No one saw this coming, but Oklahoma City has stolen Golden State’s thunder.
The 73-win defending champions, darlings of the regular season, are dazed and confused, just like everyone else watching the Western Conference finals. The Warriors aren’t simply losing the series. They’re being trampled, stomped as if they don’t belong in the same league, let alone on the same floor.
Not surprisingly, the proceedings have raised questions from observers who never were completely sold on Golden State. They have found their voice after a season of murmuring.
Is Steph Curry really the NBA’s best player? Did they win last year simply because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured? Is the Warriors’ carefree brand of ball an evolution or short-term solution?
Golden State was so dominant during the regular season, never losing back-to-back games. Now it has been routed in consecutive contests by 28 and 24 points. The confidence and swagger has disappeared. The crisp passing and player movement are nonexistent. Just as shocking, the swarming defense has been shredded, with OKC posting a 72-point first half in Game 3 and again in Game 4.
Curry has looked like a mere mortal – even feeble – after playing Superman all year. The injured knee and ankle that cost him six games this postseason seem to be factors, though he and coach Steve Kerr downplay the notion.
“He’s coming back from the knee, but he’s not injured” Kerr said after Tuesday’s blowout. “He just had a lousy night (6-of-20 from the field with six turnovers). It happens, even to the best players in the world.”
Asked about the possibility of being hampered, Curry declined to make his health an issue: “No, I’m fine,” he said.
That’s more than we can say about the Warriors’ current condition.
OKC, which held fourth-quarter leads in each of the three regular-season matchups, is exploiting its superior length and athleticism. The Thunder also is playing with supreme confidence after beating San Antonio twice on the road in the second round and dismantling the Warriors for a 3-1 lead in this series.
With so much attention focused on Golden State (and to a lesser degree, San Antonio), the Thunder was an afterthought for most of the year. Even now, much of the conversation centers on what’s wrong with the Warriors instead of what’s right with the Thunder. But OKC has been fantastic in disposing the Spurs and pushing the defending champs to the brink of elimination.
Remember when San Antonio trounced the Thunder by 32 points in the opener last round?
The Thunder have been a different team since then, going 7-2 with four wins by double-digits and three wins on the road. First-year coach Billy Donovan has OKC operating with poise and self-assurance, buoyed by a much-improved supporting cast for the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The “same ‘ol Thunder” – physically gifted but mentally flawed – no longer exists, replaced by a cold-blooded, calculating unit that rips out opponents’ hearts.
“I think it has a lot to do with Russell and Kevin’s confidence,” Donovan said. “I think that trickles down into our team. They are able to put things in great perspective coming off of setbacks. And the one thing about both of them is that when there is a setback, their ability to bounce back.
“They don’t wallow in it. They don’t have pity parties. They come back and go to work and try to inject who they are into our team.”
Who are they? Only two of the NBA’s top five players, an all-time great scorer and the most dynamic point guard ever. They have made the Warriors unrecognizable, especially the two-time MVP.
Golden State is a very good team without Curry, but he’s the player who makes them otherworldly. However, like the rest of his teammates, he’s been bothered by the Thunder’s length, physicality and aggressiveness.
Nine teams have rallied to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-1, most recently last year, when Houston pulled it off against the Los Angeles Clippers. The bad news for Golden State is 223 other teams faced that deficit and eventually succumbed.
“The series isn’t over,” Curry said. “We’ve got to believe in ourselves. It’s obviously frustration. It’s a terrible feeling once again not stepping up and being ourselves and playing our game. But I think we’re a special team that this isn’t how we’re going to go out.
“So we’re going to figure out how we can take care of these next 48 minutes on Thursday and then we’ll talk again.”
This much is certain no matter what: The conversation after this series ends will include a ton of disbelief.