Sunday, 22 May 2016

Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors – Game 3 – May 22, 2016

In the early morning hours of Thursday morning, as the Thunder’s team plane was crossing the Rocky Mountains on its way back from Oakland to Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and the rest of their teammates and coaches were watching film from Games 1 and 2 against the Golden State Warriors. In these Western Conference Finals, there’s no time to waste in preparing for the next game.

Sunday night’s Game 3 will be a pivotal one, as they all are, as the Thunder and the Warriors go toe-to-toe in a 1-1 series to try to advance to the NBA Finals. Led by Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder has assessed where it can improve from Game 2, how it can limit turnovers, prevent second chance points and execute at a higher level.

“That's the one thing that makes those two guys so special is because they have a strong willingness and eagerness to want to improve and get better,” Donovan explained. “It could be in any area. They're just looking to grow and get better.”

One of the areas the Thunder wants to do a better job of defensively in Game 3 is limit the Warriors’ open three-point attempts, both in transition and in the half court. On a few occasions in Game 2, Golden State forwards were able to get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson open on pin-down screens along the wing by both screening Curry and Thompson’s defenders, but at other times by screening their own defenders when they anticipated the Thunder would switch. As a result, the Thunder has to be unpredictable in its defensive coverages so that the Warriors don’t know exactly what’s coming, or who to screen.

“We've got to mix-up coverage and do some different things,” Donovan said. “Curry and Klay Thompson, they've been guarded every possible way imagined, and they've seen a lot of different things. So a lot of times in those situations you're talking about where there are switches or slips or there's not a screen, there is a screen, it really takes a high level of communication, whatever you're doing, whether you're staying with your man or you are switching. But we've got to change covers up as best we can, and in order to change coverages you've got to communicate.”

Beyond the x’s and o’s, however, the Thunder’s main objective heading into Game 3 is just to do everything at a higher level, with more energy and more concentrated effort. At this stage of the postseason, everyone is playing as hard as they can, leaving everything on the floor. The key is harnessing the energy in the right way and devoting that effort in the ways that lead to victory. That part is much more difficult than simply “playing harder”, it’s about playing with a corralled tenacity and concentrated will.

“They made those plays, and in Game 1, I thought we did a better job,” Donovan said. “They did a great job raising their level of play, and you've got to give them credit.”

“We can watch the film, and we can say ‘oh, we need to switch this one, we need to change this one,’” Serge Ibaka added. “But the reality is they were playing tougher than us. They were tougher, they were more aggressive than us. That's something you can't always watch on film and can't always change. It's mentally. I think it's something we have to do next game.”

Every possession matters in these NBA Playoffs, as the Thunder saw in a hard-fought victory in Oakland in Game 1, when down the stretch it executed better than the Warriors. In Game 2, Donovan’s club let go of the reins for a minute span at the end of the first half, and it turned the tide of the game completely.

That focus and determination to be on point for every possession can make up for a lot of mistakes, difficult shots hit by opponents and tough luck. The key for the Thunder, as leaders like Westbrook described, is to stay vigilant and pull the team out of a bad rhythm before consecutive such possessions pile up.

“Once we play harder, everything else will go into place. I think that's the most important part,” Westbrook said. “Offensive rebounds, extra possessions, stuff like that just shows they wanted it more than us. We can't let that happen.”

“You try to find ways to help each other out, help yourself out, find ways to not let the guy in front of you beat you to the ball, box out, do things that can change the game,” Westbrook added.

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