The Golden State Warriors have been down before, but never like this.
A 133-105 demolition by the Oklahoma City Thunder has the defending champions in a 2-1 hole that feels distinctly deeper than any the Warriors have faced before. Golden State trailed earlier in this series after dropping the opener, and it faced 2-1 disadvantages twice in last year's playoffs—to the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers.
In those previous instances, there were still adjustments to be made. The Warriors made them, won the ensuing games and, in the cases of Memphis and Cleveland, went on to take the series. Game 2 of this engagement made it seem like the Warriors would do the same thing.
But the Thunder, in smashing Golden State to pieces Sunday, became the first opponent to absorb a Warriors postseason adjustment and counter with one of their own. Except, for Oklahoma City, the answer was less about strategy and more about a forceful, committed reliance on the things that made it so dangerous in the first place.
The chess match of this series turned into a prize fight, and OKC did all the punching.
This...this was different, as Andrew Bogut pointedly explained to Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:
Head coach Steve Kerr was similarly direct, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:
That's not to say the Dubs were knocked out immediately. They missed quality looks in the first quarter—many from the corners—and actually tied the score at 40 with a talent-deficient bench unit on the floor.
Oklahoma City's first haymaker landed shortly afterward, though, fueled by fast-break points and whatever high-pitched rallying cry arises after a play like this:
Draymond Green's second low blow on Steven Adams in as many games earned a flagrant-1 designation and could warrant scrutiny from the league office. Whether Adams' mistreatment galvanized OKC or not, the game-deciding run was on after that.
Golden State simply couldn't score as the second quarter wore on. Oklahoma City's stifling defense and aggressive helping schemes had something to do with the drought, but so did the Warriors' own haste, which sometimes crossed the line into panic.
The Thunder kept running on Golden State's frequent misses, and as the Warriors continued chasing offensive rebounds, there simply weren't enough defenders back to arrest Russell Westbrook's incessant charges to the cup. The dam broke, and the Thunder poured it on, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Compounding the Warriors' woes, all those low-percentage glass crashes yielded awful results.
Oklahoma City demolished Golden State on the boards, 52-38.
By halftime, the Warriors' punchless offense had reached near comedic levels, per ESPN:
The aesthetics matched the numbers, and Westbrook's wild-eyed, splay-limbed athleticism stood out in stark contrast to the Warriors' sluggish shuffling:
At the break, OKC led by 25. The rest of the contest featured more of the same, as the Warriors broke and re-broke their postseason record for deficits in the Kerr era, and the Thunder pushed the advantage up to the 40-point mark.
Kevin Durant scored 33 points on 15 shots and led the OKC parade to the foul line (33-of-37 as a team), hitting all 12 of his freebies. Westbrook finished with 30 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
More alarmingly for the Warriors, the combination of Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters shot 11-of-20 and scored 26 points. Roberson was 3-of-5 from deep.
In a strange way, this game felt familiar...just flipped. Normally, the Warriors do this to opponents. They're the ones who inspire helplessness, who foster a feeling that every foe lives or dies at their discretion.
Given the circumstances, stage and stakes, this may have been the best game the Thunder have ever played. This was an optimal performance—dominant on both ends, perfectly balanced between fevered wildness and narrow, focused control.
But that's where Golden State has to start looking for positive omens. It must trust in the mercy of natural regression. Nobody can be as good as the Thunder were (let alone against a champion) for an entire series.
That speaks volumes, though. The Warriors' first, best hope is that the Thunder won't be this good again. Sure, there are things the Dubs can do—help each other more on defense, stay committed to the plan when early looks don't fall, leave the offensive glass alone—but relying on the opponent to come back to earth is something Golden State has never had to do before.
Most times, it's the opposition hoping the Warriors cool off.
It's hard to find a better encapsulation of the Thunder's quality than that. They're dosing the Warriors with their own medicine.
Golden State can trust in its resiliency. It can lean on its 12-0 record after losses this year. It can count on better defense, less frenzied efforts from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and above all, something more than one of the worst games in recent playoff history from Green, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:
That's if Green ducks a suspension for that kick, of course.
Yet, even with the likelihood of OKC regression and Golden State's success-bred confidence in its ability to adjust, there's still this lingering idea that if the Thunder do this again (or come even close), the Warriors may not be able to win.
There is no perfect answer to the Thunder puzzle. The Warriors' survival depends partly on their own tweaks, but mostly on Oklahoma City's perfection being unrepeatable.
That's a vulnerable place to be, and it's one the Warriors have only understood from the other side.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.