When was the last time the Warriors surprised you?
Not surprising: The Warriors are advancing to their second consecutive Finals. Golden State played the regular season to near perfection, which left plenty room for awe, but that feeling rarely developed into shock. They dismantled teams through expressions of pure basketball, but their inevitability made the team appear like a day-old win-probability chart in motion. And yet the Thunder, against the greatest regular-season team in history, looked like the best team in the NBA for stretches in the seven-game Western Conference finals. History had been against the Warriors all season, but the stakes were never as high as three straight elimination games. It almost felt safe to count out the Warriors, and that was genuinely surprising.
It took a 3–1 series deficit for the Warriors to find themselves. It was strange to consider the Warriors underdogs in a season they had all but steamrolled, but here they were. Except their ability to get up and regroup shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. Golden State’s success is built on a foundation laid out by failures of underdogs past. At their core, they are a prism that refracts a spectrum of radical ideas over the NBA’s last decade. From an angle, you might see a ray of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns’ evangelical revival of pace, or the four-out perimeter stylings of the Stan Van Gundy–era Orlando Magic. Lest we forget, Curry himself is a leftover of Don Nelson’s “Nellie Ball” mutation — and the Death Lineup that includes Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green at the 4 and 5, respectively, is something out of Nelson’s hottest and heaviest dreams. The Warriors absorb cult appeal and process it as a machine would. They are simultaneously brilliant and unsettling, like the NBA’s version of the uncanny valley.
Full credit goes to the Thunder; this is just what the Warriors do. They raise the state of play. They challenge you to execute at full capacity, and if you can’t, they threaten you with a vision of your own obsolescence. When the Thunder play in fight-or-flight mode, they ostensibly become a team molded in Russell Westbrook’s image. In Game 7, that wasn’t a good thing. Frantic plays turned into overly patient plays turned into desperation plays — all of which turned into easy points for the Warriors on the other end.
After last night’s win, the Warriors won’t be underdogs again, and if the win probability numbers are any indication, the Finals series against the Cavaliers won’t have nearly the same heightened drama as the Western Conference finals. You can show a machine its own wiring only so many times before it reconfigures. The Thunder series was likely a prolonged, onetime glitch in the Warriors’ ideal simulation. If Golden State starts to sputter out once again — now that would be a surprise.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 30, 2016.