As the Oklahoma City Thunder have piled up wins the past two months, going 18-3 since Christmas, there has been a recurring question bubbling up: Why aren't more people talking about them?
Well, the Thunder are going to have their chance Saturday to inject themselves into the conversation as they head to Oracle Arena to take on the Golden State Warriors (9 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).
It's a game that carries considerable regular-season importance for both teams but for differing reasons. On one hand, it's a measuring-bar game for the Thunder; on the other, it's another contender the Warriors have an opportunity to demoralize as they continue their march toward history.
Because in the Warriors' pursuit of 73 wins, the Thunder are going to be a primary potential roadblock as the two teams match up three times between now and the end of the regular season.
ESPN.com writers Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Royce Young offer Part 1 of this drama and take a look at Saturday night's matchup, as well as one other story that might be even bigger than the game itself.
Young: It basically has been a discussion of Warriors and Spurs in the West this season. How do the Warriors view the Thunder, though? Are they a legitimate threat in a seven-game series?
Strauss: I can answer this question. Yes, the Thunder are a legitimate threat because they boast the athleticism to disrupt Golden State's sets. Before the Warriors bashed the Spurs by 30 points, someone who works with Golden State's players predicted it would happen. Before the game, he said to me that San Antonio would get killed, and that they had no shot in a series. I was taken aback, and couldn't say I agreed. He then added that Oklahoma City was the only team with a chance because of its talent.
You can take it with a grain of salt, but he nailed his first Spurs prediction. OKC won't be favored to beat the Warriors, but the Thunder might present the NBA's last, best shot at toppling them.
Young: That's basically the top box the Thunder check in matching up with the Warriors: They have two amazing players, and that alone might be enough to counter the Golden State machine. On the flip side, last season when it looked as if the Thunder were headed for a first-round clash with the Warriors -- and when they still thought they were getting back Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka -- basically the entire Thunder front office felt excellent about the team's chance for an upset. They were sure the Thunder could create matchup issues with their newly revamped roster, and with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, they'd have an elastic trio that could fit in virtually any lineup needed.
Now, like you said, clearly the Thunder wouldn't be a favorite in a seven-game series. Absorbing wave after wave of the Warriors' relentless offensive death star takes a sturdy team, on both ends. The Thunder have wobbled on the defensive side this season, and might have to resort to simply trying to outscore the Warriors, which, you know, isn't a great plan. But they do possess the kind of talent and versatility that would give them a shot.
I'll quit stalling, though: You can claim status on floating the idea of Durant to the Warriors before it was cool, so two things: (1) With a team that's 45-4, is this really something anyone in the organization wants to be talking or thinking about right now, and (2) it's obviously a no-brainer to add Kevin Durant, right? Right???
Strauss: It's funny, but I've flip-flopped on this issue since floating the idea months ago. Part of that is because the team dynamics have changed. While adding Durant might seem like a no-brainer because of the indisputable fact that he's incredible, here are the following concerns:
1. There's only one ball: How are we getting touches for Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson? Maybe it all works beautifully, but it constitutes a massive shift in well-established roles. Thompson has already sacrificed much of his game to fit in. Is he going to be happy as a fourth option? What if Durant gets about as many touches as Thompson's getting now? How will he handle that?
The fulcrum of Golden State's offensive attack is the Curry-Green pick-and-roll. So do you just try this with Durant and make Green a spot-up shooter? That doesn't make a lot of sense, nor does using Durant all game as if he's J.J. Redick. Keeping everyone involved and happy would be a challenge.
2. Will there be a center?: At least either Andrew Bogut or Andre Iguodala will have to be jettisoned to make this work. Bogut is the more likely candidate because he's simply not as good as Iguodala. Well, can the Warriors depend on Festus Ezeli to stay healthy? If he doesn't, will they be able to find a suitable backup on the cheap? The Warriors might suddenly become the "small" team Charles Barkley mistakenly believes they are.
