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Thunder were better than Warriors, and it feels a little wrong it was not enough

Jonathan Raymond assesses a a feeling of incompleteness in the outcome of the Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Western Conference Finals.
Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated by the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 on Monday night. Robert Reiners / Getty Images / AFP / May 30, 2016
Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated by the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 on Monday night. Robert Reiners / Getty Images / AFP / May 30, 2016

There’s something gnawing at me about the outcome of the Western Conference Finals. An incomplete feeling, something indefinable and unresolved.

Here’s the thing: If you had shown me Games 1-2 and 5-7, and told me it was the entire series, it would have made perfect sense to me. The Warriors are the decidedly better team, the 73-win juggernaut. The Thunder can take one through sheer force of will, sure, but they’ll be undone in the end by a combination of their own shortcomings and the Warriors’ overwhelming excellence. Golden State in 5, I would have totally bought that.

Except.

Except, obviously, any sense that Games 1-2 and 5-7 are really indicative of what this series was is belied by how powerful what we saw in Games 3-4 was. And that’s what’s hard for me to wrap my head around in the wake of Golden State’s advance.

Because the Warriors, in storming back to win three straight and reach the NBA Finals, didn’t really, well, storm all that much. There was no grand Golden State rebuke in those three games. Not really. Not, at least, the sort of great shaking of the earth and thundering of the skies the Warriors are sometimes uniquely capable of inspiring.

No, they had moments like that – Klay Thompson’s Human Torch flame-on at the end of Game 6 being the leading example – but never a real significant sustained stretch of being the 73-win, we-are-better-than-everyone-ever Warriors. Which is forgiveable. At this stage in the game, and against a team like the Thunder, it’s really, really hard to be as dominant as that.

Except.

Except the Thunder were, for those two games when they went up 3-1. While the Warriors won the last three by a combined 24 points, Oklahoma City won by as much or more than that in each of Games 3 and 4. The Thunder, in fact, outscored the Warriors by seven points total in the series.

A series they lost. Yet a series in which, given the above, it feels like maybe they were the better team.

They traded blows in the series openers, the crazy Stephen Curry-inspired Game 2 in fact was Golden State’s best of the West Finals. And then the Thunder just put them down.

The way Kevin Durant turned into the best defender on the planet (and its best attacker). The way Russell Westbrook channelled his uncontrolled ferocity into a venomous efficiency. The way Steven Adams commanded the floor. The way the other role players fed on the moment. They played at a million miles an hour with the force of a freight train. It was breathtaking.

I had recently before been thinking there was a ceiling to the way the Thunder play. That for as raw and furious and beautiful it can be it always seemed, at the end, to be limiting in its singular emphasis on the greatness of Durant and Westbrook. It fundamentally lacked that extra level we have seen from teams like the Warriors and Spurs, the Cavs of the past months.

And yeah, they did beat those same Spurs. But that felt as much like San Antonio breaking down as Oklahoma City reaching higher. The bitter inverse was true of this series.

They exploded through that ceiling. They were playing at that title-winning elite-of-the-elites level. They were complete.

And then... they just kind of weren’t anymore. They came back down far enough for the Warriors to take advantage. Breaking down as much as Golden State were reaching higher.

The Thunder had finally gotten there. They were a full team of contributors led by two of the greatest players on the planet laying waste to the greatest regular season team in basketball history. They were up 3-1, a win away from the NBA Finals with three chances to seize it.

And then, I don’t know. They were just a good 55-win team again struggling to get over the hump, who didn’t.

The Warriors did their part. They were better in each of those last three games, if only marginally enough. They showed incredibly impressive resilience. They just weren’t their most impressive.

The Thunder were.

It was far more than I ever thought they had in them. In that brief, awesome stretch they played better than Golden State did at any point. It was the best we saw of basketball in this series.

And so it feels a little wrong that it wasn’t enough.

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Updated: May 31, 2016 04:00 AM

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