With 7-footers and Hall of Famers Bill Walton, Shaquille O’Neal and Dikembe Mutombo in the building, in street clothes, the Golden State Warriors relocated their forgotten big man, veteran center Andrew Bogut.
How big was the affable Aussie? The player who has been outclassed by his younger, similarly entertaining New Zealand counterpart, Steven Adams?
Let’s just say, if this were a baseball game instead of a potential elimination game in the Western Conference finals, the final score would have read: Australia 1, New Zealand 0.
“The demise of the big man is greatly exaggerated,” Mutombo bellowed, with one of his famous deep-throated chuckles, after the Warriors defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-111 to force Game 6 on Saturday in Oklahoma City. “(Bogut) was good tonight.”
Make no mistake. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was desperate for someone, anyone, to counter the Thunder’s constant interior pounding. So out went small ball, and here came his bigs, led by Bogut with 15 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
For all but the closing sequences of the game, Bogut, Mo Speights, Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejao was on the floor, clogging the lane, setting bruising screens, creating openings for Steph Curry to zig, Draymond Green to zag and their teammates to combine for 48 points in the paint.
“It’s been a frustrating four games for us, but I wanted to make sure that we won or lost on our terms,” Bogut said. “If they beat us, and Russ (Westbrook) and KD (Kevin Durant) go for 40, and we play our game, we wouldn’t be disappointed. But we’re playing with house money. We want to get an important Game 6, and then back home.”
What exactly were the Warriors confronting Thursday night in an anxiety-riddled Oracle Arena? This was a collective legacy game. Losing on the raucous homecourt for a second time this series would have been the worst way go out, certainly not the way the defending champs want to be remembered.
This was the franchise that shredded the NBA record book with 73 regular-season victories, including 24 consecutive wins to start the season. Though Kerr was recovering from offseason spinal surgery and unavailable for the first several weeks, the Warriors nonetheless became the first team to last 82 games without suffering back-to-back losses.
With Steph Curry electrifying an audience – here, there and everywhere – Golden State led the league in assists (28.9), points per game (114.9), and field-goal (.487) and three-point percentage (.416), and finished among the top three in blocks, defensive rebounding, and opponent’s field goal (.435) and three-point percentage (.332).
Ultimately, the only numbers that matter are the final scores, and the Warriors went into Game 5 trailing this best-of-seven series 3-1 and dealing with myriad and much-discussed issues, among them the health of Curry (knee, ankle) and Bogut (groin), Green’s lack of composure and ineffectiveness, and Klay Thompson’s occasional passivity.
Then there was that OKC-to-Oakland bullet train that arrived last week, with the Thunder coming off an impressive stopover in San Antonio.
“It hasn’t been the ideal postseason for Steph, obviously,” Kerr acknowledged earlier in the evening, referring to his star’s ankle and knee ailments, “but it doesn’t matter. Ask Oklahoma City (about) the injuries they’ve dealt with over the years in their playoff runs. You play. You do your best. You give whatever you can, and you see what happens.”
Few saw the Thunder coming despite its success against the favored Spurs in the conference semifinals. Before the current series, the storm chasers were nowhere to be found, except perhaps in the TNT studio (Charles Barkley) and probably every household in the state of Oklahoma.
Yet for the better part of the first four games, the Thunder’s size, length, athleticism – and competitive appetite, otherwise known as hunger – appeared to confound the Warriors. The bunch from OKC, often maligned for poor decisions and solo play, seemed to have matured sometime between its visits to San Antonio and the Bay Area.
Complementary players Dion Waiters, Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson embraced their roles, and the beefy, lively Adams, all of 22 years old, has flourished as the postseason has progressed.
Of course, stars usually dictate the outcome of playoff series, and Game 5 added another chapter to the fascinating Curry/Green/Thompson vs. Westbrook/Durant dynamic.
“We want to be disciplined and focused,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We do have length, and we do have active guys in terms of their range and being able to deflect.”
Well, not so fast. It’s back to OKC, with a chance – at least a chance – for a dramatic seventh game back here Monday.