The Golden State Warriors entered the playoffs with a chance to put their stamp on the greatest season in NBA history. Winning a record-setting 73 games and led by the first-ever unanimous MVP, the defending champs appeared to be well on their way to winning a second straight title.
But the team considered by some to be the best of all-time finds itself in a virtual “must-win” situation on the road, trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. Hopes of series sweep were quickly dashed in Game 1 and Steve Kerr's squad seem to be scrambling to fine their dominant rhythm.
It’s not just the fact that Warriors are down in the series, but the fashion in which they’ve lost. Golden State blew the series opener at home after mounting multiple 14-point leads, and they were run off the floor in Game 3, losing by 28 points in a contest that saw them trail by as many as 41 points.
It’d be difficult to make the argument that the media and fans “overrated” the Warriors before the playoffs. Golden State won more games than any team in history, making the most three-pointers ever. They set a record with 34 road wins, and Curry and backcourt mate Klay Thompson averaged a combined 52.2 points on just 37.5 shots per game. Draymond Green finished seventh in MVP voting and second for Defensive Player of the Year, and he racked up 13 triple-doubles during the regular season.
In the conference finals, it’s been a different story. Thompson is shooting less than 40 percent from the field, averaging more shot attempts than points. Green had a disastrous Game 3 as the Warriors were outscored by 43 points when he was on the court, and he’s been far from a lockdown defender. Most importantly, Curry was contained in Game 1 and Game 3.
Overall, Curry’s put up MVP-like numbers against Oklahoma City, averaging 26 points on 18 shot attempts per game, posting 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists as he shoots 42.4 percent from three-point range. But the Warriors didn’t win 73 games because Curry was simply in the conversation as one of the NBA’s top performers—he seized the crown from LeBron James to become the league’s No.1 star, putting up numbers that had never been seen before.
Curry showed a glimpse of his greatness in Game 2, scoring 15 points in a two-minute span that gave Golden State their first win of the series. But he hasn’t been anything more than an All-Star level player for the remainder of the series, and that has given the Thunder a chance to upset the Warriors.
It isn’t as if Curry was unstoppable 73 times in the regular season, but the Warriors didn’t have to play the Thunder every night. Oklahoma City almost had multiple regular-season wins against Golden State, and the Warriors escaped with three victories in large part because Curry allowed them to. Most notably, Curry scored 46 points on 24 shot attempts in Oklahoma City on Feb. 27, hitting an improbable buzzer-beater to give Golden State a three-point overtime win.
The Thunder have stepped up defensively this series, but Curry’s shooting ability had been impervious to any defense this season. He says he’s not hurting, but perhaps all the injuries he’s suffered this postseason have caught up to him. No matter what the reason may be, the Warriors need Curry to be the Curry of the regular season, especially if Thompson and Green can’t get it going.
Game 3 was an aberration. The Thunder outscored the Warriors 29-13 in transition, Green and Thompson shot a combined 32.1 percent, and Golden State’s “death lineup” was embarrassed. It was Golden State’s worst performance of the year, and even if the Thunder advance to the NBA Finals, they won’t be that dominant again. But if Curry doesn’t play like the league’s unanimous MVP, it gives the Thunder a chance to have the two best players on the floor, and Oklahoma City won’t lose when that’s the case.
Russell Westbrook took control in Game 1 and Kevin Durant led the Thunder offense in Game 2, but both players were outstanding in Game 3. The point guard scored 30 points and was two rebounds shy of a triple-double, while Durant needed just 15 shots to total 33 points.
Even more so than the San Antonio Spurs, who won 67 games in the regular season, the Thunder might be the team best suited to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. No NBA team has two more talented players than Oklahoma City, and it’s largely been the supporting cast of Durant and Westbrook that’s limited them. In the conference finals, players like Steve Adams and Dion Waiters have raised their game, adding an element to Oklahoma City that wasn’t there for much of the season.
This could just be a blip on the radar screen for the team that will ultimately go down as the best ever. Not only is Golden State favored to win Game 4 on the road, but they are still favored to win the title.
On their way to winning a record 125 games in the regular season and playoffs combined, the 1998 New York Yankees dug themselves out of a 2-1 series deficit prior to sweeping the World Series. The Warriors faced two 2-1 deficits a year ago before easily closing out both series in six games.
But things feel a little different this time around. Oklahoma City is far better than any team Golden State faced last season. The Thunder have not looked intimidated, and home-court advantage might be the reason Oklahoma City pulls off their second major upset of the playoffs.
Golden State has faced little adversity this year, and Game 4 represents by far their biggest challenge. It's unfamiliar territory for a team that seemed perhaps too accustomed to just steamrolling the competition.