A couple weeks ago, on the TNT studio show after an Oklahoma City Thunder win over the San Antonio Spurs, soon-to-be former Rockets center Dwight Howard, who was a guest on the show, was asked by the panel for his analysis on what was then a hypothetical Western Conference Finals matchup between the Thunder and the Golden State Warriors.
In his finest moment in a thirty minute interview full of high spots (and a few shaky ones, as well), Howard proceeded to lay out reasons why he thought the Thunder could knock off the defending NBA champions and a team that won a record 73 games during the regular season. His reasons — athleticism of star players, OKC resisting the temptation to "go small," the sheer size advantage of the Thunder — were well thought out and logical.
In a series that has been as odd as it's been compelling, it's probably appropriate that the most accurate analysis came from Dwight freaking Howard before the series was even a reality, because I have no idea what to make of this version of the Warriors that we are witnessing four games into what is quickly looking like the penultimate step in the ascension of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to the anointed level of NBA superstar who can call themselves "champion."
After a 28 point loss in Game 3 that felt more fluky than anything else, the Warriors were run out of the gym for a second straight game by the Thunder on Tuesday night by a score of 118-94. Nothing fluky about this one. The Thunder punched first going up by 15 early, punched second in going up 19 at the half, and punched last by answering a one-man run of 19 straight Warrior points by Klay Thompson in the third quarter by closing the game with a 24-12 fourth quarter.
Steph Curry, the reigning MVP, was out of sorts all night as Oklahoma City clutched him, grabbed him, and made his comfort zone off limits the whole game. Curry finished the game 6 of 20 from the field (2-10 from three) with six turnovers, and appeared to be mentally rattled or out of it for most of the game. I'll resist the urge to attribute Curry's funk to his possibly balky knee, and leave that, inevitably, to others.
Because the story here is Oklahoma City, the maturation of a good team becoming a great team right before our very eyes and doing so under the strangest of circumstances. After all, the Thunder DID lose Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals by 32 points to the Spurs. Since then, they've gone 7-2 against the two teams that everyone — and I mean, EVERYONE — was conceding as the two best teams in the league.
What everyone — and I mean, EVERYONE — didn't count on was the Thunder's second tier players like Steven Adams, Dion Waiters, and Andre Roberson graduating from liability to asset, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan out-chess-moving Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, and Russell Westbrook's helter skelter style of play becoming one big tornado of pending doom for the Warriors each trip down the floor. We expect controlled greatness from Kevin Durant, but make no mistake — Russell Westbrook turning his frenetic style into consistent greatness has made the Thunder nearly unbeatable these last two weeks.
So now, we are one OKC win from the two-time MVP and the record setting Warriors watching the NBA Finals at home. (Hell, we are two Raptors wins away from LeBron staying home for the Finals, too!)
Who saw this coming a couple weeks ago? Maybe Dwight Howard. And that's about it.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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