The Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t win a single game this season against the Golden State Warriors. Even the absence of Kevin Durant didn’t make a difference in the final matchup between the two Western Conference finalists from last season. Golden State won the season series 4-0 after the Warriors’ 111-95 victory Monday night.
These teams hate one another. There is genuine dislike. The cupcake memes were out again, with OKC fans mocking Kevin Durant’s injury. Stephen Curry and Semaj Christon scrapped (with Russell Westbrook in there, too). These teams hate each other and want to show one another up. Only, the Thunder do not have the weapons yet to compete.
This is a feud.
It’s not a rivalry.
There’s a difference there. We love sports rivalries because they combine competitiveness and emotions. The drama is built on the personal feelings, but the suspense is drawn on the unknown outcome. That is not the case with the Warriors and Thunder. We know the outcome. The Warriors have won by double digits in every contest. Monday night’s beatdown without Durant was just the extra kick. The Warriors made their point, because that’s what they live to do. It’s why they snore through close wins against the Pelicans and then tear the doors off the Clippers’ house like a twister coming through. The punch Ali never gave Foreman when he was going down? The Warriors live to throw that.
That’s not good, or bad, or wrong, or right. It’s sports. It’s just how it is. And how you feel about that depends on your fandom.
But the Thunder and Warriors share none of the competitive characteristics that bring real drama. We tune in to see if Durant and Westbrook will shake hands, or look at each other, or if they’ll try and dunk on each other. We tune in for the trash talk and the kerfuffles and the glares and antics. But without that competitive element, games between these two teams, especially in Oklahoma City, take on a tone that’s just uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel like Heat-Knicks in the 1990s. It feels like a really awkward social situation where a fight could break out at any time.
A first-round series between the Thunder and Warriors is what the TV networks and columnists want. It’s all narrative. The problem is, that’s all it is. And when all you have is storyline, without the supporting backbone of sports, you don’t have entertainment and distraction, you just have hatred and frustration. The Thunder would likely be swept in a first-round series, which would diminish the incredible season Westbrook has had, and unfairly so. There’s drama in that, but it’s mostly just a tragedy of the team spurned by its best player in franchise history, only to see him dominate them with the squad they nearly toppled last year.
Much will be made of the Thunder’s shortcomings, and their offense has many. For all of Westbrook’s brilliance, Monday’s game showcases how limited he really is against a great defensive team like Golden State. They could send four defenders at him, all of them capable, keep him from the rim, and if his mid-range jumper isn’t falling, which is always a coin flip, there’s not much to be done. OKC doesn’t deserve credit for having not rebuilt immediately after Durant, but it has to be part of the analysis.
They built this team specifically around Westbrook and Durant. When Durant left, they did not have a Plan B. That will come in time, as they move forward and make moves. They will have more firepower in the future, and hey, maybe they’ll find a combination that can really keep pace with Golden State.
But for now, the only thing they bring to a matchup with the Warriors is good effort and bad blood. They don’t have enough, not yet. And the Warriors have just about everything, even when they don’t have Durant.
(Also, you can count on a lot of “See how dumb the talk about the Warriors struggling was?” takes. Except they did struggle. The Warriors can struggle, and show weaknesses in some games that don’t appear in others. The bad games don’t magically disappear because of a stretch of great ones, and the great games don’t get overshadowed by their rare bad games. Context.)
Thunder-Warriors seems like a first-round series you want. You don’t. It’ll be mean and ugly and physical, the things fans love, but without any of the thrilling moments to make it worth it.
(Unless you’re a Warriors fan, then you’ll love it. )
Regular-season meetings don’t always foreshadow postseason results. The Thunder went oh-fer vs. the Warriors last season, too, but those games were wildly different. These games seem like proof of result, though. There will be plenty of time in the future, when the wound in OKC isn’t so fresh, when the Thunder have added some firepower. For now, though? Let’s close the book on Warriors-Thunder until such a time as this feud becomes a rivalry again.