It wasn’t that long ago, really, but it feels like an eternity: These were the days before Kevin Durant took what might be viewed by certain Internet skeptics as a deliberate heel turn, and these were the days before Russell Westbrook played every minute of every game as if someone had just swiped the Warby Parkers off his face. There was a moment when the Oklahoma City Thunder were the most likable young team in the NBA, and that moment feels like a long time ago these days.
The problem for the Thunder is partly one of perception – they haven’t won a title yet with Durant and Westbrook and haven’t made the NBA Finals since 2012. And so their freshness has grown slightly stale, and this year, they were overshadowed by a pair of teams who ran neck-and-neck to complete the greatest regular season of all time. This may have spawned at least some of Durant’s bitterness toward the media; the cynicism bred by maturity and a series of injuries may have completed the picture. Mostly, the Thunder were overshadowed for good reason, though: They were overshadowed largely by the Golden State Warriors, the team they’ll face in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Monday night, a team so eminently likable that rooting against them is sort of like trolling the comments section of an Instagram feed comprised entirely of adorable puppies.
So this is not the conference finals we expected, but maybe it’s the conference finals we wanted – the Spurs, in all their competent and dull-edged glory, were vanquished by a Thunder team with two of the most explosive and exciting players in the league that has suddenly figured out how to play high-level defense. Between Durant, Westbrook, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, we’ll be exposed to arguably five of the 10 best players in the NBA, if not in the entire world.
And beyond the sheer talent, we’ve got a great storyline: We’ve got the darlings of the league against the team that is no larger the darlings of the league. We’ve got an older and more weathered Kevin Durant, and we’ve got a furious Russell Westbrook, attempting to fend off the notion that they’ll never win a title together in Oklahoma City. We’ve got one coach, the Thunder’s Billy Donovan, who appeared to be largely flummoxed by the leap to the NBA until he suddenly pulled some freakish jiu-jitsu on the league’s resident Yoda, the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich; and we’ve got another coach, the Warriors’ Steve Kerr, whose only weakness appears to be a balky back that kept him sidelined for half of the year. We’ve got angry versus happy, as exemplified by the fact that one reporter asked the perpetually joyous Curry why Westbrook seems to “play angry” all the time.
“He plays like every game means something to him, like every game matters,” Curry replied.
Of course, one of the great misconceptions about Curry is that because his game is so inherently joyous, he somehow doesn’t possess that same instinct. But when a dude comes back from a potentially serious knee injury and scores 17 points in overtime to lead his team to victory in the playoffs, maybe its time to dispense with that notion. And nowhere was Curry’s killer instinct more readily on display than in the regular season’s signature game, when Curry pulled up from 30-something feet away in a tie game on the Thunder’s home floor and buried a game-winning 3-pointer.
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This moment won’t last forever, for either side: There are healthy rumors that Durant – a free agent after this season – could wind up in Golden State next year. Who knows how long the Warriors and Curry can keep up this pace, this level of play? Who knows how long the window will remain open for Westbrook and Durant in Oklahoma City? Perceptions will change eventually, and the Warriors’ halo will fade and some other young team – perhaps the Blazers? – will no doubt take their place on the likability scale. That’s how it goes in sports, in culture and in life. Nobody is more aware of that than their opponent on Monday night, which is why, whatever this series turns out to be, it almost certainly won’t be boring.
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