(Reuters) - The Golden State Warriors are fast becoming a pale shadow of the 73-win team that stormed through the regular season and there is no shortage of theories as to why the league’s most dominant team are now on the verge of playoff elimination.
After Oklahoma City pummeled the Warriors 118-94 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series on Tuesday, questions poured in like Thunder fast-break points.
Is the team’s talismanic MVP Stephen Curry healthy? Did Draymond Green buckle under the pressure of his near suspension? Is Golden State finally being crushed by the burden of fulfilling a record campaign?
Following their latest setback, the first consecutive losses of the season for the Warriors, the defending NBA champions did their best to deflect questions demanding an explanation for their demise.
“We had a tremendous season and did something no one has done before. We’re proud of that. But in the playoffs, everyone starts 0-0, so there’s no extra pressure,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr told reporters.
On the court, however, the fun-loving Warriors of the regular season appear to have been transformed into a struggling unit, devoid of form or fluidity against a highly motivated opponent.
Curry buried half-court shots on command as he claimed a second consecutive MVP award but he has been outplayed by Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook in the conference finals, prompting inquiries about the right knee he sprained last month.
“I‘m fine,” said Curry, who has made just 13-of-37 shots in his last two games.
“In our locker room it’s frustration and trying to figure out how we can get back to being ourselves.”
The Game Four spotlight was also shining on Green after he avoided a suspension despite kicking Thunder center Steven Adams in the groin during Sunday’s 133-105 blowout loss.
The team’s emotional leader, Green was subdued during a six-point, six-turnover night.
“That’s the first time in my life I haven’t responded to critics,” Green said of his disappointing display. “That’s been my story. I haven’t (responded) so I need to do that.”
When the Warriors pushed past the historic 72 wins of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls it felt inevitable that they would cap that feat with a second straight title.
Now the odds are stacked against them and the reason for the turnaround in fortunes appears much simpler than the combined battle against pressure and health.
The Thunder are bigger, faster and at this moment, better than Golden State and it does not require a deep investigation to uncover that.
“(OKC) is outplaying us right now and we have to come up with answers,” Kerr admitted.
Those answers need to be found quickly with Game Five coming up in Oakland on Thursday.
Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Brien