriors, Thunder coach Billy Donovan will want to continue using the bigger lineup against Golden State's lethal small-ball lineup.
Simply put, the Thunder just are not able to go small against the Warriors with Kevin Durant playing power forward in this scenario especially when playing Andre Roberson at SF. Playing this lineup would give two matchup problems for the Thunder with Stephen Curry being able to switch on to Dion Waiters instead of Russell Westbrook; then the Warriors can put Iguodala or Barnes on Durant allowing Green to play off of a Roberson and have his way with the Thunder on the boards. This was prevalent in the second half of Game 1 against the Warriors as the Thunder always deployed two big men between Ibaka, Kanter and Adams and were able to contain Green on the boards and winning the rebound battle 52-44.
Offensively the Thunder are able to have their way against the Warriors smaller lineup. Superstar guard Russell Westbrook could not be contained in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State guard Stephen Curry and ended up finishing with 27 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds. Keivn Durant also provided problems to the Warriors despite poor shooting (10-30) with 26 points, 3 assists and 10 rebounds. Despite the obvious matchup problems Durant and Westbrook always create for any NBA head coach the Thunder's big lineup also creates even further problems with Steve Kerr employing the small-ball group as Thunder big men Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams are able to easily out rebound Draymond Green, the tallest Warriors' player on the floor in the Lineup of Death and out rebound Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala as well.
Defensively the Thunder were able to contain the Warriors small-ball lineup as well by rolling out their big lineup. With Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in the frontcourt slots one of them will defend Harrison Barnes while the other will guard either Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston, depending on who Golden State uses. This allows Kevin Durant to contain Draymond Green and if he is forced to switch on a Curry-Green pick and roll he can also contain Curry with his length as well. As long as Golden State does not exploit the fact that Oklahoma City is defending their second tier wings with their big men, the Thunder can continue to grind and keep pace with the Warriors lethal small-ball lineup.
As long as Oklahoma City stays true to themselves and not try to fight the Warriors going small but going small themselves, they could see themselves going back to Oklahoma City up 2-0 and even closer to an appearance in the NBA Finals against either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors. The bigger lineup allows them to control both the pace and the boards, which frustrates the Warriors who like to fire at will and not slow down the tempo of this game. If the Thunder continue to capitalize on this frustration they will be true giant slayers with knocking over two of the greatest teams in NBA history in both the Spurs and Warriors.