The Strain: Why Game 3 looms large for the Thunder

The Strain is not just the FX thriller about a destructive and virulent microorganism. It’s the toll a long season takes on a team whose record is 82-12 entering Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

My colleague at Crossover Chronicles, podcaster and columnist John Cannon, has taken care to note how constantly the Golden State Warriors have pushed themselves this season. The San Antonio Spurs forced them go hard for at least 78 of 82 games, but even the final few contests of the regular season became important for the Warriors once they decided they needed to pursue a piece of NBA history.

The drive for 73 wins took over the Warriors’ season at a point when any other No. 1 seed would have begun to reduce minutes and ease the starting five into postseason mode. Golden State has been uniquely excellent this season, but with unique excellence comes a number of unique burdens. One is that this team has never really been able to decompress. There was no “off switch” in Games 79 through 82.

Then Stephen Curry got hurt.

The injury didn’t affect the Warriors’ ability to beat Houston in a relatively tidy five games, but it did force every other core-rotation player to go all-out for more minutes. With Steph at full health in both the Houston and Portland series, perhaps the Warriors wouldn’t have been tested to the extent they were. Perhaps they would have swept the Rockets. Perhaps they would have been able to get on top of the Trail Blazers to the extent that they wouldn’t have had to scramble to win Games 2, 4 and 5 in that series.

Perhaps, then, the Warriors would have been able to flow through the much tougher Western Conference with the ease being demonstrated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. They would not have carried such a strain into Game 3 of the West Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose stars — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — are younger than Steph, even though they’ve been fixtures in the playoffs throughout this decade.

Golden State has played under the strain of its own internal expectations since the end of November, when it became apparent that the Warriors could realistically break the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ all-time wins record. As the three-day break before Game 3 in Oklahoma City winds down, the Warriors confront the reality of needing to win a best-of-five series without home-court advantage over the next nine days. No one’s doubting their ability to do the deed, but what emerges as a tension point in this series is that if the Warriors should lose Game 3, they will face the same uphill climb they had to make on two occasions in the 2015 playoffs.

Last spring, the Warriors fell behind the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers, two games to one. In each of those instances, Golden State carried the weight of the unfamiliar, of being unaccustomed to the withering scrutiny which attends a playoff favorite. The Warriors’ challenge was profoundly mental last year.

This season, it’s much more of a physical challenge, in light of the drive for 73 and the equation-changing injury to Steph, which entrusted the roster with far greater responsibilities at many points over the past five weeks.

In light of this larger context, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t expect to win the Western Conference Finals by taking Game 3. What they do need to realize is that even if this series becomes a 2-2 affair when the scene returns to Oakland for Game 5, they need to get on top of the Warriors.

They need to maximize the strain on the reigning NBA champions.

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Here is the essence of Game 3’s importance in a nutshell for the Thunder: Golden State has never lost consecutive games this season, having played 94 to date (82 in the regular season, 12 in the playoffs). If the Thunder win Game 3, they can maintain the ability to win this series without having to beat the Warriors in consecutive games. If they lose, they know they’ll have to win two in a row at some point.

Oklahoma City — which just won two games in San Antonio after the rest of the NBA won only one game in the Alamo City during the regular season — has shown it can win in the NBA’s toughest buildings for road teams. Home-court advantage matters, but that’s not the primary prism through which to view Game 3.

The key is found in the idea discussed above: The Warriors, laboring under imperfect circumstances — with Steph an injury magnet after a season in which he and the rest of the Dubs stretched themselves to their limits — have carried the burdens associated with greatness. Oklahoma City must ensure that Golden State has to carry every last ounce of that burden in the days ahead.

If the Warriors win Game 3, their central benefit won’t be the recapture of home-court advantage; it will be the ability to play downhill and realize their ability to carry the burden of greatness does not need to be questioned.

The strain: Golden State needs to feel every last inch of it for Oklahoma City to win this series.

That’s the importance of Game 3, simply stated.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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