OAKLAND, Calif. — There’s a difference between surviving and truly living, like the difference between scraping by on bread and water and savoring a sumptuous meal. The Golden State Warriors subsisted on Thursday night, holding off the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-111 in a Game 5 to prolong the Western Conference finals. They just failed to provide a convincing argument that they can overcome the decisive home-court advantage in Oklahoma City that pushed the Warriors to the brink in Games 3 and 4. They got more, but they need more.
Here’s the Warriors’ dilemma: They like to play loose and free, while the Thunder’s defense demands discipline and fundamentals. The Warriors are so dependent on finding the joy in the game (the word “fun” popped up eight times in the transcripts of their postgame comments) and feed off the adoration of their home crowd, and now they must win in one of the league’s most hostile environments for opponents — a place that made their lives so dreary in the middle of this series.
Finding fun could actually be their best option. The Warriors have no decisive, dependable matchup advantage, not when Russell Westbrook has outplayed Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant has been a taller and better version of Draymond Green, and Steven Adams has been the best big man in the series. Plus, the Thunder’s defensive schemes — switching mobile guys with long arms with mobile guys with long arms — have kept the Warriors from merrily launching 3-pointers.
“The ones where they get you in trouble is where you iso and do eight dribbles and change direction and try to still search for that 3,” Curry said, basically describing half of his Vine-worthy plays from this season. “That’s the one that is tempting. and you kind of have to feel the moment whether you’re going to take them or not. But those are the ones that get you into trouble if you play right into their hands.”
Andre Iguodala saw how the Thunder managed to make the San Antonio Spurs abandon their teamwork principles and attempt heavy isolation ball during the previous series. “We fall in that trap sometimes,” he said.
The solution is like the basketball equivalent of piano scales.
“Jump stops, reverse pivots,” Iguodala said. “You can’t throw the ball over their long arms. You’ve got to get your feet set. Throw a pump fake — kind of those boring things you have to do at camp.”
Be boring? Can that really be the Warrior way? Golden State looked more like itself and played more like itself, amid Green flexing his biceps and yelling (he picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs, two shy of drawing a one-game suspension) and Curry letting the delirious crowd know, “We’re not going home!“
Well, they did play slightly more traditional lineups, giving center Andrew Bogut a series-high 30 minutes of playing time as he rewarded Steve Kerr with 15 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots. They were feistier.
And all that did was even things out, really — and with a major assist provided by the home crowd. Both teams had 45 rebounds. The Warriors’ top two scorers, Curry and Klay Thompson, were slightly more efficient than the Thunder duo of Durant and Westbrook, combining for 58 points on 41 percent shooting, while their Oklahoma City counterparts scored 71 on 39 percent shooting. The Warriors had far more support from their secondary players — you know, the ones who are less likely to perform well on the road.
The Thunder weren’t at their best, yet they weren’t easily subdued. They kept absorbing the Warriors’ surges and had cut a 13-point lead down to six when Durant fired a long 3-pointer that missed with 36 seconds left.
“I thought we played extremely hard tonight,” said Durant, whose 40 points were one shy of his career playoff high. “They didn’t outplay us, they didn’t outwork us.”
The Thunder entered this series with no fear of the Warriors, and as it has gone on, it appears as though they have little use for respect. Asked if Curry is underrated as a defender on a night he had five steals, Durant questioned whether steals were a true measure of defense, noted that the Warriors usually have Thompson guard top point guards and said, “I like our matchup with him guarding Russ.” All while Westbrook tried to stifle laughter.
The Thunder feel confident they have the Warriors figured out, even if their small lineup didn’t annihilate them the way it had in Oklahoma City. They know they already secured the victory in Oakland they needed for this series and have seen no evidence that the Warriors can do the same in their building.
“We played like we were really stressed in OKC, and it showed,” Curry said.
Earlier, he gave a really good answer to a question about playing at home: “You feed off your crowd’s energy and that noise when you make runs and the road team can feel the roof kind of come in a little bit. When the home team goes on those 6-0, 8-0 runs, whatever it may be, and the adrenaline rush is amazing.”
Now, the challenge is “to bottle up that joy and take it with us on the plane.” The moment reminded me of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden a few years ago, when Bruce Springsteen joined U2 on stage to perform “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Bono was in the midst of a sanctimonious speech about the history of rock and the people who came before him, how rock is about voices joining together and how rock is about liberation, when Springsteen felt the need to interject: “Let’s have some fun with that.” Maybe that’s exactly what someone should remind the Warriors.