Paying respects to the unrealized potential of the Warriors-Thunder rivalry  11/10/2019 04:51:23 
11:21 PM ET

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was the first play of the game, and as is customary in Oklahoma City, the (mostly) full house crowd stood awaiting the first bucket of the game for the home team. The Oklahoma City Thunder were playing the Golden State Warriors on a Saturday night in the big town, typically standard appointment viewing for any NBA fan.

The Warriors were caught in a mismatch and the Thunder posted Steven Adams on the right block. He spun off of a Warriors defender and laid in a smooth righty layup to grant the fans permission to sit.

But outside of Adams, the game was barely recognizable.

The Thunder built a 23-point lead with Danilo Gallinari heating up the first half, then watched as D'Angelo Russell scorched in the third quarter to bring the Warriors back. The Thunder face-guarded Russell in the fourth and he added just two more points as Chris Paul hit a midrange dagger to seal a 114-108 win for OKC.

The Thunder moved to 4-5 on the season. The Warriors are now 2-8.

The Warriors and Thunder have a history. It's one part shared; it's another part strife. They have played some of the most memorable games in NBA history, produced some of the league's greatest moments and, between them, largely controlled the Western Conference for a decade. Their seven-game series in the 2016 Western Conference finals is one of the most dramatic, compelling series of all time, and that was just the beginning of it between the Thunder and Warriors. Kevin Durant left OKC to join Golden State less than two months after Game 7.

But with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Roberson all out injured, Shaun Livingston retired, Andre Iguodala traded, Durant changing teams (again), Russell Westbrook in Houston and Serge Ibaka in Toronto, the only player Saturday who played in that 2016 series is Adams.

"Things move fast in the NBA. It's crazy," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "That was such an epic series and the level of play in that series was amazing. Athletically, skillwise -- watching everybody, it was just an incredible display. But between injuries and the Thunder kind of moving into their next phase and us trying to figure out what our next phase is going to look like as we go, dramatic changes on both sides, and it is strange.

"It seemed to happen almost overnight," Kerr said. "Again, this is the NBA. This is kind of how it goes."

It would've been incomprehensible even just a year ago for Thunder/Warriors to be scheduled on a college football Saturday going head to head in prime time against OU playing just some 20 miles south. It was a marquee matchup, the original Saturday prime-time game (Curry's double-bang near-40-footer opened the series in 2016), a national TV staple with debate, discussion and hype.

"At some point, everybody's got to evolve and change, and different things happen," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "It's just the way it is where there's going to be a lot of roster turnover. The rivalries, they're probably less about the teams, and more about the players playing against each other."

That playoff series seemed to set the stage for the Next Great NBA Rivalry. The 73-win Warriors were pushed to the brink by Westbrook and Durant, and there was no reason to think they wouldn't be reconvening in the West finals again, and again, and again. And even after Durant disrupted basketball by joining the Warriors, the matchup still had pop and in some ways, even more of it. Now, there was drama, there was revenge, there was animosity. Westbrook versus Durant, Westbrook versus the Warriors, Westbrook versus the world.

That lasted only three years. There were still memorable moments, like "I'm coming!", like Zaza Pachulia nefariously bodying Westbrook twice, like Westbrook's photographer's vest, like Instagram cupcakes, like canceled steakhouse reservations, like Westbrook and Durant going forehead to forehead. But much of that mattered more off the court than on it. The competitive tension was gone, the stakes were never nearly as high.

Now, unless you care deeply about Alec Burks (sort of) signing with both the Thunder and Warriors last summer, there is neither.

"I think probably back, 30 or 40 years ago, teams had their players stayed there for 8, 10, 12 years," Donovan said. "Maybe you added a player here or there, but those rivalries, whether it be Philly and Boston or Boston and L.A., they kind of stood for a decade and that's the way it was."

KD, Russ, Serge, Steph, Klay and Draymond of years past is now Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jordan Poole, Omari Spellman and Ky Bowman.

"We're really far removed from the battles that we used to have," Curry said. "The playoff series and all the back and forth and all the different storylines, so [this is] unfamiliar territory for sure."

There was the first meeting a few weeks ago, prior to the official Warriors downfall this season, but a night with plenty of foreshadowing. Curry and Green were playing but the Warriors looked inept and scattered, and almost as an omen to the absent link between the teams, took a little trolling at the hands of OKC's mayor because of some scoreboard serendipity. Even that game, though, is a far cry from Saturday's, where Adams stood as the lone survivor of 2016.

The basketball Gods have a sense of humor. #35

 Mayor David Holt (@davidfholt) October 27, 2019

Both teams are plotting their return to the elite, albeit on likely different tracks. The Warriors are taking a gap year of sorts, redshirting the season after injuries hit Curry and Thompson as they develop young players and eye a possible lottery pick. The Thunder are still dismantling after trading their franchise icon, but have a war chest of draft capital on the horizon. There would be new faces, new plotlines and new drama, but maybe one day, somewhere down the line, the Thunder and Warriors will align again. Because who wouldn't want another movie of that?

"That's just the NBA," Donovan said. "Things change quickly."

Either the Thunder or Warriors have held a spot in the Western Conference finals for the past six seasons. But their paths intersected only once, the lone playoff meeting culminating with the 2016 epic. It was basically the NBA version of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe building up to "Endgame." And with the abrupt crash of the Warriors, they may both miss the playoffs in the same season for the first time since 2009.

"Rivalries are usually based on playoff meetings and an extended period of relevance and I think we were, the Thunder and Warriors, we kind of crossed over each other for about three years where we really among the elite," Kerr said. "It just didn't last long enough for it to become a real rivalry. But for those years, those were incredible meetings and high, high-level stuff."

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