Just two teams in NBA history have won 70 games in a regular season: The legendary 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10 to set the NBA record for wins and winning percentage in a regular season, and the electrifying 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, whose 73-9 mark reset those bars.
On Sunday night, in their first home playoff game against those mighty Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder handed out a beatdown that made all sorts of NBA history.
OKC's 133-105 victory was just the fifth defeat of a 70-win team by 20 or more points, and the worst loss by either the '96 Bulls or '16 Warriors in a playoff game — and it erases the mark for biggest playoff win over a 70-win team in NBA history that was already held by the Thunder franchise, thanks to a 21-point loss to the Seattle SuperSonics by those Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals.
In that game, though, the Bulls trailed by 21 entering the fourth quarter, and the Sonics maintained their distance. In this one, Billy Donovan's Thunder led by as many as 41, and entered the fourth quarter leading by 37. He called off the dogs when that final period began: Neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook, who combined for 63 points on 34 shots, played a second in the fourth, and OKC finished the night with Cameron Payne, Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler, and Enes Kanter on the floor.
The 133 points were also the most scored in a playoff game against a 70-win team in NBA history, and just four points off a 137-point night — including a 33-point fourth quarter and a 51-point performance by Damian Lillard — that the Portland Trail Blazers put on the Warriors earlier this year, the largest scoring output against a 70-win team ever.
There are simple, direct narratives to focus on coming out of Game 3. Like the Thunder's adjustments, namely Billy Donovan deploying a clever small-ball lineup that stared down the Warriors' vaunted "death lineup."
Coming off the Warriors' 27-point win in Game 2, there was plenty of thinking they had re-established themselves in the series, and the Thunder were going to have to swim upstream. With three days off to adjust, Donovan dialed up areas of improvement and adjustment. He altered his substitution pattern, going with Dion Waiters for Adams with his first sub for an early look of small ball.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Donovan played Serge Ibaka at center just 5 percent of the team's possessions in Games 1 and 2. In Game 3, it was 39 percent. The Thunder outscored the Warriors in Game 3 by 34 and shot 71.4 percent when they went small with Ibaka as the lone big man. The Warriors shot just 33.3 percent against those lineups.
The general line of thinking coming into the series was strength against strength, big versus small. Which identity would win out? Nobody outsmarts the Warriors at small ball. Against the Spurs, the Thunder leaned on their twin-tower look with Enes Kanter and Adams to swing that series. But against the Warriors, Donovan took advantage of the wealth of pieces general manager Sam Presti has put at his disposal.
That smallball lineup eviscerated the Warriors, beating their best lineup at its own game.
Durant and Westbrook finished at +36 and +41 for the night, as is to be expected, but Ibaka finished at +42, and the much-maligned Dion Waiters, who has improved considerably under Donovan's tutelage, came in at +32. No member of that Warriors lineup — comprised of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes — finished with better than the -12 posted by Barnes, and the other four were all at -34 or worse.
Just a week after finishing off a San Antonio Spurs squad seemingly preordained for a Western Conference Finals shootout with the Warriors, Donovan and the Thunder are up 2-1 on the Warriors, who had previously trailed just twice in a playoff series — after being grounded by the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals and being topped by godlike performances from LeBron James in last year's NBA Finals — under Steve Kerr.
With a win on Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder's last two results are 24- and 28-point blowouts of teams that won 67 and 73 games, the first-year NBA head coach and his team would hand the Warriors their first two-game deficit in a playoff series under Kerr, and earn three chances to end the season of the team with the most successful regular-season campaign in NBA history.
The Thunder, long considered an also-ran in a brutally tough Western Conference thanks to an up-and-down regular season in which Donovan spent his time figuring out the pro game and tragedy touched the team time and again, are now just six wins away from their first NBA title.
Not bad for Billy the Kid, I guess.