Those Near to You are Distant

Back to the Future/Universal Pictures

“This isn’t looking good.” One of the people I was watching with was referring to a spilled glass of red wine on a hotel bed in Chelsea, but he may as well have been talking about the shot Steph Curry had just made with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter to put the Golden State Warriors up 90-79 on the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time, it felt like the final nail in the coffin, and ultimately, it was. In between, the Thunder bothered to make it interesting, drawing the 11-point deficit to four before finally succumbing to the Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™.

Game 7 was a perfect microcosm of the series as a whole: frustrated at a lack of belief in their team, Oklahoma City shot out to a surprising, sizable lead on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before Golden State roared back, jumping ahead on (what else?) a Curry three-pointer midway through the third quarter and never looking back. For all their efforts, the inevitable remained the inevitable, and now the Thunder face a summer of potentially franchise-altering uncertainty. Meanwhile, the team by the Bay, gold embodied, continues basking in its own sunlight, on the way to another NBA Finals.

It was always too good to be true, wasn’t it? After unseating the only team many saw as worthy of facing the Warriors, at least in the Western Conference, in the previous round, Oklahoma City found itself leaving Oracle Arena after Game 1 up 1-0. All the doubts and criticisms of how Durant and Westbrook do or do not complement each other seemed to have faded to ill-conceived murmurs, only to return following a 27-point drubbing in Game 2. More like how the series was supposed to go, if the great and fearless eggs of Twitter were to be believed.

Thunder victories in Games 3 and 4 by margins of 28 and 24, respectively, cast a shadow of doubt on Golden State the likes of which it hadn’t experienced in nearly a calendar year. Oklahoma City was counteracting the small ball revolution by trotting out old school-ish lineups prominently featuring two bigs, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, who are not known for their perimeter shooting yet could disrupt and frustrate in other ways. Billy Donovan, it seemed, was solving an impossible puzzle.

But then, right at the brink of historic collapse and with their backs already leaving a noticeable imprint in the wall, the Warriors came to life. It’s tough to call a guy who averaged over 24 points, five rebounds and four assists “disappointing,” but because that guy is Steph Curry, and the weight of expectation has normalized surreality in a way few others in the world, let alone in sport or basketball, can claim, it seems reasonable to say that Curry wasn’t Curry until games 5 through 7, when he pushed his average by over eight points and kicked his three-point percentage up by ten.[1]

The man who saved Golden State’s series, at least in the populist view of immediate revisionist history, was Klay Thompson, he of the 41-point Game 6 performance[2] and generally all-around consistent play. Not for nothing, Draymond Green showing up and looking like someone approximating his usual self[3] didn’t hurt either. Steve Kerr made adjustments at times, but mostly he let what worked all season work itself out in dire times against the Thunder. That government is best which governs least, and all that. Now Golden State faces a re-match against a man who hasn’t missed an NBA Finals since 2010[4].

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Whether the Thunder’s Game 7 loss will mean the death of the Westbrook-Durant partnership remains to be seen. The series against the Warriors seemed to solidify what we already knew, that the two play together best when they are both playing well – as evidenced above, a full 36 points separate their average plus/minus in wins and losses. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” Westbrook remains a divisive figure, and the eternal fires will rage through debates over whether Durant is better off without him until the moment when death, or something more cynical, do them part, but the freedom they release from each other will be difficult to duplicate anywhere else.

For the Thunder, “Choklahoma City” will remain the preeminent, if inaccurate, narrative, with Durant as the flag-bearer for a great team that just hasn’t yet been great enough. A 55-win team losing to a 73-win team is exactly that. The great question, seemingly resolved when the Thunder held the 3-1 lead, was whether Durant would spend at least another year in Oklahoma City. No one seems fit to accurately address this query, least of all the cagey Durant. Suffice it to say that, before the playoffs, many would have agreed on a Conference Finals berth this year, no matter the outcome, saving the Thunder core through this first Durant free agency period. Now, however, having pushed the Warriors to their absolute limits and seen that it still wasn’t enough, it still seems like a question worth asking.[5]

[1] For good measure, he also threw on two assists and a rebound, just to remind us of who he is.

[2] Which many believe has already usurped the holy book of Klaytheism, last season’s 37-point quarter, as his best overall performance

[3] After posting a -43 plus/minus, the single-worst in recorded playoff history

[4] Who, unlike last year, has a fully healthy supporting cast behind him. But this isn’t about LeBron just yet, at least insofar as anything in the NBA isn’t about LeBron, because the entire league is until it isn’t.

[5] I am, in absolutely no way, positing any theories about Kevin Durant’s free agency. He’ll do what he’ll do regardless of what I or anyone else says. Not like he’s going to the Knicks anyway.

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