The Golden State Warriors have been here before.
Last year, the Memphis Grizzlies took a 2-1 lead into Game 4 of a Western Conference playoff series on their home floor. The Warriors defeated them to turn around a series they eventually won in six games.
Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead into Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals on their home floor. The Warriors defeated them to turn around a series they eventually won in six games.
Roughly 11 months after that Finals turnaround in Ohio, the Warriors find themselves at the same crossroads. Will they restore order, or will they fall into a 3-1 ditch and not climb out? Will they rediscover the equilibrium and flow which marked so much of their season and shepherded them through a tougher-than-expected series against the Portland Trail Blazers in round two… or will they collapse?
Twice, Steve Kerr’s team had to walk over the hot coals of searing scrutiny in a road-court Game 4 to win the 2015 NBA title. This year’s 73-9 season suggested that the Dubs wouldn’t have to face such a challenge, but in the latter stages of a playoff run which has been slowed by the injury to Stephen Curry, the reigning NBA champions have no choice: They must slay the road-court Game 4 beast in order to retain their place atop the league.
If they can’t win Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, their season won’t officially end, but the rolling Thunder would inhabit a position of leverage few teams have squandered in the history of the NBA. Only nine teams have ever made the long climb from a 3-1 deficit.
This isn’t an elimination or closeout game, but it might as well be — it should certainly receive that kind of treatment from the Warriors as they prepare for the moment which could shape their record-breaking season, and how it is ultimately remembered.
No matter how much of a crisis the Warriors might seem to inhabit, consider this: According to the odds makers at SportsBettingExperts.com, the Warriors are heavy favorites (-155) heading into Game 4 versus the Thunder, despite being down 2-1 in the series.
As we focus on another 2-1 tension point for the Warriors, let’s see how much this Game 4 in Oklahoma City compares to the Game 4s in Memphis and Cleveland the Dubs survived in 2015.
A quick glance at last year’s escapes, relative to this year’s new challenge, suggests that Oklahoma City is a different breed of animal relative to the Grizzlies and Cavs. Yet, underneath the surface, the Warriors’ own problems create a very strong link between 2015 and 2016.
Yes, on one hand, the Grizzlies and last season’s Cavaliers are nothing like the present-day Thunder. Memphis and Cleveland were defense-first teams last season, and not even by choice — not when they played the Warriors. Memphis had to disrupt Golden State in order to survive for any length of time. Tony Allen wasn’t going to win games with his jump shooting. He had to bring the Warriors’ perimeter game to a standstill. Memphis had to swallow the Warriors whole on the glass, but that meant Golden State would have to miss enough shots to make rebounding relevant.
In two of the first three games of last year’s Memphis series, the Grizzlies hit their targets. They won Game 3 without scoring 100 points (99-89). Their defense was that strong. Golden State’s three-point shooting in that contest? 6 of 26. Steph Curry? 2-of-10. Klay Thompson? 3-of-6, the one player who shot reasonably well. Draymond Green? 1-of-6. Andre Iguodala? 0-for-3.
Last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers had to lean on their defense once Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured. The Cavs hounded Golden State in each of the first three games of the 2015 NBA Finals. In Game 3, Cleveland played its best game of the series. David Blatt’s defense held Golden State to just 55 points in the first three quarters before a very late (and inadequate) scoring surge by Curry made his own numbers (7 of 13 shooting) and Golden State’s score (91) at least somewhat respectable. Cleveland — like Memphis — won a home-court Game 3 against the Warriors without need of 100 points (96). Again, the Warriors’ three-point totals (in this case, sans Curry) suffered. Thompson went 2-for-7, Iguodala 2-for-8. Draymond went 1-for-4.
What’s different about Oklahoma City? The Thunder can — and did — punish the Warriors in Game 3 at the offensive end of the floor. OKC scored enough points in three quarters (117) to beat Golden State by double-figures over the course of four quarters (105). Russell Westbrook shot north of 50 percent (10-for-19), and Kevin Durant torched the Dubs on 10-for-15 shooting.
Memphis didn’t have two open-court scoring threats on par with Russ and K.D. The Grizzlies could play volleyball on the glass with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but they’ve lacked a knockdown shooter for a very long time.
Cleveland could have matched the Warriors’ firepower with Love and Kyrie, but once they went out, LeBron James had to win the Finals almost exclusively on his own. J.R. Smith needed to help him, but he couldn’t — not to the extent that was needed.
Oklahoma City can smoke the Warriors in transition, whereas 2015 Memphis and 2015 Cleveland — given how they were either initially constructed (Grizzlies) or altered by injuries (Cavs) — could not engage Golden State in a faster-paced game.
Yet, there is a common thread which unites last year and this year for the Warriors heading into a road Game 4, down 2-1: Their Game 3 offense didn’t flow.
In Game 3 against Oklahoma City, Steph and Klay didn’t splash very much. The brothers combined to hit 5-of-19 three-point shots. The consensus from the Golden State camp and those who follow the Warriors was little different from the Memphis and Cleveland Game 3s in 2015: too many rushed shots, too many turnovers, not enough ball movement.
So much is different about this 2-1 deficit heading into Game 4 for the Golden State Warriors. Yet, so much remains the same. This team doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel against Oklahoma City. However, its wheels will have to spin with a lot more efficiency than they did in Tennessee or Ohio in last year’s playoffs.