The Oklahoma City Thunder, at one point, were up 3-1 on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Now they’re not. The Warriors, who were down to their last, gasping breath at numerous points during Game 6, have won the last two games and now here we are headed for Game 7 on Monday night. There is a temptation to dwell on how it all happened. How the Thunder let such a controlling grip on this series slip, seemingly, in a matter of a few moments. How the Warriors rose from the dead by way of a Klay Thompson shooting display for the ages.
But don’t do it. Forget all that stuff. Forget whether Steph Curry is healthy. Forget the 73 wins. Forget Kevin Durant’s impending free agency. Forget all the storylines that we have, to this point, attached to a series that has become an instant classic. None of them matter right now. All that matters is that Monday night in Oakland, two heartbreakingly special teams are going to play one game for a trip to the NBA Finals. That’s it. One game. And the Thunder would be very wise to remember that.
This may be easier said than done, of course, even though the Thunder are doing the right thing by not even watching the film of Game 6. For all the talk of athletes having to have short memories, human nature is human nature. Regret, if only in the most secluded parts of our memories, is inevitable. But again, right now, there isn’t anything to regret. Nothing bad has happened yet. This series, to state the obvious, isn’t over, just as it wasn’t over for the Warriors when they were down 3-1. Yes, Golden State has the momentum. Yes, Game 7 is in Oakland. But Oklahoma City, for the better part of this series, has been the better team. They took Game 1 at Oracle. They were right there in Game 5.
Even in Game 6, think about what it took for the Warriors to pull out that win by the skin of their teeth. Nothing less than the greatest 3-point shooting display in NBA playoff history combined with a relatively awful game from Kevin Durant, who had to jack up 31 shots to score 29 points. This is to say nothing of Russell Westbrook, who has been the best player in this series and was one assist shy of yet another triple-double, going haywire in the final two minutes to the tune of 2-of-7 shooting and four turnovers.
True, it’s not like it’s the first time any of these things have happened. Westbrook is known to get a little out of control from time to time. Partly by extension, the Thunder, who led by eight with nine minutes to play Saturday night, blew 14 fourth-quarter leads this year, which was the most in the NBA. And obviously Klay Thompson getting hot from deep isn’t a new development.
But all of these things happening at once? That’s a perfect storm. It’s ironic, because that’s what the Thunder have felt like for much of this series. A crashing, unrelenting storm of furious, long, scowling athletes. It’s taken every bit of grit and resolve the Warriors could muster to merely stay upright in the face of a hurricane. Now, somehow, they’re actually pushing back against that force. It’s remarkable. Really, for all their shooting heroics and modern basketball wizardry, that’s the most impressive thing about this Warriors team. Their scrap. Their guts. They never quit playing. Never quit believing. Never dwell on the past.
For those who remember the Mark Jackson era of Warriors basketball, this is all looking pretty familiar. With the Thunder playing a particularly swarming brand of defense, and with Steph Curry, who is still clearly not 100 percent, only finding his true rhythm in spurts, the offense that under Steve Kerr has become known for its free-flowing ball and player movement is once again bogging down for long stretches.
Largely gone is the beautiful, fun game that they have made look so easy over the last two years. Suddenly they’re having to survive on a pretty steady diet of tough, contested shots in isolation. Every rebound is a mismatch. Every inch of forward movement a grind. But if everything is a process, then for all the pure basketball flaws of that Jackson-led era, that’s when the Warriors learned to trust in, if not almost entirely rely upon, the puncher’s chance. Hang around as long as you can and wait to get hot. That’s what they did Saturday night, and they landed some kind of haymaker with precisely the kind of fireworks that have turned even non-basketball fans into suddenly die-hard Warrior fanatics.
The Thunder, of course, don’t give a damn about the Warriors and all their hoopla. Truth be told, they’re pretty sick of hearing about it. After Game 5, Durant was asked if he thought Curry was an underrated defender, and he did everything but laugh at the question. Westbrook, sitting next to him, actually did laugh. These two guys, if you haven’t noticed, are spitting angry. You can almost feel the rage building inside them that this Warriors team they feel they are better than, that they have, for large parts of this series, played better than, is up off the mat and once again the prohibitive favorite.
Vegas, in fact, is listing the Thunder as roughly an eight-point underdog heading into Game 7. It seems counter-intuitive that a team with two of the four best players in the world — and, all things considered, probably the two best players in this series so far — would be that big an underdog heading into a deciding game. But this is the Warriors. They’re at home, where they lost only twice all year — where, for all intents and purposes, they’ve been the better team in this series, winning Games 2 and 5 and more or less dominating the majority of Game 1. The road has been the problem, which is why a lot of people think Game 6 was Oklahoma City’s chance, and now this thing heading back to Oakland is something of a formality.
Bear in mind that, in the conference finals, of the 10 teams in NBA history who have let a 3-1 lead turn into a Game 7 on the road, eight have lost, so there’s merit to OKC’s long odds. But Monday night isn’t going to be about numbers. For this one game, you can throw out all the PER and plus/minus noise. Forget whether Kevin Durant is going to stay or go. Forget whether Steph Curry is hurt. This is a street fight. Everyone is hurt. Everyone is tired. At this point, it’s just a question of who wants it most.