It looked improbable for much of the season, but it’s here and it’s happening: The Thunder and Warriors are meeting in the Western Conference finals. All season, Stephen Curry has been in the process of rewriting the way we understand basketball. There seemingly has never been a player who can dribble, shoot, and pass quite like him, and there isn’t a defense in the NBA capable of preventing Curry from getting good looks for himself and his teammates. But that’s what makes this matchup so intriguing. Oklahoma City just might have the one player in the world who can go point for point with Steph, if only because that player essentially is Steph, reimagined as a near 7-footer. If all goes according to plan, this series will be a ballad of Curry and Kevin Durant.
To defeat the Warriors, the Thunder will have to harness every ounce of their second-ranked offense in the regular season. Only twice this season did Golden State lose to a team that failed to reach at least 108 points. In their nine regular-season losses, the Warriors allowed opponents to score 109.3 points per 100 possessions, more than eight points higher than their defensive rating on the season. Durant is coming off a demolition of the Spurs in the second round, when he set fire to two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard and tore through one of the best defenses in NBA history. The Warriors might not have an answer for him, either. Durant averaged 36.3 points on 52.9 percent shooting in the three regular-season meetings, and those are the kinds of numbers he’ll have to put up if the Thunder are going to have any chance of pulling off their second consecutive upset.
The most interesting dynamic of the series might be seen in the Warriors’ pick-and-roll game, where the Durant-Curry duel will find itself intersecting on defense. Billy Donovan often had Durant guarding Draymond Green in their regular-season matchups, leaving Durant on Curry when the Thunder switched screens. On those possessions, Durant was able to use his length to force Curry into a few turnovers, but the more reps Steph got against KD, the more comfortable he became creating space with the dribble to get his shot up over Durant’s ridiculous length. It’s hard to overstate the challenge facing Durant. Not only will he have to outscore the league MVP, he will have to do so playing on an inferior team while being forced to carry a much bigger load than his counterpart on defense.
Curry’s return from injury with an overtime explosion in Game 4 of Golden State’s second-round series against the Blazers has been the defining moment of the playoffs, but we’re due for something iconic in this round. The pressure is tangible. Durant’s impending free agency (and the very real chance that he’ll sign with the Warriors) looms as large as Curry’s bid for immortality. With a dominant performance in the Western Conference finals, the Warriors will have a chance to deliver the deathblow to the team perhaps best suited to challenge them in the near future. This is the series we’ve waited all season for, and the ramifications are widespread. This is what the playoffs are all about.
This piece originally appeared in the May 16, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.