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Thunder Rivalries: Golden State Warriors

Oklahoma City-Warriors took their bitter rivalry to new heights.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Oklahoma City has had several rivalries over the years.

During the Thunder’s early years, the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies were huge rivals for Oklahoma City.

The Spurs were the Gold Standard in the Western Conference while the Thunder were trying to establish himself. Memphis was a rival during the Thunder’s rise as both teams were young sides vying for the same honors.

At present, the Thunder only really has one rival, the Portland Trailblazers. The rivalry with the Blazers started with both teams being in the same division and each regular-season game being played at high intensity. The competition culminated in a playoff series in which Damian Lillard closed the book on the Russell Westbrook era.

Oklahoma City had a rivalry with the Golden State Warriors that was filled with bad blood and lasted three years. Durant’s departure amplified the competition in 2016, but the seeds of rivalry were planted during Kevin Durant’s final season in Oklahoma City.

In the 2015-16 Season, the Western Conference was competitive with three dominant teams emerging. The Warriors were the defending champions, but the Thunder and Spurs were perennial contenders who wanted the Warriors’ crown, both sides were kind enough to get out of the West.

Kawhi Leonard led San Antonio during the last embers of the ‘Big Three’ era, which had won so much during their time together. The decision to run the majority of the offense through Leonard paid dividends for Coach Pop, and the Spurs went 67-15 in the regular season.

The pairing of Westbrook and Durant led Oklahoma City. The two players had led the Thunder for so long, and the Warriors were another rival for them to defeat. Durant and Westbrook were finally healthy at the same time, and the Thunder were on the warpath towards the honor, which had eluded the franchise.

During the regular season, Oklahoma City was unable to defeat the Warriors, who would eventually go on to post a 73-9 record, the best winning percentage in league history. The Warriors achieved an extraordinary feat that season. The defending champions had managed to beat the 72-10 mark set by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

The Warriors played at a level that Golden State has not reached since that season. Golden State played at a frenetic pace that tired opponents out before eventually landing haymakers from downtown. It was common to see Stephen Curry sitting on the bench for all of the fourth quarter after an explosion in the third quarter had won the game for the Warriors.

A natural rivalry emerged between the Warriors and Thunder. They were the two of the best teams in the conference, and a seven-game series only elevates the tension between both parties. The apparent motivation of wanting to win a title was evident for the Warriors and Thunder, but there were other motivations for critical players in the series.

Stephen Curry had felt disrespected after the 2015 NBA Finals, and there was a lot of talk about the Warriors having an easy road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy due to the injury luck that Golden State enjoyed. He did not feel like the Warriors’ accomplishments were recognized correctly.

Curry’s annoyance at the argument was on full display before the start of the season of the 2015-16 season in October. He mockingly apologized for being healthy and beating the teams in front of the Warriors to win the title.

His sarcasm belied his true feelings, and Curry wanted to repeat to shut the critics up. He did not want to hear that the Cavaliers would beat Golden State when healthy.

Russell Westbrook was motivated by his rivalry with Stephen Curry, the player who was deemed to be the best point guard in the NBA. Westbrook wanted that honor for himself, and a series victory against the Warriors would be the ideal argument to make his case.

The differences between the two-point guards could not be more significant on the court. Curry creates from the perimeter; he uses the gravity of his deep shot to find his team-mates for good looks. Westbrook is a hyper-athlete who attacks the rim at full force and makes plays going downhill.

The battle between the two point guards to be designated as the best point guard in the league was real, but the struggle had more profound meaning. It was a stylistic clash that would define the league for years to come. Curry’s sweet-shooting had changed how many thought about the point guard position.

Curry had proven that shooting was the equalizer; a marginal athlete could produce actively at the NBA level. The only question was whether the style could win championships. Although the Warriors beat Cleveland in the 2015 Finals, it was disregarded by several fans due to the injury-ravaged Cleveland team that GSW defeated.

Now, Westbrook represented the mold of point guards who had led the league since 2010. He was not a brilliant shooter by any means, but he could always get to hole for a layup or a dunk. His athleticism meant that he was an exciting player to watch, but there were doubts about his future as a top player in the league.

