The Warriors have been on an amazing and a historical run over the last two years. They won a league-leading 67 games in the previous season and brought home the first NBA championship for their franchise in 40 years. In last year’s campaign, Steph Curry, the team’s best player, broke three point shooting records, won his first MVP award, and Golden State reinvigorated the league with an electrifying, high-scoring attack. This season has been even more successful than last year’s incredible run. Golden State broke the hallowed single season wins record previously held by Michael Jordan’s 72-10 Chicago Bulls with a record of 73-9, and they were the number one ranked offense in the National Basketball Association. As a team, the Warriors were first in the league in made field goals, field goal percentage, made three pointers, three point percentage, defensive rebounds, points, and assists. They played basketball the way that it was meant to be played, with ball movement, spacing, player movement, and efficient shooting. It was a brand of basketball that had not been seen in the NBA in decades, and the Warriors were led by a player who shot better than anyone in league history. Steph Curry broke his own single season NBA record of made three pointers with 402, 119 more than his record sum from the previous year, he led the league in scoring and steals, he became a member of the exclusive 50/40/90 club with 50% field goal percentage, 45% three point field goal percentage, and 91% free throw percentage, and he became the league’s first unanimous Most Valuable Player (MVP) garnering every one of the 131 first place votes. Golden State was the best basketball team that the league has ever put on a court in the 2015-2016 regular season. And until they met the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Conference Finals, they were destroying their opponents like only a few teams have ever done. However, though they have collectively and individually done some things that no other team or single player has done, the Warriors as a team are tragically flawed. And, their series against the Thunder should remind basketball fans of something that they already knew. Basketball games are usually won by the more talented teams, but execution and heart can triumph over physical gifts.
Because there are very few talented teams that have the athletes to compete defensively against guards like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Randy Livingston, and very few big men that can step out on the perimeter and crowd big men like Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, and Harrison Barnes, Golden State has won more games in two seasons than any team except the aforementioned Chicago Bulls team led by Jordan. But, the teams that the Warriors vanquished on their path towards history made critical strategic mistakes against them. The first mistake that these teams made was acquiescing to the style of basketball that Golden State plays. Instead of basketball squads executing their original game strategies to combat the Warriors, most teams attempted to play smaller line-ups to match up with the Warriors. Those teams bench their big men and keep them out of the up-and-down games that the Warriors play trying to match their personnel on the floor, however this erroneous decision handicaps those teams because they lose critical size that influences blocks, turnovers, and rebounding – vital statistics that give teams more possessions and thus more opportunities to score. Golden State drafted and acquired players through free agency to fit their system. They are built to stretch the court with deep shooting and to create lanes for easy buckets. Opposing big men can at least challenge shots and clog the paint with sheer size, but by removing their larger athletes, those franchises lose any size advantage that they have on either end of the court. Teams with decent big men can exploit most of Golden State’s lineups in the paint, because they regularly play sets with Draymond Green, a 6’7″ power forward as the biggest man on the floor. And, to further exacerbate their problems, despite switching to smaller players, most NBA teams do not have the athletic ability to defend the Warriors’ attack from the three point line and the motion offense that they run to complement their elite shooting. Though they lost in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers set the blueprint for beating Golden State last year. When they were successful against the Warriors, Cleveland refused to matchup their players with the Golden State players. They ran a deliberate offense through their star, LeBron James, used size and athleticism to punish the smaller Golden State team under the rim on offense, slowed the game down with physical defense on the perimeter, and relied on their size to challenge shots at the rim and behind the three point line. The team that controls the way the game is played usually wins the series. Cleveland failed to finish against the Warriors, but they made them play a game that was uncomfortable for them, and were on the cusp of beating them with size and physicality.
Basketball, and sports in general, rely on three basic factors, size, skill, and athleticism. And, any one of these three base advantages can overcome another if used properly. The first tenet of basketball that the Golden State Warriors revealed in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder is that elite skill and decent athleticism can be harnessed and used to beat big, physically superior basketball teams. The Thunder may be the most physically talented basketball team in the National Basketball Association, and when they are focused on the defensive end of the court and unselfish on the offensive side they are nearly unbeatable They did not play physical basketball against the Warriors, but they proved how talented they were in the first 4 games of the 2016 Western Conference Finals by dominating in those games, winning 3 of the contests and pushing Golden State into a seemingly insurmountable hole. They moved the basketball on the offensive end, they out-rebounded the Warriors, and they utilized their gifted athletes in a switching zone defense that challenged the perimeter shots that the Golden State offense needs to be effective. By all accounts, they should have won the series with that commanding 3-1 lead and their athletic superiority. However, the Thunder relaxed after they went up 4 to 1, and allowed the Warriors to compose themselves and play the type of basketball that was necessary for them to steal back the series.
