The Thunder Might Have an Antidote for Golden State's "Death Lineup"
The Golden State Warriors' death lineup swung last season's NBA Finals and has presented a problem no NBA team really solved this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder finally might have hit upon an answer.
Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Ever since head coach Steve Kerr took special assistant Nick U'Ren's suggestion and swapped Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut to start Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors have had both the best and the most fascinating lineup in basketball. There's league MVP Stephen Curry, flanked on the wings by Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, with Draymond Green at center. After playing just 102 minutes together the entire regular season, that five-man group blitzed the Cleveland Cavaliers 107-87 across 49 minutes during the last three games of the Finals as the Dubs captured their first title in 40 years. The death lineup was born.
Most small lineups sacrifice defense for a corresponding offensive boost, but not this one. Their combination of length, quickness, and versatility is unparalleled; switching on defense becomes an act of aggression designed to snuff out the opposing team rather than a passive reaction to a threat. And, in an unfair twist, the death lineup is even better on offense—a whirl of ball movement and shooting that's effectively unguardable.
As stunning as it was in last year's NBA Finals, though, the death lineup really made its impact on the national consciousness during Golden State's 73-win romp through the league this season. Luke Walton, who began the season coaching the team while Kerr was recovering from back surgery, turned to it often as a half- and game-closing lineup; he also trotted it out whenever the Warriors were in need of a serious run. Kerr has continued that practice, in large part because it worked damn near every time.
In 172 minutes this season, the death lineup outscored its opponents by 166points, an average of 46.3 per-48 minutes, according to NBA.com. There were 73 five-man groups in the NBA that played at least 150 minutes together during the regular season. The death lineup had the best pace-adjusted scoring margin by 15.2 points; the next closest lineup was actually the Warriors' starters. The nearest non-Golden State lineup was some 22.8 points per 100 possessions behind.
The group was so good together that it spawned two descendants. There's the Near-Death Experience (as Kevin Arnovitz so wonderfully coined it on Zach Lowe's podcast), with Shaun Livingston subbed into Iguodala's spot, and another group with Livingston subbed in for Curry, which we saw a whole lot more of while Curry was sidelined earlier in the playoffs. Neither is as dangerous as the death lineup, of course, but they combined to outscore opponents by 55 points in 101 regular season minutes.
Even with Curry active for only four of the Warriors' 10 playoff games, these small-ball units have continued mashing through their opponents. In 36 minutes, they've blasted the opposition 112-83. In all likelihood, they'll keep mowing down everything in their path on the way to making this back-to-back thing a reality. But before they get there, they'll have to get past their biggest, baddest test yet: facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Golden State's small lineups played 24 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the regular season, and outscored them 63-53. The death lineup played 17 of those minutes, which it won by a count of 57-40; that includes a 36-22 run over the final five minutes of regulation and overtime in their epic February 27 matchup, which you will recall ended on Curry's record-tying 12th triple of the game, a 38-foot bomb that caught nothing but bottoms.
None of those minutes, though, came against the Thunder lineup that swung the Western Conference semis for OKC and made the San Antonio Spurs look so suddenly and irrevocably old. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams played all of 127 minutes together during the regular season, and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant joined them for only 27 of those. But that foursome, plus Dion Waiters, smoked the Spurs 16-6 over the final five minutes of Game 4, then won 14 combined minutes in Games 5 and 6 by a 14-point margin. All told, that lineup shot 61.5 percent from the field and grabbed the offensive board on 8 of their 15 missed shots during those three games.
And it's there where the Bash Brothers—Smash Brothers was already taken by last year's Warriors-Grizzlies matchups, sorry—could present some problems for the best lineup in basketball. Good as they were on both ends, Golden State's death lineup snagged only 71.6 percent of available defensive rebounds during the regular season, a figure 1.2 percent lower than the worst defensive rebounding team in the league. OKC led the NBA in offensive rebound rate at 31.1 percent during the regular season, and the Kanter-Adams lineups corralled an even larger share—an absurd 37.3 percent.
