The Oklahoma City Thunder deserve the thanks and appreciation of the NBA community.
They’ve just made this season infinitely more interesting.
The ability to witness greatness is truly a special thing. Seeing the Golden State Warriors march through the NBA with such beauty, skill and versatility is — verily — a privilege. We don’t often get to see Doctor Naismith’s game played with silky, flowing elegance of the highest order. The Warriors have been seductive, sweet and symphonic in their rendition of roundball this season. They have captured hearts — and eyes — in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. They represent a big, bountiful gift to basketball fans everywhere, and no lover of this sport should want to see the Warriors decrease in relevance anytime soon.
However, there’s a difference between relevance and ease of conquest. There is space to be found between brilliance and dominance. The Warriors are going to continue to entertain us, and they’ll continue to win a lot of games. However, one thing has to be said about greatness in its highest form: It is truly magnified when it is tested and challenged. Greatness, if left to exist on its own, without being subjected to pronounced pressure, doesn’t become as substantial as it otherwise could be. It’s only when a foe poses a significant obstacle that the full measure of a team — a group of athletes, led by a group of coaches — can emerge.
You know what this is about, of course. The Golden State Warriors — as fun as they are to watch — needed to be challenged.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs fell well short of doing so in the month of January. The Los Angeles Clippers did so in the first months of the season, back in 2015, but Blake Griffin is out, and the culture surrounding that team has not improved to any appreciable degree over the course of the season.
The one upper-tier team we had not seen in a direct duel with the Warriors — not in this season, at any rate — was the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a part of the NBA’s backloaded schedule, the champions will meet OKC a number of times in February and beyond, and Saturday’s first clash on the eve of Super Bowl 50 felt like a main event. This was true within the confines of the matchup itself, but also because the Dubs had so easily swatted away the Cavs and Spurs in recent weeks.
If the NBA season was going to receive a fresh injection of badly-needed intrigue, Oklahoma City had to shake down the Thunder and shake up the Warriors.
Plenty of pundits had reason to be skeptical about the possibility.
First of all, the Warriors — without even bringing the Thunder into the conversation — had set their own impossibly high standard. They were playing at home, where they hadn’t lost a regular season game since January 27, 2015 — over 12 full months ago. They have simply been ridiculously, absurdly, excellent.
Then came the valid concerns about the Thunder before tip-off at Oracle Arena on Saturday: A first-year NBA head coach, Billy Donovan, was thrown into the fire pit with Steve Kerr. Enes Kanter, seen as a large liability on pick-and-roll defense against the Warriors, was doubted by a great many analysts, seen as someone who might not have a place on the floor in this matchup. Oklahoma City had recently played a home game against the sliding Orlando Magic in which Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were great… and the Thunder needed KD to hit a cold-blooded last-second three to break a tie. Oklahoma City’s coach, its non-Serge Ibaka big man (Kanter), and its team defense were all viewed as not ready for prime time.
Oh, and then the first half unfolded. Golden State hung 73 points on OKC in the first 24 minutes. This game seemed over, and the NBA season appeared to be headed for another yawner, with no suggestion that the gap between Golden State and its foremost pursuers was going to shrink.
Seriously — before the game and before the second half in particular, what legitimate reason (other than “KD and Russ,” of course) was there to think that the Thunder could rattle the Warriors? If you claimed to have found one, your honesty would have been questioned on the spot.
Then, however, the second half took shape, and in those 24 plot-twisty minutes, the nature of the NBA campaign abruptly changed.
Wonder of wonders, someone finally stood up to the champions. The team whose defense seemed so utterly and hopelessly lost engineered a profound turnaround. Oklahoma City’s length — with Kanter very much playing an important role — limited Golden State to just 31 points in the first 20-plus minutes of the second half. As the game approached the 3-minute mark of regulation, the Thunder — on the strength of their defense (yep, that’s no joke) — had caught the Warriors, 104-104. By that point, the drama of winning and losing still mattered, but in many ways, the night’s big story had already been established, regardless of outcome:
Kanter could stay on the floor in this matchup.
Oklahoma City showed more than enough backbone to suggest that it could hang in a seven-game playoff series.
Donovan, who trusted a bigger lineup and was rewarded for that chess move, held his own against Kerr.
If anything, OKC’s rally fizzled when Durant missed a clean 25-foot three from the top of the key, a look he and his team will take any day of the week. He did hoist an unwise three from 29 feet a possession earlier, but the missed 25-footer was as good a shot as OKC could want. Durant grew cold at the wrong time, and that — as much as anything (or anyone) else — caused the Thunder to fall just short.
Nevertheless, Oklahoma City had won fresh respect… not to mention the belief that a reunion in late May could produce an extended series in the Western Conference Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs have not yet shown they can play the Warriors as tough as the Thunder did on Saturday.
Yes, how about that last point, eh?
The Spurs have been tremendous this season, but after seeing the Thunder go toe-to-toe with the Warriors in Oracle, the idea that the Western Conference season is one long prelude to a San Antonio-Golden State West Finals (a de facto NBA Finals) has been derailed, if not utterly destroyed. Sure, it’s only one game. Yes, San Antonio is still extremely likely to host a possible second-round series against the Thunder. Given the Spurs’ record at home (still unbeaten after a Saturday night win over the Lakers), San Antonio should still be seen as the favorite to reach the West Finals opposite the Dubs.
However, any notions of inevitability or a foregone conclusion have been obliterated.
Oklahoma City is here to stay — not just as a mere threat or pest in the West, but a legitimate NBA title contender.
The 2015-2016 season needed this burst of uncertainty and spicy intrigue.
The Thunder didn’t just rattle the windows of your house on Saturday night. OKC woke up the Warriors and the Spurs, jolting the NBA season into a newly vibrant state just before the All-Star break.
We can’t thank you enough, Oklahoma City. You’ve done this season — and the NBA itself — a huge favor.