3. Power forward defense: The "death lineup" featuring Harrison Barnes at power forward is dead, now that Barack Obama has opted for the "nuclear lineup." Anyway, one of the reasons this lineup works is that Barnes is willing to guard power forwards and does so capably. He put in yeoman's work defending Zach Randolph in last season's playoffs. Is Durant willing to do this? Would he be good at it? Maybe it doesn't matter if the Warriors are scoring 178 points per game, but it's one of a few issues here.
"I just have a hard time imagining him standing in a corner watching Curry fling 30-footers and being totally OK with that."
4. Fear of revenge: You know what's scarier than a nuclear lineup? I'd say it's 29 angry basketball tycoons, conspiring to create a CBA that guts your team. As the Miami Heat felt this wrath in 2011, so too would the Warriors in 2017. I wouldn't take this kind of backlash lightly. They might install a rule where Curry has to play with boxing gloves on, or Green gets ejected after the first curse word.
Again, I don't know what to do. I'm just far less reflexively in favor of getting Durant than I used to be. The Warriors are doing extremely well with Curry and Green upping their usage this season. If Barnes wants too much money this offseason, there are less extreme roster makeovers to pursue than this one. It sounds crazy to say Golden State might not need a top-three player, but that possibility is at least worth considering.
Anyway, back to the Thunder. Are they impacted by the suggestion that Durant might leave for Oakland? Do they actually care about Curry's victory prediction? Or do they mostly just hate media members who bring it up?
Young: I don't think the Thunder are moved at all by the Durant chatter, basically because they completely have accepted that at this point, whether he stays or goes is out of their control. They've effectively built an organization around him -- for him, in many ways -- and have planned for this summer for years running. The roster they'll have in place for next season will only have the opportunity to be better than the current one, with plenty of youth and upside combined with veteran, tested experience in players who are just now entering their primes. And it's not as if the Thunder are some fledgling franchise that has limped along trying to construct a playoff team around Durant. Outside of the elusive championship, the Thunder have been a standard in the Western Conference for six seasons running, and Durant has been one of the loudest voices in reminding their failures have been more injury- and luck-related than problematic roster or market flaws.
Obviously there's the distraction component, and there's no question the recent report shook the foundation a smidge, because how could it not? Not only is there a prospect of losing the cornerstone of the franchise, but as a further kick in the pants, he'd be leaving for the team with which you're trying to contend. It would be a double-gut punch. It's really just a matter of what Durant wants, and that's something the Thunder can't control at this point. Because if it's playing for a team built to contend, he's got that.
But let me throw these here two cents onto the pile of it, even though nobody's asking: I understand the reverberating shock waves Durant going to the Bay Area would create, because there's no bigger headline than the biggest fish going to the biggest current pond. But that's the pragmatic approach. The legacy approach, which is something I'm pretty sure Durant cares about deeply, is to play anywhere but Golden State.
There's no glory in joining Curry's team just to bandwagon your way to a ring. That's what you do when you're 37 and haven't gotten over the hump. (And no, that's not what LeBron did. The Heat team he joined won 47 games and exited in the first round the season before. The Warriors won the title last season, remember?) Sure, Durant could flourish and fit, because Durant could flourish and fit on an AAU team -- he's so good -- but I just have a hard time imagining him standing in a corner watching Curry fling 30-footers and being totally OK with that.
Do the Thunder care about Curry's prediction, though? Oh, they care, I'm sure. Are they going to try extra-super-duper hard whereas they otherwise wouldn't have? Doubtful, because all it takes to motivate Russell Westbrook is to tell him there are five opposing players on a hardwood floor waiting to try to score more points than him.
But I don't think the Thunder -- Durant and Westbrook specifically -- took some personal slight from Curry, mainly because they both have a ton of respect for him and the Warriors. If they're drawing any extra anything from anywhere, it's more the perception they're second class to the Warriors and Spurs, and they're eager to prove otherwise.