Spacing had only grown in importance, and Westbrook’s inability to shoot efficiently from deep would put a ceiling on the Thunder. Beating the Warriors would not only bring the Thunder into title contention, but it would break the perception that Westbrook was not suited to win a championship as the lead option.

The series was highly anticipated by all and Oklahoma City delivered in Game 1 of the series, and the Thunder upset the Warriors at Oracle. The game was on, the Warriors were on the back foot and would have to fight their way back into the series.

Draymond Green is one of the principal protagonists in the rivalry between the Warriors and Thunder. Green is a player that loves to get under the skin of the opposing team. His arrogance and style of play is an irritant for fans across the league. Against the Thunder, he crossed the line into being a ‘dirty’ player.

In Games 2 and 3, Draymond hit Steven Adams in the groin area. In Game 4, Green tripped Enes Kanter. All of these actions were cheap shots and made people mad. There are unwritten rules in the game of basketball, and the most important of these rules is that you play honestly and cleanly. Green had disregarded these rules in favor of hurting the other team.

Green’s behavior caused anger and outcry from Thunder fans, and there was now a legitimate reason to dislike the Warriors. The bad blood was starting to flow. Oklahoma City fans were also left shocked that Green’s actions went unpunished by referees. Green was called for a Flagrant one on the Game 3 cheap shot, but the call on Enes Kanter went unpunished.

Green should have been suspended for a game due to the fouls he committed. The referees did not make the call to suspend Green, which only increased the intensity of the rivalry; it felt as if the Warriors were able to get away with murder. The Thunder and Warriors were already rivals, but Draymond had made the competition personal.

Moreover, the possible effects of Green being suspended for Game 5 are something that ruffles up Thunder fans. The Warriors without Draymond Green are a diminished team, and they did not have the talent to fill in the role which he played on the side.

Green’s defensive ability sustained the Warriors on that end of the floor. We have already seen what the Warriors looked like without Green. They lost Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. In that game, the Warriors did not protect the rim at all well, and LeBron was able to score at will in the interior.

I feel reasonably confident in stating that Green being absent in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals swings the series in OKC’s favor and would likely lead to the Thunder advancing to the Finals. Green getting away with his behavior was that small edge that can decide a series.

Eventually, the Warriors advanced to the Finals, and the Thunder were left out in the cold. It was expected by fans and media members alike that both teams would run it back, and the rivalry would continue.

Durant’s free agency was a long process that eventually resulted in Kevin bolting to the Bay Area to join the Warriors in an unprecedented move. There had never been a basketball star at Durant’s level who had joined the best team in the league in free agency. The move was polarising.

Some people praised Durant for exercising his player power to get himself to an environment where he was happy and could win championships. Some people hated Durant’s decision as it ruined the competitive balance of the league. Everybody agreed that Kevin Durant had made a ‘soft’ decision.

The decision made by Kevin Durant on July 4, 2016, caused pain in Oklahoma City. Fans could not understand how Durant had left like that with a meaningless press release as his only justification. The player who claimed to love Oklahoma City as the home had coldly decided to go elsewhere.

Durant’s Players Tribune article contained platitudes towards the Thunder, but it felt hollow. There was an overwhelming sense that Durant had betrayed the franchise by joining the Thunder’s closest rivals. Durant’s decision only increased the rivalry, the decision damned the Thunder while making the Warriors even more powerful.

The recruitment process was even more infuriating for a lot of Thunder fans when the news came about that Durant was in communication with Draymond Green throughout the Finals. That act felt like a betrayal of Oklahoma City while Durant still played for the franchise. It felt like Durant was not fully committed and had one eye on greener pastures.

Russell Westbrook was displeased by Durant’s decision and went on what would eventually be called the ‘Revenge Tour.’ Westbrook set out to prove Durant wrong, and the 82 regular-season games would be his canvas. Westbrook was unchained for the first time and had the freedom to do what he wanted.

Westbrook started his ‘Revenge Tour’ with pettiness aimed at Durant. There was the cupcake photo on July 4, which subliminally called Durant soft. There was the Jordan commercial set to a track called ‘Now I Do What I Want’ by Lil Uzi Vert. In that advert, Westbrook expressed his newfound freedom without a co-star who was not committed to the cause.

The pettiness continued into the regular season. Durant called individual Thunder players selfish, and Westbrook wore an ‘Official Photographers’ jersey to mock Durant’s love of photography. The Durant-Westbrook beef fed into the competitive rivalry between both teams.

It started to feel like a blood feud between the Warriors and Thunder. There was real animosity between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Westbrook is a man who makes loyalty to those around him a part of his code. It is one of the reasons why he eschewed high school powerhouses to remain at Leuzinger High as a teenager. Durant’s departure made him the enemy in Russell’s eyes.

The rivalry itself was not close during Westbrook’s season by himself. The Golden State Warriors soundly beat the Thunder home and away as they marched towards an NBA Championship. For that first season, the rivalry was sustained by emotion and hurt. It was not maintained by the Thunder having any chance of winning against the Warriors.

The reality was that the addition of Kevin Durant had made the Warriors hard to beat on any given night. The Warriors could break teams with their speed and movement, but Durant provided another reliable option for Golden State. When possessions broke down, Curry could toss the ball to Kevin and wait for a bucket to materialize.

Durant’s ability as an isolation scorer gave the Warriors a different look when games became uncomfortable. Durant was the spear that could be relied upon to puncture defenses and create openings for other Warriors to exploit. For a team like the Thunder, who heavily relied upon one man, it was impossible to defeat.

Golden State won all four regular-season games against the Thunder that season and each game had moments that increased the bad blood. The most notable example of bad blood was Durant’s return to Oklahoma City. The return was highly anticipated, it was believed that the Thunder might be able to win one against Golden State at the ‘Peake.’

It was the first time for the fans to lay eyes on the man many called ‘Benedict Arnold.’ The atmosphere was just different to any game which I have seen. It was emotionally charged and aggressive for everybody involved. The fans wore ‘Cupcake’ t-shirts in honor of Durant’s soft decisions, and they repeatedly booed him throughout the game.

The players were also a little testy. Durant had squared up with Andre Roberson during the game before he eventually had a spat with Russell. The former team-mates got in each other’s face and trash-talked before separating. It was the first visible contact between both men, and they did not even interact at All-Star Weekend.

During team practice for the Western Conference, Westbrook chose to shoot on the opposing basket away from his team-mates before James Harden eventually joined him. He wanted nothing to do with Durant despite many people suggesting it was time for them to talk out their issues.

By that point, the rivalry had become more than just two individuals and competition. The rivalry had grown into being a clash of thought about the game of basketball. Warriors’ fans abhorred Westbrook’s style of play and felt that he was an inefficient chucker who was vastly overrated compared to Curry.

Thunder fans believed that Curry was overrated and had not delivered when it mattered most in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. There was a lot of toxic mud-slinging flying back and forth across Internet forum pages.

The rivalry between the Warriors and Thunder became competitive with the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Alone, Russell Westbrook could do not defeat Goliath, but he would be more than a match for the Bay Area side when flanked with All-Star talent.

George and to a lesser extent, Anthony, gave the Thunder legitimacy as they chased a title with Westbrook as the lead guy.

From a basketball standpoint, it was a case of Sam Presti producing moments of wizardry to stock the roster with players that fit well around Westbrook. In theory, both trades made perfect sense. George’s perimeter defense would strengthen the Thunder’s case and provide an extended wing to partner Roberson on the sides.

Anthony was a big-time shot-maker who could relieve the scoring burden which Westbrook carried.

The rivalry was evened up for the 2017-18 season. In the regular season, Oklahoma City struck back. The first contest between the Warriors and Thunder was at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and it was another emotionally-fueled contest. The fans continued to boo Durant, but this time, the Thunder rose to the occasion.

Oklahoma City had experimented with a more democratic offense during the first fifteen games of the season, Westbrook seemed to be holding back to make his new team-mates feel comfortable. He was not attacking at full force, and shots were relatively evenly distributed.

Against the Warriors, Oklahoma City reverted to isolation basketball and slapped the Warriors. Russell got to the rim at will, and he created effectively off the drive as he found George and Anthony for good looks behind the arc.

The offense was fine, but it was the defense that looked impressive.

