OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite facing elimination for the first time during the Steve Kerr era, the Warriors never looked consumed by dread before or during Thursday’s Game 5. The friendly confines of Oracle Arena surely helped ease the nerves, as did a nice start for Andrew Bogut, a strong defensive showing, and steadier individual performances from Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
But Game 5 felt like a prelude to something much bigger almost as soon as it ended. Rather than turning the momentum of the series back in Golden State’s favor, Game 5 saw the Thunder push the Warriors hard for four quarters before Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant provided a peek at their collective confidence as they dismissed a question about Curry’s defensive ability. The Warriors’ inability to dominate the Thunder as they had been dominated in Games 3 and 4, coupled with the podium fearlessness from Oklahoma City’s stars, raised the tension considerably.
Simply put, it was hard to believe the Warriors’ 73-win season would end in five games at home, but it’s much easier to envision Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder slamming the door on their home turf, where they’ve won by an average of 16 points per game during the playoffs. Game 5 was a basic pride test that Golden State passed in unsurprising fashion; Game 6 will be the toughest challenge of Kerr’s tenure, easily, and one that will have loads of historical repercussions.
With that in mind, here’s what’s at stake during Saturday’s Game 6.
Most obviously, a loss would remove the Warriors from the “Greatest Team of All Time” discussion, unless you want to add the “Regular Season” qualifier. The 1996 Bulls lost just three times total during their postseason run and finished 87-13. A fourth loss to the Thunder would drop the Warriors to 83-15.
What’s more, Golden State would instantly become one of the greatest “What Happened?” teams in NBA history. They would become the first team with 69+ wins not to win the title, and they would have the second-highest point differential of any team not to win the title. Their six months of pure magic would be lost to endless hand wringing over what went so wrong so quickly in May.
It’s fair to say that a Game 6 victory would be the Thunder’s biggest since relocating to Oklahoma City in 2008. Although Durant and Westbrook led the Thunder to the 2012 Finals, where they won Game 1, the stakes here are more significant. Both Durant and Westbrook are smack in the middle of their primes, both are soon heading for unrestricted free agency in 2016 and 2017 (respectively), and both are aching to return to the Finals after sustaining numerous injuries in recent years.
A Game 6 win, then, would be validation for Sam Presti’s oft-criticized vision—one that involved trading away James Harden, parting ways with longtime coach Scott Brooks, and making risky plays for the likes of Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters—and it would be an immense reward for years of health-related frustration.
Advancing to the Finals would also seem to pop the balloon on fears that Durant would exit stage left this summer, which would obviously be the franchise’s worst-case scenario and a crippling blow. If Durant is getting his shot at LeBron James with a team that’s played with resolve and overwhelming athleticism, why would he want to go anywhere else next season? A Game 6 victory would underscore the developing notion that that the most familiar place to Durant is also the best place for him to win big over the next four or five years.
Game 6 will be a referendum on Curry’s invincibility: A loss would be the first major defeat of his career, one that very well could push back against the rising sentiment that he is the league’s best player.
While a Game 6 loss won’t be devastating to Curry’s reputation, given that he’s already won a title and has so clearly changed the NBA’s game with his record-setting shooting, there will be naysayers who question the “unanimous” nature of his MVP and point to his injury issues as a primary cause of Golden State’s downfall. Others will argue anew that James and Durant are better all-around players than Curry and that their physical gifts, positional versatility and size make them more valuable. Curry’s primary counterargument for the last 18 months has been the Warriors’ unblemished record of winning under Kerr, but that could prove insufficient depending on the results of Saturday night.
The Thunder’s poking and prodding after Game 5 suggests they believe the back-to-back MVP is wavering on the ropes. They have good reason to feel this way, as they only need to review the game tapes from Games 3 and 4, when Curry was helpless to prevent blowout losses. Make no mistake, they’ve challenged Curry directly. His play in Game 6, given those circumstances, is absolutely worthy of over-analysis.
A win would give Durant, 27, his best shot yet at his first title, a rematch with James, and the most impressive series victory of his career. Not only has he teamed with Westbrook to lead a menacing Oklahoma City attack, Durant has ratcheted up his defensive intensity to an unprecedented degree and helped calmly lead the Thunder through numerous controversies (the officiating against San Antonio, Green’s flagrant kick, etc.). Returning from three foot surgeries and a lost season to knock off both the Warriors and Spurs in breathtaking fashion would be the purest form of satisfaction for a competitor like Durant.
Golden State’s brash forward hasn’t shied away from the spotlight at all this season. On the contrary, he’s sought out headlines by guaranteeing victories over Portland and exchanging barbs with Westbrook. That’s all well and good when the Warriors are rolling, but he played so poorly in Games 3 and 4 that he is now in position to be the major fall guy if Game 6 goes awry. Although he put his game back together a bit in Game 5, thanks to advice from the Mt. Rushmore of Basketball Psychology—Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Glen Davis and Nate Robinson—he will need to be even better if the Warriors are to withstand the Thunder’s immense home-court advantage.
“We need his edge, we need his fire,” Kerr told reporters Friday. “Every once in a while he spills over the top. He knows that. But we'll take it. He's got to be composed [Saturday] night, for sure, especially on the road. And I think we have to play a very poised, disciplined game. That means all of us, but our leaders have to show the way.”
In a just world, Green’s season would be remembered as a categorical success, win or lose, given his central role in driving Golden State’s 73 wins, his improvement as an offensive play-maker, and his fearsome defensive ability. But Green’s willingness to speak his mind, consequences be damned, and his polarizing leg kicks will bring the criticism in droves should Durant get the best of him again.
For years, Westbrook has inspired debates over his play and personality. For years, he’s gradually made improvements and refined his game to the point where many of the criticisms no longer apply. He’s been an extraordinary passer through the West finals. He’s kept his poise. His attack-minded style, a little overboard at times, was the driving force in Oklahoma City’s biggest wins. His willingness to go right at Curry and his utter lack of fear set the tone for the Thunder stealing Game 1 on the road. His indefatigability has seemingly worn down Curry at times, and his streaky outside shooting has been more “on” than “off” against the Warriors.
All of that sets up Westbrook for a breakthrough in Game 6. He’s beaten excellent point guards in the playoffs before—Chris Paul, Tony Parker, etc.—but taking down Curry here, especially in punishing fashion, would unquestionably be the signature moment of his career. Westbrook has stuck to playing on “his terms” throughout his career, regardless of the flak he’s taken and the increasing obsession with the three-point shot. Eliminating the Warriors would affirm the value of his single-mindedness.
Of course, as with Green, there is always another side to the story. By laughing at the question about Curry’s defense, Westbrook has given his critics the red meat they’ve been craving. If the Warriors take Game 6 and complete the 3-1 comeback by winning Game 7, Westbrook’s laughing would be cast as premature and misguided arrogance. In that scenario, there’s little doubt that the Thunder’s on-court collapse would be conflated with Westbrook’s off-court audacity. Westbrook’s play in this series has demanded better treatment than that, and the good news is he’ll have the opportunity to control this storyline with his play on Saturday. Indeed, that might be the single best reason to watch what should be a fascinating and multi-layered Game 6: Can Westbrook finally kill the noise?