This is what it’s like to witness the implosion of an idea: Every time you thought the Golden State Warriors might claw their way back in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, they found a way to dig themselves in deeper. They never really played like the team we’d come to adore, and this was confounding and occasionally frustrating, especially if you happen to believe that the Warriors represented something larger than basketball itself, which was pretty much the reason why they caught fire in popular culture in the first place.
There is, of course, much to be said for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that blasted the Warriors at home for the second consecutive game, a 118-94 victory that gave OKC a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Every time the Warriors attempted to pull themselves out of a hole last night, the Thunder had an answer; every time the Warriors would were on the verge of clawing back into this game, they quickly found themselves buried again. They had no rhythm, and Stephen Curry was mysteriously AWOL, perhaps limited by a knee injury that may be lingering more than he would let on; even when Klay Thompson caught fire in the third quarter, it was not enough to bridge the gap with a Thunder team whose supporting cast was clearly playing better on every level.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Thunder have two of the best and most exciting players in the universe in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It would appear, barring one last-ditch Golden State miracle, that the Thunder are now headed to the NBA Finals. And given the sheer power and force with which Westbrook and Durant have played in this series, maybe it should have been evident all along. Westbrook is a blur and Durant is a pinpoint shooter, and combined with the overachievement of role players like Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, they are nearly unstoppable at this point.
If that’s the case, there will be plenty of time to celebrate Oklahoma City, and to laud the way that franchise has resurrected itself, and the way Westbrook and Durant have finally perfected the team chemistry they’d been seeking for years under first-year coach Billy Donovan. But for now, at least, it is worth mourning what we may have lost last night, as the Warriors dropped two games in a row for the first time this entire season. Because there is a reason the Warriors transcended basketball itself, and there is a reason they inspired a revolution within the sport, and I hope that even if they lose this series, that this is not lost. Because I think it matters.
What the Warriors have done over these past couple of years is remarkable in large part because it felt so utterly improbable. Their three best players, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, were all lightly regarded in college, unlike Westbrook and Durant; they all willed themselves to this point, and they did it by gaming the system, by forcing a physical sport to embrace perimeter shooting. This is why aging skeptics like Oscar Robertson and Charles Barkley are no doubt enjoying this series; but this is also why the NBA has become more of a populist sport over the past couple of seasons.
So what happens if the Warriors lose this series? What if this, for whatever reason, proves to be the end, and they wind up with one championship ring and a regular-season wins record and nothing more? There will be room for the naysayers to say that they were merely a mirage; there will be room for the believers to insist that they could have done more, if only Curry’s health had held up. My hope is that they’ve already altered the NBA for the better, that they’ve opened up a sport that, particularly in crunch time, tends toward blunt and overly physical play rather than finesse and beauty.
But I don’t know if that’s the case. If the Warriors lose this series, there will still be a way to dismiss them as a passing fad, and that would be a shame, because I can’t think of a professional team in any sport in my lifetime that has been more purely pleasurable to watch. Maybe you want to argue that the idea that fueled their success was all a flimsy dream, but if so, it was one of the most brilliant dreams of my lifetime.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb