Finally, Golden State met a worthy challenger. In Saturday's highly anticipated matchup, the Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Warriors nearly everything they could handle, but even with the game hanging in the balance during the final minutes, Golden State prevailed for a 116-108 win.
After trailing by 20 points in the first half, the Thunder pushed all the way back and tied the game at 104 with 3:35 left in the fourth quarter. That was as close as they'd get, because Golden State finally did what they've done to every other team and overpowered Oklahoma City for good.
Stephen Curry didn't have one of those games that left you questioning reality, but he did score 26 points while dishing out 10 assists with moments of sheer brilliance. Six of those points came in the final three minutes and this incredible pass across his body just about sealed the game for good.
The Thunder started the game on a 9-0 run, but the Warriors answered right back. When Golden State went up 60-40 thanks to seven straight points from Marreese Speights, it looked like the same script we've seen in all of the Warriors' last big matchups. They blew out the Cleveland Cavaliers, they blew out the San Antonio Spurs, and it looked like the Warriors were about to blow out the Thunder, too.
But Kevin Durant helped buoy his team with a scoring flurry of his own down the stretch of the second quarter, and by halftime, the Thunder hadn't given in just yet. They cut the deficit to 14 points at the intermission and with an excellent third quarter, they began the fourth quarter down by just eight. Most teams can't recover after the Warriors make that inevitable run, but merely by surviving that on Golden State's home floor, Oklahoma City showed something. Their play after that just reinforced the idea that they belong in the conversation with the elite group of contenders.
Still, Curry held up his end of the bargain that his team and Panthers would both win this weekend. All eyes go to the Super Bowl for Cam Newton now.
1. Who can stop the Warriors?
Cleveland couldn't do it -- they just got their coach fired. San Antonio didn't just lose, but they got humiliated. The Thunder came close, closer than any contender has all season, closer than anyone has with the Warriors at full health, but once again, Golden State won.
The home court advantage is real, but the Warriors will have that throughout the entire playoffs, barring something cataclysmic, and there's nothing teams can do to prevent that. So who will it be? The Warriors aren't invincible, and they aren't immortal. Injuries could clearly slow them down and, in fact, they did earlier in the season as they struggled to grind out a win on Christmas Day against Cleveland and lost four regular season games. But the Warriors are the NBA's hegemon; they're the video game boss on the final level; they're the monster under the bed. It's going to take a flawless performance from an opponent to take them down.
2. This isn't on Durant or Westbrook
There's no doubt the NBA is a star-driven league, but the Thunder are living proof to refute any argument that stars alone are enough in this league. On Saturday, both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were everything the Thunder could have hoped for. Durant's 40 points on 12-of-25 shooting included ridiculous shots from all over the floor, while Westbrook dropping 27 points on 22 shots with 12 assists and only three turnovers is ridiculous in its own way. These two are on another level, arguably a level they share with Stephen Curry. If the NBA was just about individuals, then the Thunder would have come away with a win Saturday. But those two can't do it alone for the Thunder.
3. Harrison Barnes is crucial
The Warriors won a game without Stephen Curry this year already, so clearly, their death machine can exchange one of their key cogs for a lesser one and keep on rolling at about the same pace. But Barnes seems to be the most overlooked part of their starting five, and his absence for a stretch earlier in the season really did hold back the Warriors just a bit.
It sounds ridiculous to say that, given that Golden State is 46-4. But they would have lost to Oklahoma City on Saturday without Barnes, who dropped 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. That's pretty much his role on this team: he knows when to be where and has a knack for doing exactly what the team needs out of him. Seeing how the Warriors approach his free agency and whether they value him over someone like Festus Ezeli will be interesting, although maybe Golden State is good enough that it doesn't even matter.
* * *
Unstoppable: If Kawhi Leonard can't stop Stephen Curry, we're ALL doomed