On Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder came back from a 13-point halftime deficit to shock the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. While the game represented only one loss of four needed for the Warriors to be dethroned as champions, there is more to the loss than meets the eye; as this loss demonstrated that a seemingly invincible team entering the playoffs have been shown to be somewhat vulnerable as the games increase in importance.
Keep in mind that this is a team that set the league record with 73 regular season wins, have the two-time league MVP (Stephen Curry is the first ever unanimous choice), and have a “big three” that accounts for over 66 points, 22 rebounds and 16 assists per game. No trio in the league can boast such a triumvirate. Beyond the trio of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State has a deep and versatile bench that routinely goes 11 deep on most nights without the team skipping a beat.
To call their style of play fast paced and free flowing would be understatements. For all the no-look passes and deep perimeter shots, you would think the team’s offensive efficiency to be pedestrian. Not in this instance as the Warriors have the league’s best offensive rating (most points per 100 possessions). Surprisingly, their defense ranks 5th in the NBA in defensive rating. Simply put, this team dominated most opponents on a nightly basis, winning by a margin of 10.8 points per game.
Curry himself has had one of the most impressive seasons a player has had in the past two decades, and hits half court shots with the accuracy of many players shoot from 1/3 of the distance. Not only is Curry accurate from three point range (severe understatement), consider that half of his total field goals were from beyond the arc, and his 402 made threes were 126 more than any other player (the player with the second most tjree point shots made is jis back court mate Klay Thompson). There has never been a player to be so perimeter focused and so successful at the same time.
For all the energy the team expended to win a record 73 games, one has to wonder whether that effort taxed them as they entered the postseason. Through Game 1 of the conference finals, each of the top five scorers on the team are have poorer shooting percentages compared to the regular season. Their free flowing style of play which was efficient and effective in the regular season has been more mistake prone in the playoffs. The air of invincibility that permeated every arena they played in from November to April seems to have dissipated in the playoffs. Curry & Company still carry the same swagger as they did just one month ago, but the opponents are not intimidated as they once were.
Add to that the knee injury Curry sustained in the Conference Semi-Finals against Portland has had an impact on the sharp-shooter’s proficiency from the floor. With the remaining schedule set as it is the remainder of the way, there is little likelihood that the troublesome knee will get better until he rests over the summer. Being such an integral cog in the Warriors’ machine (as an MVP should), having him less than 100% doesn’t just impact his shooting, but also his lateral movement and quickness. It is fair to say that many of Curry’s increased miscues can be attributed to the precision that is a staple of his game.
Now being vulnerable does not mean that Golden State can be easily defeated. Each of the remaining playoff teams have flaws that would have to be overcome to conquer the champions in a seven game series. Oklahoma City is prone to sloppy play. Cleveland had lapses in focus and Toronto is dealing with the fatigue that comes with consecutive seven game series wins. Golden State is still the best of the remaining teams and should be considered the overwhelming favorite.
Should the Warriors win on Wednesday, all that is needed is one road win to reclaim home court advantage. But if they end up losing Game 2, then there will be an increasing concern that the Warriors are not the irresistible force they were once perceived to be. Perhaps this team is human after all and not the comic book juggernaut they appeared to be all season long. If nothing else it makes the balance of the playoffs more of a “must see” event than they were two weeks ago.