The Thunder harried the Warriors relentlessly, which led to turnovers and easy transition scores.

The George-Roberson pairing was devastating against Durant and Curry. Their active defense meant the Warriors could not get into a scoring rhythm. For the game, the Thunder had 27 deflections, a clear indicator of OKC’s intensity on defense.

Adams was imperious on defense; he did not allow the Warriors to score at the rim while also being comfortable defending in space when Draymond switched to center.

The Thunder have three staunch defenders covered Anthony’s deficiencies on defense and enabled Russell to play the passing lanes.

Russell Westbrook can be an active on-ball defender, but his situational and positional awareness lets him down on defense. Westbrook is a gambler who will jump out of position in order to steal the ball and get out in transition.

The protection that George and Roberson provided meant that Westbrook was free to hunt the ball with little consequence; the Thunder were protected regardless of Westbrook.

The victory raised the possibility of the Thunder being title contenders again, the defense had stifled the Warriors and made the prospect of a playoff series exciting. The rivalry had taken on a new meaning. Oklahoma City was the leading Western Conference challenger to Golden State.

There was a flash-point during the game between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant during the third quarter. Both men went head-to-head and jawed at each other; it was clear their relationship had not thawed out.

The Athletic’s Tim Cato believed the Thunder’s defense would make Oklahoma City a legitimate rival to the Warriors in the Western Conference. The hope was back for OKC, and the regular-season series was eagerly anticipated.

The second game of the series went the same way, Oklahoma City handled the Warriors with ease. The Thunder fed off the energy from the crowd and scored 42 points in the first quarter, GSW could not chop down the lead. The Thunder were again aggressive on defense, the “Splash Brothers” both had miserable shooting nights.

While the Thunder were able to match the Golden State Warriors in both home games, Oklahoma City’s position as a challenger to the Warriors’ juggernaut had fallen away. Carmelo Anthony’s defense was a liability in a playoff series and would be targeted by a team like the Warriors or Rockets.

The loss of Andre Roberson was devastating. The Thunder lost its principal stopper, the best defensive player on the team. Roberson’s injury caused the defense to fall off, and Oklahoma City drifted out of the title picture.

The rest of the regular-season series went Golden State’s way, the Warriors handled the Thunder, and each team entered the post-season. Although the rivalry still existed, the heat had dissipated. The Thunder were no longer title contenders, and as such, that animus had gone away.

Kevin Durant is still disliked by Thunder fans to this today, but it is hard to keep up the public hatred of a specific player. It is emotionally draining, by and large, the mood had shifted away from booing Durant every time he touched the ball to a quiet dislike of Durant.

The Thunder were bounced in the first round by Utah in an embarrassing fashion. The loss to Utah meant that Oklahoma City was no longer regarded as a threat to the Warriors. The rivalry cooled off even further as a result of the Thunder’s under-achievement.

The fanbases were not so at odds during the 2018 Playoffs. There was a point where Warriors and Thunder fans shared a common enemy in the Houston Rockets.

It did not feel like a contest between two teams who disliked each other during the 2018-19 season. The Warriors treated games with the Thunder with importance, but the focus was the three-peat and Durant’s free agency.

Oklahoma City’s focus was getting the team right for another shot at the post-season. The Thunder needed a deep run to make the Russell Westbrook and Paul George era worthwhile.

The rivalry had faded by the 2018-19 season, and the summer went the competition. Durant left for Brooklyn, and the Warriors dynasty fell apart. Russell Westbrook and Paul George were both traded, which returned players who had no part in the rivalry.

The only principal component in the competition is Draymond Green, who has played an inconsistent season this year.

The rivalry was profoundly personal and competitive at its height before it eventually fizzled out. The competition started with a close, feisty playoff series in 2016 and peaked with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant going head to head.

Today, a Thunder vs. Warriors does not have the same sort of energy. It is merely another regular-season game to be played.

Curry had a prescient thought on the end of the rivalry early this season when the Thunder and Warriors played each other.

It was a battle between two powerhouses, and now it will be a rebuilding period for both teams. That is the nature of the modern NBA. A team switches through phases incredibly quickly.

However, these years need to be remembered.

It was an essential part of the history of the Thunder.