In November of 1942, the Soviet Red Army surrounded the city of Stalingrad where over 250,000 cornered German soldiers were dying of frostbite, starvation and disease. With the strength and resolve of the Nazi regime deteriorating amidst the brutal winter, the Russian death trap is widely considered to be the ultimate turning point in World War II.
In April of 2013, the Golden State Warriors entered the skyward city of Denver, where 38 teams had already succumbed to light-heatedness, vomiting and apnea caused by the brutal chest-heaving altitude of the Mile High City. Having lost the first game of the series in a last-second heartbreaker, a young sharpshooter named Stephen Curry shredded the Nuggets' stonewall defense with breathtaking finesse and precision, leaving a stunned and deserted arena in his wake. With the Nuggets' aura of invincibility at home now a blurred memory, the escape from the Rocky Mountains may be the ultimate turning point in the NBA playoffs.
While it's unlikely that Curry will be getting a medal of honor, he's definitely been the MVP of the postseason so far, and the Warriors are prepared to ride their young star into the gauntlet once more.
Even though they're not done savoring the moment.
The energy coming from the Oracle Arena last Thursday wasn't just a celebration of the biggest upset thus far in the postseason. What we witnessed was a release. Of relief, of euphoria, of gut-wrenching satisfaction. Bay area fans hadn't seen anything like this since the 2006-2007 "We Believe" team stunned the sports world by knocking off the 67-win Mavericks, and they were going to relish the evening like the final piece of the best calzone.
What happened in 2007 was a much bigger undertaking of course, especially since it came during the Larry Cohen era, a time of hopeless futility and mind-numbing embarrassment.
But while the thunderous Baron Davis-led squad took everyone by surprise that season, everyone knew that this year's team had the potential to be something special, maybe even legendary.
It all depended on two things: whether their best players could stay healthy and if Mark Jackson was the real answer to the coaching conundrum which only seemed to lift momentarily whenever Don Nelson decided to come out of retirement.
As luck would have it, Stephen Curry and David Lee each played over 70 games, the Warriors learned how to play defense and the wins finally started flowing in.
Fans began to fill the seats once again. Scoreboard watching became a meaningful exercise. Hecklers grew louder and more obnoxious at every home game, while bar crowds around all sides of the bay tripled in unison.
Those same crowds will be ready to explode when the Warriors take on the Spurs tonight in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. These very Spurs have cemented their place in basketball royalty over the last decade-and-a-half, and the last time the Warriors won a game in San Antonio, Tim Duncan was busy swatting shots in his final year at Wake Forest University.
Twenty-nine losses later, and the Dubs have to be feeling pretty good about their chances. The law of averages dictates that Golden State is due for a win, and they would love nothing more than to get that win when it counts the most. The Nuggets won 23 straight games at home during the regular season and finished 38-3 overall, and all it took was a 64 percent shooting night from the Warriors to render that advantage kaput.
As we saw in Denver and Dallas, one win may be all it takes.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kenneth Faried know better than anyone else the nightmare of trying to win a playoff game at the Oracle Arena. After losing Game 6 in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, Dirk vented his frustration by hurling a trash can at the visitors locker room wall. The resulting gash was never patched up and a "We Believe" T-Shirt now floats above it like a retired jersey.
Nowitzki was kind of enough to sign his artwork last season (five years and an NBA championship will often help take the sting out of things), and Golden State is likely hoping Farried will one day do the same to the wall he assaulted after losing Game 5.
When the Warriors eventually do move across the Bay to their majestic new stadium at Pier 32 in San Francisco, the one thing they'll miss the most is the mythical frenetic atmosphere of their former indoor mosh pit, one that won't vanish even if the team somehow manages to hoist up another championship banner right next to lonely 1975.
While the the Dubs' current venue looks more like a fancy rec center as opposed to a utopian wonder, it currently houses one of the best home-court advantages in all of sports. Nothing, not even light, sound or excitement can escape the black hole that is the Oracle Arena. It's a place where fans clap their thunderstix and wear golden T-shirts that say "Battle," a realm where logic is suspended and belief is created. It's also where people love to watch basketball, win or lose.
Charles Barkley said it best in 2007 when he exclaimed (via the LA Times):
"Their crowd was loud and obnoxious when their team [was terrible]. Now that they're good, their fans are really loud and obnoxious."
Well, the Warriors are pretty good now, and those loud and obnoxious fans that cheered them exuberantly through every loss for the last six years are twisting their hands in fiendish excitement as they await for the series to shift to Oakland for Games 3 and 4.
Yes, the task won't be easy. The Spurs are smart, talented and cerebral. Their Judo approach to the game of basketball has brought them four world championships, and only the most ridiculously talented teams have been able to solve the timeless international trifecta of Duncan (USA), Parker (France) and Ginobili (Argentina).
Are the Warriors ridiculously talented? The absurd shooting displays they put on against Denver would certainly suggest so. But without David Lee, their rebounding and offensive production will remain limited, and it's up to Mark Jackson to match Greg Popovich at every possession. Keep applying pressure and never let your foot off the gas pedal, because another fourth quarter collapse like we saw in Game 6 won't be wasted by this opponent.
The players are ready. After surviving the breakneck speed of Denver's lightning offense, playing the half-court set against the Spurs might feel like waiting in the batter's box for the next pitch. Fortunately, the Warriors have plenty of home run hitters.
Win or lose, this is going to be one hell of a thrill ride.
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