OKLAHOMA CITY — Down at the other end of the gaudy blue court were more than 900 playoff games. Four Hall of Famers. Four NBA championships.
And as the Thunder came down the stretch Friday night against all that experience, all that Warriors excellence, it had two rookies on the floor who’d never done anything like this before.
Technically, nobody in the building had done exactly this.
The Warriors’ 141-139 win at the Paycom Center — a concoction of brilliant basketball with a pinch of controversy at the end for extra spice — was the first game for either franchise in the new NBA In-Season Tournament.
But the atmosphere in the place, the new alternate court and the theoretically raised stakes were never going to phase Golden State.
It turned out not to rattle the Thunder either.
“I thought it was a classic game where every possession mattered, obviously right up to the end of the game…,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “It was a true 48-minute game, which there’s no place we’d rather be and there’s no team we’d rather be playing than a team that’s as battle-tested as they are.”
The most meaningful tests still lie ahead for this Thunder team. This iteration has yet to make the playoffs, hasn’t finished a season above .500. It’s in the early stages of a rebuild.
But playing without its best player — star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed the game with a sprained left knee — Oklahoma City played the Warriors to the wire.
There were 15 ties in the game and 23 lead changes. The lead changed hands 16 times in the fourth quarter alone. Neither team had a cushion of more than nine points the entire game.
Golden State couldn’t put the thing away until 0.2 seconds remaining, when Steph Curry’s driving layup put them ahead for good.
Draymond Green, pursuing a potential miss, touched the rim as Curry’s shot dropped, a call that was ruled basket interference on the floor but overturned by the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J.
“It was clear and conclusive evidence that Draymond does not touch the ball,” officiating crew chief Mitchell Erwin told a pool reporter after the game. “Although Draymond does touch the rim, he does not touch the ball, nor does him touching the rim cause the ball to take an unnatural bounce therefore a basketball violation does not occur on the play.”
The way Thunder guard Josh Giddey sees it, it shouldn’t have come down to that call anyway.
“We had every chance to win that game,” he said.
He’s not wrong, and that says something.
But the Warriors won it, and that says something too.
“A team like that is never gonna go away,” Giddey said. “They’ve been in this position so many times over such a long period of time that they know how to get themselves back into games and how to close them out.”
The Thunder (3-3) still is learning all of that.
And Friday — even in a Group Play game in a newly invented regular-season tournament — seemed like a step.
It felt like a moment when Lu Dort scored 29 points, filling a scoring gap left in Gilgeous-Alexander’s absence while being asked to guard Curry for most of their time on the court together.
It seemed significant when Giddey poured in 14 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, finding his confidence and attacking downhill the way he’d struggled to in the first three quarters.
“This is a tough guy right here,” Holmgren said. “I don’t know what neighborhood he’s from in Australia, but this is a tough dude.”
And it sure felt like the start of something to see Holmgren go for 24 points, eight rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block in his first game against Golden State.
It seemed to feel that way for Green, too. He went head-to-head with Holmgren — and elbow-to-head, too, giving him a shot on a layup attempt. Nothing flagrant. The two dapped fists after the video review.
“The sky’s the limit for Chet,” Green said. “We’ve watched him for years leading up to him coming to the NBA and (it was) always like ‘Yo, this kid has a chance,’ and now we saw it tonight. He’s gonna be a problem for a long time in this league.”
He wasn’t the only rookie giving the Warriors worries.
Cason Wallace started in Gilgeous-Alexander’s spot and played a team-high 36 minutes. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including two tough driving finishes in the fourth quarter.
“They really didn’t back down, even though we’re playing against a team that’s had a lot of success in this league,” Dort said of the Thunder rookies. “I’m proud of them, and that’s how they should approach every game.”
None of it was enough.
But it felt like something.
Especially against this opponent.
On a night when the Paycom Center rocked like the old days, there was the promise — even in a loss — of what lies ahead.
The Thunder’s path to title contention in a small market might look more like the Nuggets’. But the Warriors, too, are a blueprint for constructing through the draft and keeping a core together — that one-time Kevin Durant signing notwithstanding.
And Golden State is the model for modern team success, with four titles in nine years — two sans Durant — with the core of Curry, Green and Klay Thompson.
“These guys have been playing together for years in their core group, and they know each other like the back of their hands,” Giddey said. “And those things, you can’t make that happen overnight. It comes with time and games played together.”
OKC is a long way from that. The build is in its early stages.
But before the game Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the Thunder has “a great foundation.” He lauded Daigneault for building a system to suit his players’ style. He praised Sam Presti for getting “this nucleus built around Shai.”
And he noted the importance of adding Holmgren, a shot-blocking center who can stretch the floor at the other end with his shooting.
“You can see all of this taking shape,” Kerr said, “and they’re they’re gonna be scary for years to come.”