Very few problems come from winning 73 games. Here’s one of them: when winning comes so easily, how motivated would any team be to experiment with alternative styles of basketball, just in case?
Right now, the Warriors are getting absolutely blitzed in three areas: rebounding, fast breaks, and free throws. The trio is actually fairly interconnected. If the Warriors got more rebounds, the Thunder would have fewer fast-break opportunities. If the Thunder had fewer fast-break opportunities, the Warriors wouldn’t have to foul them so much in desperation. But as it stands right now, Oklahoma City has been able to push the pace at will, and as the Warriors don’t yet have an answer for Russell Westbrook, their only means of defending him as he barrels towards the basket like a goddamn avalanche made of fire.
So the following three stats seem somewhat relevant:
- The Thunder have 29 more rebounds in this series than the Warriors.
- Golden State’s two best rebounders, by total rebounding percentage, were Andrew Bogut (18.3%) and Festus Ezeli (18%).
- Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli played two minutes together throughout the entire regular season.
You know what? Let’s throw a fourth stat on there:
- Golden State’s third-best rebounder, Mareese Speights (15.3%) played only 10 minutes throughout the entire regular season with Andrew Bogut.
And here’s a fifth stat for good measure:
- Speights and Ezeli played only 62 total minutes together throughout the entire regular season.
There’s a trend to be sensed here. The Warriors were so good while ignoring rebounding that they never bothered to prepare for a time when they might need rebounding. At no point in the regular season did Steve Kerr say, “you know? This game is over, let’s see how we look with Bogut and Ezeli together just in case we need it.” It never came up, because the Warriors won 73 games.
And it’s almost hard to blame them. How could the team that played the league’s second-fastest pace have envisioned a scenario in which they’d want to slow down? Why would the league’s most popular team expect to shoot 29 fewer free throws than their opponent through the first four games of a playoff series? Why bother looking for an answer to a question that’s never been asked?
The numbers and common sense both suggest that a bigger Golden State lineup could actually do fairly well against the Thunder. Bogut and Ezeli actually have a higher cumulative rebound rate than Steven Adams and Enes Kanter (36.3% to 35.5%), and that pair has barely played together this series.
If Andre Roberson is on the floor, the Thunder simply don’t have the shooting to make Golden State pay for playing two lumbering centers. In fact, it could actually simplify their defensive scheme quite a bit. Rather than switching everything as they normally do, the Warrior big men could simply zone up behind Russell Westbrook’s pick-and-rolls, waiting for him at the basket and daring him to shoot mid-range jumpers or else face the two-headed Bogut-Ezeli rim protecting dragon. Stephen Curry could rest on defense by covering Roberson, hopefully helping him on the other end. Draymond Green wouldn’t be wasted as a rover, and with just a bit of effort Curry could cut off Roberson’s cuts to the basket without expending too much energy.
The one question mark would be Draymond Green guarding Kevin Durant, and that’s not a horrible question to have. Durant’s length would create a mismatch and it could get Draymond into foul trouble, but more smaller, physical defenders like Tony Allen have had plenty of success against Durant in the past and that’s a formula Green could replicate.
If the Thunder responded by going small, as they often have in this series, it would arguably makes things even easier for Golden State. The smaller they play, the less rebounds they’d get, and the less rebounds they get, the fewer transition opportunities they’d have. Ironically the Thunder have to play big to play to play against a bigger Golden State lineup. Defensively, Stephen Curry would have to be able to guard Dion Waiters and Klay Thompson would still be on Westbrook, but Ezeli could hide on Roberson without much worry.
The trouble would come offensively, but the Thunder have managed to generate points with far less spacing. In fact, their super-sized Durant-Westbrook-Kanter-Adams-Dion Waiters lineup which features exactly one three-point shooter in Durant has scored an insane 1.53 points per possession in the playoffs (over an admittedly tiny 79 possession sample). If the Thunder can find acceptable spacing with only Durant as a shooter on the floor, why can’t the Warriors with Curry and Klay Thompson, arguably the two best shooters in basketball?
The point of this argument isn’t even necessarily to say that bigger lineups could serve as the same fix-all small-ball did in the Finals last year for the Warriors. It’s to wonder why the Warriors never bothered to try it in the regular season. It’s an option, one Golden State probably wishes it had more experience with right about now.