by Paul West
One team often tends to bark and scowl at each other under duress; the other wears shirts that read, “strength in numbers.” For one team, it seems routine for two players take more than half their shots and score more than half their points; for the other, there are three players who seem liable to drop a triple-double on any given night, and they take turns picking each other up. On one team, when someone other than their two leading scorers gets hot from the floor, it seems anomalous; on the other, the bench goes bonkers and celebrates like it’s New Year’s Eve when their backup/arguably third-string center drains threes.
And therein lies the fundamental intangible that separates the Golden State Warriors from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder are known for one of the best duos of their generation, in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant; but since Westbrook has begun to assert himself as the team’s driving force, the Thunder have primarily seemed like a two-man show. Westbrook is an unstoppable force of nature who can rack up points, rebounds and assists; but when the going gets tough, he just seems to resort to playing pickup-style hero ball. Durant is an elite scorer who can contribute in a number of ways, but during important stretches, his introverted tendency allows Westbrook’s manic style to take over.
The Warriors, while they also have a dynamic duo in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, take immense pride in making the extra pass and getting roleplayers involved. Their trust in each other infuses even their postgame interviews, and it’s the reason why Thompson–a video-game outburst waiting to happen, who might be the best two-way guard in the league–never seems perturbed by playing second fiddle to his fellow Splash Brother. Draymond Green is an all-purpose big man who can hit threes, rebound and defend, and went on an early-season run of triple-doubles; yet he’s openly admitted, without hesitation, that Curry makes him a better player. There’s also Andre Igoudala, once a star in his own right on a bad Sixers team, who’s gladly embraced a supporting cast role as he changes games with strong defense and occasional scoring runs. And Marreese Speights, the aforementioned center, has become something of a folk hero among Warriors fans as well as his teammates.
This is a team whose two-time MVP gladly defers to his second fiddle, when said second fiddle gets hot and goes on record-breaking scoring binges. This is a team whose superstars sound like aspiring coaches, whose superstars play with the joyful exuberance of a March Madness cinderella while always paying their spoken respects to teammates and opponents when the time calls for it. This is a team who makes quick-release three-pointers look like set shots, and always finds a way to regroup and recalibrate even when their lightning-quick ball movement is interrupted. This is a team that clamps down on defense when necessary, and attacks the glass with the same energy they put into making their offense look like an NHL power play in high gear.
This is a team that combines as many of the individual and collective virtues a team has embodied, all at once, in recent memory. They’re the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker San Antonio Spurs, with increased speed and astounding shooting depth. And by capping a gritty, hard-fought three-game comeback against the exciting, athletic, hero-ball driven Thunder, they’ve reminded onlookers that they’re more than just flashy frontrunners. And now, they’re four wins from completing what might go down as the greatest single season in NBA history.
Strength in numbers, indeed.