Russell Westbrook tried to conceal his laughter. He covered his face with his massive left hand, shook his head slightly and scratched his cheek before looking down with a smile.
It was a telling response late Thursday night to a question about whether Golden State’s Stephen Curry was an underrated defender. It also conveyed that things aren’t all that grave for Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder after a loss shaved their lead in the Western Conference finals to 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
They’ve got two more chances to close out the defending NBA champions. Two more chances to attach an asterisk to the Warriors’ record 73 victories in the regular season. Two more chances to imprint themselves as the newest model that everyone else in the league will try to imitate because of their cartoonish length and athleticism.
Oklahoma City’s first opportunity comes in Game 6 on Saturday evening at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Thunder rolled to 28- and 24-point victories earlier in the series.
The Warriors are painfully aware of what will be required to prevent a third beat-down.
“It will take all of our IQ, all of our gamesmanship and just 48 great minutes to get a win down there considering how the last two games have gone,” Curry said Thursday after reviving the Warriors’ season with a 31-point outburst in Game 5.
Equally important was a reserve unit that sparked an 8-0 run to start the fourth quarter with All-Stars Curry, Thompson and Green on the bench.
“We had contributions up and down the roster,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s kind of been our motto, as you know, for the last couple years. Strength in numbers.”
Several Warriors said the genesis of the resurgence was a determination to simply enjoy themselves. They blasted music at the shoot-around in their practice facility and Curry took his usual circus shots before the game, making his last five from near the half-court logo.
“We play better when we’re having fun and enjoying the moment,” Curry said. “We played like we were really stressed in OKC and it showed. Kind of let loose, be ourselves, have fun, enjoy what we were doing. It was a good feeling out there to obviously perform at a high level. So got to bottle up that joy and take it with us on the plane to OKC.”
Of course, the Warriors also realize the flip side of the equation. The Thunder are more relaxed on their home court, where they are buoyed by one of the loudest crowds in the NBA.
“That’s a tough, tough building to play in,” said Green, whose combined minus-73 in Games 3 and 4 reflected those difficulties. “They feed off that crowd. They’re always in attack mode there, so we’ve got to make sure that we go in there and exceed their intensity level and try to take the crowd out of the game.”
Curry finished off the Thunder in Game 5 by stealing the ball from Durant with a little more than a minute left and making a three-pointer that nudged the Warriors’ lead into double digits. It was Curry’s steal that prompted the question about his defense to Durant and Westbrook after the game.
Durant stoically answered the question while Westbrook cracked up, though Durant’s response and Westbrook’s face essentially said the same thing.
“He’s pretty good, but he doesn’t guard the best point guards,” Durant said. “I think they do a good job of putting a couple of guys on Russell from Thompson to [Andre] Iguodala, and Steph, they throw him in there sometimes. He moves his feet pretty well. He’s good with his hands. But, you know, I like our matchup with him guarding Russ.”
Curry didn’t pretend to be an elite defender when asked about his play on that side of the ball, deferring to Thompson, whose length and quickness make him ideally suited to stop an opponent’s top guard.
“I’ve got a great teammate that’s obviously a better defender on the perimeter,” Curry said. “[But] I like the challenge. I’ll do my job the best I can.”
If things work out for Curry and the Warriors on Saturday, the series will no longer be a laughing matter.