To be successful, a team has to keep their opponent down until that opponent stops fighting. Oklahoma City, like the rest of the basketball world, thought that 3-1 was a death sentence for Golden State. They played like they expected for the Warriors to roll over. The Warriors did not. Instead of relinquishing Game 5 and looking towards next year, Golden State played better basketball and fought their way back into the series. They used the same ball movement and three point shooting that had been a staple of their offense all year to win that game at home. Then, they traveled to OKC and beat the Thunder in a hard-fought Game 6 to even the series. Though the Thunder led the entire game and even built a 13 point lead, in a way that poignantly mirrored the series, Oklahoma City carelessly allowed Golden State to work their way back into the game. As the contest wore on, Durant and Westbrook became more selfish and sloppy with the basketball while Curry and Thompson played more efficiently. Klay Thompson had a career night with a NBA Playoff record 11 three pointers, and the Warriors rallied, scoring on 5 of their last 6 possessions to win the game 108-101. The Thunder failed to score in their last 6 possessions, turning the basketball over 5 times and missing a rushed three pointer in an attempt to salvage the diminished lead. The Oklahoma City Thunder collapsed under duress, and the Golden State Warriors flourished which leads to the next lesson in basketball.
In any competition, pressure either exposes a person or reveals who they are. Basketball players are defined by what they do under fire. When Oklahoma won the first game of the series with both of their stars shooting 33% from the field, any pressure that they felt to dethrone the defending champions was lifted and they played basketball loose and efficiently for the next 3 games. Conversely, with the added pressure of losing home court advantage, Golden State played tight, moved the basketball considerably less than they did during the regular season, and took increasingly bad and desperate shots. As a result, they nearly lost the series. But, the Warriors are a resilient team, and under stress, they rely on good team basketball to bring them through the struggle. Oklahoma City lost focus, and momentum swings quickly when teams are not playing together. A good basketball team only needs a small opportunity to regain confidence and change the narrative of a series. Instead of this being a story of a big, athletic team bullying a finesse squad and taking their rightful place in the NBA Finals, it became comeback story of a historically great team whose trust in one another helped vanquish a more talented foe.
Golden State proved that execution, spacing, and shooting can overwhelm superb athleticism even against NBA talent. In the regular season, Golden State returned the NBA to a time when free-flowing offenses were celebrated, and allowed basketball fans the opportunity to witness the sport in its purest form. They re-introduced ball movement to a game that for too long relied on simple isolation plays by its star players to get baskets. And, in the playoffs, they showed that elite skill coupled with teamwork can overcome nearly impossible odds. When the Thunder were under pressure in the 5th, 6th, and 7th games of the Western Conference Finals, they tried to defeat Golden State by giving the basketball to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and clearing out to let them beat their man one-on-one. Those plays – or the lack of set plays in these instances - allowed the Warriors to key in on the stars, send help, and force Durant or Westbrook into a turnover or a tough contested shot. When faced with tough situations, the Thunder reverted to the type of play that had them underachieving the past few seasons. When their backs were against the wall in the Conference Finals, the Warriors leaned on the tenets of Small Ball which uses smaller, quicker players to create mismatches on offense and values three point shooting because three point shots add an additional point to each field goal and create the necessary spacing to get easy baskets with drives, dives, and back-cuts to the rim. Instead of alienating the role players by having the stars hoist up tough shots, Golden State moved the ball through their normal offense keeping all their players engaged and ultimately getting easier shots for their stars after they worked themselves open.
The Western Conference Finals reinforced a plethora of beliefs about basketball strategy. It showed simple truths of sports. Big, strong men usually win in athletic endeavors because sports by definition are biased towards athletes. However, skill and determination can trump raw talent. The Conference Finals showed that star power by itself folds in the face of teamwork. It showed that a good game plan does not matter if it is not executed and that strategy either devolves in the face of pressure or unifies a team. But, most of all the series showed that the Golden State Warriors are one of the greatest teams of this generation.