• What does OKC's latest win against the Warriors—which made it 2-0 against the defending champs— mean? That Russ and Paul George are up to Golden State's challenge.
By Rohan Nadkarni
February 07, 2018

Russell Westbrook at least deserves a chance. A year after blowout-upon-blowout against the Warriors, the Thunder have flipped the script this season, now sporting a 2–0 record against Golden State after a decisive, 125–105 win Tuesday night. OKC is now a plus–37 against the Dubs this year after its second straight lopsided victory over the defending champs. Calling the Thunder title contenders would be generous, but on some level, Westbrook and his running mate Paul George are gaining ground on the league’s juggernaut.

It was almost hurtful to watch Westbrook play against the Warriors last season. Golden State happily let Russ chuck shot after shot, knowing his one-man act could do nothing in the face of its overflowing level of talent. The Thunder could hardly put a scare into the Dubs in Year 1 A(fter) D(urant), and Russ was forced to experience Kevin Durant’s decision grow in validation with each crushing defeat against KD’s new squad.

Things are a little different this season. With some more help, Russ and OKC have closed the gap. George was spectacular Tuesday, scoring 38 points and collecting five rebounds and three assists while harassing Durant on the other end. George has made his value incredibly clear to the Thunder in recent weeks, and he’s thriving in his role as a second banana to Westbrook. He’s exactly the kind of teammate Russ lacked last season—a proven scorer who can keep the team afloat with Westbrook on the bench, and a two-way stud who presents problems against elite competition. (Notably, OKC’s win Tuesday came with Carmelo Anthony playing only six minutes before leaving with a sprained ankle.)

Of course, if we’re being honest, the Thunder don’t appear ready to beat the Warriors in a playoff series. Golden State’s talent is still overwhelmingly better, and while OKC approaches their matchups with a playoff intensity, the Warriors’ focus in these games seems inconsistent at best. Steve Kerr joked before Tuesday’s game he wanted to add a fifth All-Star to help alleviate some of Golden State’s recent struggles—a not-so-subtle reminder of his team’s massive firepower when fully locked in.

So let’s not overreact to the Thunder’s two big wins against the Warriors. The distance between OKC and Golden State has certainly narrowed since Durant left in 2016. What that means is not that Golden State needs to be overly concerned about a potential postseason matchup, but that Westbrook will no longer be running into a brick wall all by himself. It’s been said many times before, but the Warriors have rendered all regular season conversations surrounding them utterly meaningless. But a year after Russ could only dream of the satisfaction of throwing Durant’s decision back in his face, he now can credibly believe his squad would have a puncher’s chance in a seven-game series against the Warriors.

Much like Westbrook, the Thunder are still a flawed team, anywhere from third-to-fifth best in the conference when everyone is at full strength. After watching Westbrook’s futile efforts against the Warriors last season however, OKC’s current situation is a significant improvement, even if the gap is far from closed.

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