If anything has been learned from the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder's first two meetings, it's that both teams know how to make things exciting -- and that the Warriors appear just a little bit better.
Both previous meetings were photo finishes. The Thunder tied the game with 3:35 to go on Feb. 6 at Oracle Arena before the Warriors closed out 12-4 to win 116-108. On Feb. 27, The Shot Heard 'Round the Internet by Stephen Curry with 0.6 seconds left in overtime lifted the Warriors 121-118.
The third and final (regular season) matchup happens Thursday with the Thunder looking to take something from the trio of games. They've learned they can play with the Warriors. But they haven't proven they can beat them.
Plus, another wrinkle: The Thunder come into the final meeting reeling. Not just from Saturday's collapse, but instead from an all-new fresher one, Wednesday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
ESPN.com writers Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Royce Young take a last look in the third part of a discussion as both teams are dealing with drama and tension, albeit in very different ways.
Young: Forget the players: Have you recovered from Saturday's game to turn around and do it all over again five days later?
Strauss: I have not recovered. That was exhausting and such great fun. The media seating in OKC puts the experience on another level, too. As we discussed on the TrueHoop podcast, the frantic end of regulation sequence was coming directly at us. Steph Curry's game-winner happened right in front of your face (The cameras cut away at that moment, so no official word on whether Steph shimmied at Royce Young).
How can Thursday's game top this? I'm already 10 percent less excited for this one because rookie Kevon Looney has been assigned to the D-League. He wouldn't play anyway in this matchup, but now there's zero chance. Not only that, but we have Curry recovering from Saturday's ankle sprain, with no guarantee that he plays (officially listed as questionable).
Fear not, for this one should still be damned entertaining. I do expect that Curry plays. Andre Iguodala's status is more in doubt, based on what we're hearing from practice. Even if Golden State is down an Iguodala, there's drama to be had. Thursday marks a big threat to Golden State's unbeaten streak at home, all the more so if they lack the Finals MVP.
I know many theorized Saturday's gut punch might have broken Oklahoma City, but this team has come back from worse. What's your sense of how the Thunder regard the Warriors? Do they think they're the better team? Do they think they're about to crack this particular code?
Young: There's no question Saturday's game greatly impacted the Thunder. Kevin Durant tried to brush it aside saying on Wednesday, "I've already played in so many games in this league that I needed to get past quickly. It wasn't the playoffs, it's not the Finals, it's a regular season game. As big as it was, it was a regular season game." But the vibe in the locker room postgame was that of losing a critical playoff game. They not only wanted that one badly, but they had it, and their best player gave it away. It was like a triple gut punch.
One thing the Thunder like to pride themselves on is resiliency. They've experienced plenty of adversity and been through their share of letdowns, in games far bigger and more important than Saturday's. So while that one stung, it also happened on Feb. 27. But there are two ways to look at this if you're the Thunder:
1) You were tied with the Warriors with three minutes to go in their building, and then had them down four with 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the game at Oklahoma City. You clearly are good enough to beat them. There isn't a significant matchup issue and in both games, the Thunder played the kind of defense necessary to beating the Warriors. And they still have no answer for Durant.
2) They have your number and are building a mental hurdle you're going to have to overcome. It can be easy for something like that to get in your head, especially when you lose the way they just did. Plus there's this: The Warriors haven't lost at home in like six years or something. And if the Thunder are so fortunate to meet them in the Western Conference, barring an unforeseen collapse, they're going to have to beat the Warriors at least once in Oracle to advance. So proving to yourselves it can be done on both fronts is important.
Oh, and Steph was totally shimmying at me. You can't prove otherwise.
You talked about this some on the TrueHoop podcast this week already, but how important was that win for the Warriors not just in the sense it keeps them on track for 73, but in overshadowing Draymond Green's locker room tirade, something that could've become a serious distraction going forward?
Strauss: Hmm, I'm wondering if I should write a bigger article on the Draymond topic (I go with "Draymond" because "Green" sounds so generic), but let's get it kicked off here. Time to be the bad guy and tell you about a 54-5 team's flaw.
The quick summary is that Draymond got comfortable letting the ball fly early in the possession, and Kerr isn't so comfortable with Draymond's comfort. Tension over this topic incited the halftime tirade that garnered mention on the national broadcast.
Some fans responded to my game column by saying such things happen, not a big deal, this is sports, stop causing drama, etc. I flat-out do not subscribe to this diminishing of what Lisa Salters reported. Draymond Green isn't (wisely) submitting a public apology if what happened at halftime was normal and fine.
It speaks to a broader, bigger issue between him, Kerr and his teammates. It's been brewing for some time, and in theory, should be quelled by all the success. That it isn't, is concerning.
To be clear, Draymond Green is a fantastic player, the kind of player everybody should want on their team. He's maniacally devoted to winning and helps the Warriors win in so many different ways. He's also a talented leader, intelligent as he is funny.
All that said, the Warriors would benefit if he smoothes over that temper. It's a difficult task because what fuels that halftime explosion isn't so divorced from what fuels all the great things about Draymond (the Thunder might have a player like that, starting at point guard). He just can't be challenging Kerr like the locker room is the Octagon. As Curry said about the incident, "It probably shouldn't have happened."
From a basketball perspective, I'm probably on Draymond's side. Let the man shoot, early in the possession, whenever he's open. It seemed to work well earlier this season. Perhaps there's a method to Kerr's conservatism with Draymond's shot selection, but I like when he's launching that early, open 3. So, while I can sympathize with Draymond's perspective, he certainly has to find a better way to handle those moments when his perspective isn't adopted. Eventually, the Warriors might actually lose some games. They must be able to depend on their emotional leader when times get tougher.
Young: Kind of like let a good hitter swing at the first fastball he sees rather than trying to work the count.
Strauss: To wrap this up: What are the implications of part-owner Aubrey McClendon's sudden death Wednesday in a car crash after his indictment on Tuesday?
Young: In terms of a direct impact on the team and organization, little to none. McClendon wasn't involved in any day-to-day operations, and outside of being a visible part of some games and, of course, being a financial piece, he wasn't an integral part of the operation.
That said, there is a real element of distraction here, and the evidence is apparent. They're without their two top assistant coaches, Maurice Cheeks, who is away from the team because of hip surgery, and Monty Williams, who is on indefinite leave in the wake of the tragic death of his wife in a car crash.
Then there was McClendon's death, which the team learned of literally on the bus on the way back to the hotel immediately following shootaround that morning.
Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are 2-5, with losses to the Pacers (which featured blowing a seven-point lead in the final two minutes), the Cavs (a 23-point home blowout), the Pelicans (an ugly road loss where they allowed 123 points), the Warriors (which of course featured a collapse where they led by four with 14 seconds to go) and the Clippers (which featured just scoring five points in the final 7:25 of the game to blow a 17-point lead).
That doesn't strike me as entirely coincidental.
But Thursday's game presents them another opportunity to get right with themselves, to realign as the team they know they're capable of being. They effectively beat the Warriors on Saturday, except the scoreboard didn't say so. They did the same to the Clippers on Wednesday, but walked away with another L. The Thunder are in some kind of strange funk, and either they can snap themselves out of it instantly at Oracle, or they'll be left with more questions to answer in the final month and a half.