There’s no need to minimize it or insult the process by saying it’s just another basketball game. Well, yes, it’s only a game, but plenty is at stake for the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and the principles involved in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
So let’s run it down here:
Golden State Warriors: All but one team that won 68 or more regular season games also took the championship (the 1972-73 Celtics came up short) and four of the six teams that won 67 were crowned. Which is to say the 2015-16 Warriors, who sit at the top of the heap among regular-season titans, would be forced to wear a nasty pimple on their nose should they fall to the Thunder. They should at least reach the NBA Finals after 73 wins, shouldn’t they? That’s probably the widely-held opinion in basketball circles, anyway, that the Warriors, by way of their own brilliance, have given themselves no choice.
If they double their pleasure and follow up 73 wins with a back-to-back title run, Golden State would demand to be in the conversation about best teams in NBA history. And if they don’t? Well, there wouldn’t be any shame in falling to a loaded and finally-healthy OKC team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, right? Don’t know about that. The way the Warriors pulverized the field from November through April, there certainly would and maybe should be some level of disappointment if they didn’t defend their title. Debate that if you wish, but a failure to reach the ultimate goal would leave a nasty taste.
Oklahoma City Thunder: When they reached the NBA Finals in 2012 with a nucleus of three players 22 and younger, it was easy to conclude that OKC, at the very least, would have a title by now. But, stuff happened. Bad stuff, mainly injuries to Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka that benched them from the playoffs. And James Harden was traded. The good news is OKC is finally fit and desperate to reclaim their place in line, which currently is occupied by Golden State. Sam Presti, the GM, has done a good job in the post-Harden era by giving Westbrook and Durant a very functional supporting cast. If OKC loses this game, the Thunder could begin to wonder how many more cracks they’ll get.
Kevin Durant: It’s not totally his fault that he’s The Best Player Without A Title; circumstances have played a role. Still, will he suddenly be lumped with Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and a host of other greats who are missing something? And of course, there’s the mater of addressing the elephant in the room: Does a Game 7 loss nudge Durant in the direction of signing elsewhere as a free agent this summer?
Stephen Curry: He has shot, by his standards, somewhat poorly in this series, just 42.2 percent since Game 2. And there have been stretches where the two-time MVP has looked ordinary, perhaps because he isn’t completely healthy. With greatness comes additional expectations that might be unrealistic to an extent. Curry can erase all of that with a massive Game 7, which he’s fully capable of pulling off. If he comes up short, then LeBron James will spend his time in The Finals saying I-told-you-so.
Draymond Green: Overall, it’s been a messy series for Green, what with the groin kick and the constant yapping at the referees, the awful performances in Games 3 and 4 and the lost margin for error regarding flagrant fouls (one more and he’s suspended). Green is discovering that when you move up in class in the NBA, from a good role player to an All-NBA team member, the demands rise as well. How does he respond?
Russell Westbrook: We’ve seen the Good Russ and the Reckless Russ in this series, sometimes in the same game or the same quarter. When the Thunder assumed a 3-1 lead, he was the best player after four games. When the Thunder lost the momentum two games later, it was partly because Westbrook either missed shots and/or lost control of the ball. When his game is pure and clean, he’s a sight to behold. When it isn’t, Mark Cuban might be right.
Klay Thompson: The most consistently good Warriors guard in this series, and the playoffs, isn’t Curry. Thompson has proven why he’s so valuable to the Warriors. He’s a great player — making All-NBA gives you that distinction — who is fine with riding shotgun. Like all shooters, Thompson can go cold at times, but when he’s squaring up at the rim and releasing, is there a purer shooter in the game? Certainly not in this series. Plus, Thompson must guard Westbrook. OKC should be more concerned with him than Curry.