Let’s look at the raw MVP numbers, shall we?
James Harden, the reigning MVP and once again in contention for a possible second straight MVP award, is currently averaging 36.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 7.6 assists, with a true-shooting percentage (TS%) of 61.1 percent. Harden has become a near-unstoppable force who is capable of easily bypassing the 30-point mark, and having had many instances of single-handedly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
However, against the Warriors last Wednesday night, Harden was made to look mortal. The Warriors played him excellently without falling prey to his foul-hunting tendencies, making him give up possession of the ball multiple times and making his life on offense as difficult as possible. The result? On a shooting clip of 10-of-23 (43.5 percent) and 2-of-12 on threes (16.7 percent), Harden was able to score 29 points, just under the 30-point threshold that has become the expected standard from him. While 29 points is nothing to scoff at, the fact that the Warriors forced him to be inefficient in the process was enough to basically slow him down — and with a victory decided by a mere 2 points, it was all the more crucial that they managed to accomplish such a feat.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors were again faced with the prospect of attempting to slow down another MVP candidate in Paul George, who is averaging 28.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, with a TS% of 58.7 percent. He has been on a particular tear from behind the arc, shooting 39.2 percent on threes as well as having 245 total three-point shots made during this season, which is ranked 3rd behind Harden (308) and Stephen Curry (284). His two-way prowess — he is also a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award — has helped the Thunder on several occasions, and just like Harden, he has become the focal point and savior of the Thunder in the post-Kevin Durant era.
But as the Warriors established during their game against the Rockets, they don’t cower away from the challenge of having to guard an MVP-caliber opponent — they fully embrace it. Against the Warriors, George also scored 29 points, but on a shooting clip of 9-of 25 (36 percent) and 4-of-12 on threes (33.3 percent). Again, 29 points is, on paper, not bad at all for a player of George’s caliber. But just like Harden before him, George was forced to be extremely inefficient. And with the Thunder’s offense being nearly synonymous with that of George’s, the Warriors’ defensive masterpiece was made possible by George’s subpar shooting performance.
Let’s dive into the film and see how the Warriors were able to slow him down.
With the announcement of Kevin Durant being out against the Thunder, Steve Kerr made the decision to start Andre Iguodala in his place, an indication of the seriousness with which the Warriors intended to bring with them against the Thunder. Iguodala is one of the best lockdown defenders in the league, and inserting him in the starting lineup to guard George is a no-brainer.
As was mentioned above, George is currently shooting well from three-point range, a weapon that he has developed and refined over the years. The Warriors are well aware of this — and so is Iguodala. So when George steps into his first pull-up attempt from behind the arc, Iguodala contests the shot well.
George manages to avoid a matchup against Iguodala in this fastbreak sequence and attempts to score over DeMarcus Cousins. However, Cousins does a great job of staying in front of George without fouling. Cousins uses his large frame to act as an impenetrable wall, and George’s floater misses by virtue of being disturbed by Cousins’ presence. The Thunder still score, however, due to Steven Adams being there for the putback.
George misses another pull-up three, courtesy of another good contest from Iguodala. Notice how Iguodala slightly backs off, as if to bait George into pulling up for the shot. When George takes the bait, Iguodala suddenly closes in and puts his hand up for a quick contest. It’s a make-or-miss league, and George can make these kinds of shots. But Iguodala’s contest slightly increases the odds of putting that shot into the “miss” category, and the odds turn out to be in his favor.
In this sequence, Draymond Green takes a turn at defending George, who manages to get the step on Green. But Green doesn’t give up, despite being slightly behind. He stays close to George and gives him small bumps on his way to the rim. A last-second swipe by Green fails to catch anything, but it bothers George enough to miss the layup.
Here is another George miss from deep. Alfonzo McKinnie is the primary defender, and his closeout on a trailing George makes him hesitate just enough to disrupt his shooting rhythm, which forces the miss. McKinnie has his faults on the defensive end — too jumpy at times, shaky footwork, and questionable fundamentals — but his length and quickness can be occasionally counted on, and it works to his advantage in this instance.
Here is Iguodala yet again shutting George down all by himself. The 28-year-old George attempts to get past the 35-year-old, but Iguodala uses his still-springy legs and keeps up with the youthful drive of George. With a layup out of the question, George pulls up for the mid-range jumper, but Iguodala’s swipe is bothersome enough to force a miss, which causes George to foul Cousins afterwards in frustration.
Iguodala again masterfully shuts down George in this sequence after an offensive board gives the Thunder another chance to score. Look at Iguodala and how he acts as a brick wall against George, who desperately tries to break through inside for a layup. But Iguodala is absolutely unyielding, and he didn’t even need to reach in or swipe at the ball. Just a perfect lockdown of one of the best offensive players in the league.
Even when George somehow manages to get past Iguodala in this sequence, he rushes his floater because of Iguodala’s poke, which forces George to momentarily lose control of the ball.
Iguodala is once again immovable against George in this sequence, who ends up getting led into a double team that includes Cousins. George’s desperation bail out pass is easily picked off.
Even with a switch onto Kevon Looney, George’s life on offense is made a living hell. Looney is always a perceived mismatch by opposing teams, who try to feast on his appearance as a seemingly uncoordinated and non-athletic defender. While Looney does lack explosiveness and foot speed, he does possess great fundamentals and extreme discipline. George tries to get past Looney, but he encounters a lot of difficulty in the process. With a little help from a Green contest, Looney forces the tough shot and the miss.
The Warriors were locked in all night long on defense against the Thunder, who were made ineffective and offensively barren. They have had their struggles on offense all season long, with an offensive rating (109.3) that is average and placed right in the middle of the league rankings (16th), as well as a team 3PT% of 34.7 percent, good for only 23rd in the league.
The Thunder were forced into a 31-of-96 shooting clip from the field (32.3 percent), a 13-of-41 clip from three-point range (31.7 percent), and an abysmal offensive rating of 85.4. On most nights, George is the most consistent and reliable source of offense for the Thunder, the proverbial head of the snake — but once that head is cut off, the rest of the body is rendered lifeless. Teams can never really completely stop offensive superstars from getting their high scoring stats — but they can manage to slow them down and make them have to shoot volumes in order to meet their scoring quota, often at the expense of the rest of the team.
George, for all his offensive capabilities, was made into nothing more than a stat sheet filler.
Speaking of stat sheet fillers, Russell Westbrook — the Thunder’s other superstar and the triple-double king — was forced into a rare triple-single, finishing with 7 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists, thanks in large part to the incredible defensive performance of Klay Thompson.
To add insult to injury, the Warriors gave Westbrook — who is currently sporting a shooting split of .427/.282/.652 and a TS% of 49.8 percent — the Tony Allen treatment by sagging off of him on the perimeter and letting him shoot, because they placed so much trust in him to miss his jumpers.
As shown above, Westbrook would prove that the Warriors’ trust in him was well-placed.
Sixty-eight down, 14 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.