So it seems logical for Thunder head coach Billy Donovan to at least experiment with that lineup against Kerr's shock-and-awe unit. Donovan has already indicated that he'll try to stay big as often as possible, even when the Warriors go small, because he wants to play to his team's strengths. Kanter and Adams crashing the glass against Green and Barnes is a win for the Thunder, especially given the scrambling defense that teams usually have to enact to keep Westbrook and Durant from getting free looks near the basket. Help defenders rotating away from big men near the rim is what most often opens up the offensive boards, especially when those helpers are small to begin with.
The Warriors are not the Spurs, though, and it would be a mistake to assume that the big boy group is a definitive solution to the death lineup. San Antonio had a couple of relatively static big men on which the Thunder could park Kanter and Adams defensively, and the Spurs rarely had more than two "plus" outside shooters in the game at a time. Everyone in the death lineup, meanwhile, can shoot it from deep. Four of the five guys are "plus" passers; four of them are "plus" creators with the ball in their hands as well. This is what makes the lineup so maddening to defend—they stretch the defense to the max, ping the ball around the perimeter, and make opposing teams guard every single inch of the floor. The Thunder know from painful experience that their job on defense will extend out to at least 38 feet from the basket.
This means there is no safe place to hide Kanter, who, while he has improved defensively, is still not even an average defender. The death lineup has no player who consistently hangs close enough to the rim to ensure that Adams will reliably be there to help on drives. There's nobody Waiters can fall asleep for even a second against if he's guarding them—which, if you've watched Dion Waiters, you know is something that happens fairly often, even if it mostly didn't against the Spurs. And everyone in the death lineup is capable of punishing Westbrook's many passing-lane gambles.
It seems likely that the Thunder will stash Kanter and Adams on Barnes and Iguodala, if only because they're the two least threatening Warriors players with the ball in their hands. Matching up that way pushes Durant onto Draymond Green, allowing OKC to switch the ever-dangerous Curry-Green pick-and-roll without asking one of their bigs to hang with Curry off the dribble. The Thunder among the teams that elected to match up that way on occasion during the regular season, and it at least put a temporary hitch in the Dubs' giddy-up. Golden State eventually figured it out and smashed it, like every other tactic opponents tried this season, because they're the Warriors. There is no proven way to snuff their options. You have to beat them some other way.
It will be tough for the Thunder to find that advantage on offense. There's a convenient hiding spot for Curry in Waiters, who is still the least threatening player of the group despite his surprisingly effective playoff run so far. Given Curry's ankle and knee issues this postseason, saving him the aggravation of guarding Westbrook unless absolutely necessary is probably wise. The Dubs can sic Thompson or Iguodala (or Livingston) on him instead—they're better equipped to bother his dribble with their size and length. None are likely to keep Westbrook from getting to his spots, but they would at least make things slightly more difficult, which is all anyone can really ask against Russ.
Of Thompson and Iguodala, whoever doesn't slide to Westbrook seems likely to be on Durant, a task nearly as impossible as guarding Curry. There aren't many players in the history of the league who can move and shake and shoot like KD, let alone ones anywhere near his size. Whoever draws that unfortunate matchup will get plenty of help in the form of swarming rotations and switches, of course, but sending too much help KD's way opens up the boards for Kanter and Adams.
It's tempting to assume that Green would match up with Adams and Barnes with Kanter on defense. That would indeed make sense: Adams is the primary roll man in OKC's offense, and Draymond is the Dubs' best pick-and-roll defender. Doing that could also tempt the Thunder into taking the ball out of Westbrook or Durant's hands and pounding it into Kanter in the post against Barnes, where he would doubtless do some damage. Still, the Warriors would be happy to live with that, because it means OKC runs the show through someone that isn't Westbrook or Durant. Golden State would be just as pleased to see the Thunder using Adams in the post against Barnes, for the same reason.
It's a bit strange working through all these permutations without mentioning Serge Ibaka, who played 76 percent of the Thunder's crunch-time minutes during the regular season. He's the best defender among the Thunder bigs, too, especially around the rim. But Ibaka's outward drift toward the three-point line on offense makes him a slightly less dangerous player against the death lineup than Kanter. Against the best team in basketball, every advantage matters, which leaves Ibaka the odd man out. If the Bash Brothers lineup fails defensively, the Thunder can always go back to Serge and hope it's not too late. That tends to happen quickly where the Warriors are concerned, but with their breakout lineup the Thunder at least have a puncher's chance. Against Golden State, that's about as good as it gets.