Inside the cramped Golden State Warriors locker room in Oklahoma City late Tuesday night, there was deflation bordering on a sense of utter disbelief. Players dressed in silence, blankly staring into smartphones, looking for answers, or perhaps it was sympathy.
Andre Iguodala slumped in his seat, wearing a yellow T-shirt that read: "Strength in Numbers." Except the numbers were all trending the wrong way for the Warriors, the defending NBA champions, who were suddenly in a 3-1 Western Conference final ditch, looking up at an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had taken more than the two games in successive blowouts at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Within 48 hours, the Thunder had stolen their identity — a team all season tagged as irrepressible, unstoppable and irresistible, and now just bewildered by the beatdowns they'd had to endure.
The Warriors' record-setting 73-victory season was officially on the brink, and no amount of pronouncements that the series wasn't over could dispute the Thunder's budding ascendancy, or Russell Westbrook's dominance, largely at the expense of a struggling Stephen Curry.
Klay Thompson, who gave Golden State a fighting chance in Game 4 with a third-quarter outburst, glanced at a box score of the 118-94 defeat.
"I mean, we had 40 assists; that's a positive," he said.
In the interview room, he took another look at the sheet in front of him. "No, never mind," he said. "Fifteen. Way off."
Fifteen measly assists from a team celebrated for its ball movement, its sharing, or four more than Westbrook alone.
Curry, the two-time league MVP, paled next to Westbrook, missing 14 of his 20 shots, turning the ball over six times, weaving little of the magic that had made him a global sensation.
Facing elimination at home in Oakland tonight, the Warriors also could soon be looking at a critical dissection of their collective achievements, from last season through this one.
In the build-them-up-and-tear-them-down culture that passes for talk show and Twitter disseminated entertainment, you just know that some people will be champing to reconsider the Warriors' 2015 playoff run.
There will be the predictable chortling from the Old Guy network, all the way back to Oscar Robertson, and especially from loyal defenders of the Michael Jordan generation.
Following up their franchise's first title since 1975, the Warriors had the audacity to better the record 72 regular-season victories claimed by Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1995-96. Then Curry was unanimously voted MVP, a show of perfection Jordan was never afforded.
To a generation of his peers and fans, Jordan is the godfather of all that is historically great, and Curry has been the beneficiary of a sport gone soft. With all due respect, they say, he couldn't do what he has done in the era of hand-checking.
Charles Barkley, Jordan's inept golfing partner, weighed in by saying: "People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. ... But I've never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I've been saying it the last three or four years."
Of course, that becomes an indirect indictment of the Warriors, a commentary on the quality of their competition, as if the Jordan-era didn't have teams not worth watching.
Yet the inalterable truth is that the 72-victory Bulls did punctuate their historic regular season by winning a championship over the Seattle SuperSonics.
Better than most, Warriors' coach Steve Kerr knows the harsh standards by which they will be judged if they do not rally, even if it was his contractual duty to dismiss the carry-over weight of the 73 wins. "To me, they are separate issues," he said. "We had a tremendous regular season."
He added, "In the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0."
—New York Times