The Warriors have run into a simple problem against the Thunder -- and it can't be solved

The Oklahoma City Thunder pummelled the Golden State Warriors for the second time in three days Tuesday night, winning Game 4 118-94 to take a 3-1 series lead.

For the second straight game, the Warriors looked flummoxed at how to stop the Thunder and how to score on them, committing 21 turnovers and shooting just 41% from the field, 30% from three.

While the Thunder are clearly clicking at the right time, finding an unusual harmony this late into the season, they’re also utilising a simple advantage that the Warriors can’t seem to overcome: athleticism.

The Warriors are often viewed as a physical matchup nightmare for any team. They’re a group of long-limbed, quick, versatile, multi-skill players who baffle teams with their positional pliancy. That all pales in comparison to what the Thunder are showing in the Western Conference Finals.

Going into the series, the NBA world knew, of course, that nobody on the Warriors can match Russell Westbrook’s athleticism. Many people knew there’s no answer for stopping Kevin Durant, and analysts figured the Thunder could hang around by going to “big” lineups and smashing the Warriors on the boards. But what’s surprised many is how the collective length, size, and speed of the Thunder are dismantling the Warriors.

This can be seen in simple stats — the Thunder outrebounded the Warriors in Game 4, 56-40, and forced 21 turnovers, with 16 steals and eight blocks. As a result, the Thunder scored 21 second-chance points and 18 points off turnovers.

Yet even when the Thunder aren’t just forcing turnovers, offensive rebounds, and easy baskets, their length is suffocating the Warriors, tipping passes to break up the offence and beating them to the so-called “50-50 balls” that are increasingly bouncing the Thunder’s way.

Here, Curry, one of the NBA’s best ball-handlers, simply has the ball poked away by Durant’s long arms, and then it’s off to the races.

Similarly, Durant’s length wreaks havoc on a standard pass from Draymond Green.

As mentioned, offensive rebounds are crushing the Warriors, too. Here, the Warriors appear to get a lucky bounce on a should-be layup by Dion Waiters, only to have it disrupted by Serge Ibaka’s length. The ball bounces fortuitously into Russell Westbrook’s hands for a three.

Even when the Warriors manage to force the Thunder into a bad shot for a stop, the Thunder have made up for those mistakes by creating second chances.

And for the Warriors, the Thunder’s length and athleticism down low is making easy baskets difficult. Though Green ultimately tips in this shot, it takes multiple efforts over the size and length of the Thunder big men. There’s a physical toll to exerting that much effort for a tip-in.

As can be seen on Green’s basket above, the Thunder are making routine shots at the rim difficult. At times, sure-fire Warriors baskets turned into blocks as a Thunder player skies out of nowhere to turn back a shot. The Warriors’ poor shooting around the basket reflects these woes.

Kevin Durant said after the game that this is very much part of the Thunder’s game plan on defence.

“They like to pass the ball freely and they like to move freely,” Durant said, “so (we’re) just trying to be physical and trying to get our hands on some basketballs.”

Steve Kerr acknowledged these problems after the game, saying, “This is probably the longest team in the league that we’re facing, and we are continuing to try to throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. It’s probably not a great idea. So 21 turnovers, many of them unforced, and then, of course, they’re taking care of business on the boards. We’re forcing stops, we’re getting stops, but we’re not going and getting the ball, and we have to be able to chase down loose balls and long rebounds. Otherwise they’re getting just way too many possessions compared to us.” 

This Thunder team has moulded into something different than the 55-win outfit from the regular season. They have found the proper way to function on both ends of the ball, utilising both their tremendous skill and physical superiority to take down a 73-win Warriors team. The series isn’t over, and as Kerr mentioned, the Warriors would help themselves by playing smarter. But no adjustment from the Warriors is going to change the fact that the Warriors are outmatched physically.

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