I’m going to shoot an arrow from Lowell Cohn’s quiver, which may be ill-advised because my columnist is a hard act to follow. But I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to use a boxing analogy to talk about the Warriors.
I have no boxing expertise, but I have always been fascinated by “When We Were Kings,” Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. It’s simply one of the finest and most transfixing documentaries ever made.
There is a moment in that fight, between the first and second rounds, that is indelible (especially as described by author Norman Mailer in the film). Ali, supremely confident, has defied expectation by taking the fight to Foreman in the first round with a succession of right leads. It worked, and then it didn’t. Foreman – younger, stronger, equally determined – caught up to the tactic and hurt Ali with punches late in the round.
Between rounds, Ali stood in his corner and stared at Foreman with a look that Mailer described as doubt. It may have been determination. It may have been the look of gears spinning inside a fiercely creative mind. One thing Ali most certainly was not as he stood and gulped in air: cocky.
Foreman was the champion at the time, not Ali. But Ali was a champion, one of the proudest athletes in our history, and he knew this moment was a crossroads for him. He could not trade punches with Foreman and defeat him. The Warriors play Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, and make no mistake, this is their Rumble in the Jungle.
We know what happened in that stifling outdoor arena in Kinshasa. Ali changed his tactics, stopped attacking and retreated into a rope-a-dope defense. Foreman tired himself out with punches that failed to inflict damage, Ali began to strike with quick jabs and eventually knocked Foreman down late in the eighth round. And with 2 seconds left in the round, referee Zack Clayton stopped the fight. Ali was champion again.
My analogy is imperfect, because the Warriors are the champions and the record-setting winners. The Thunder are the challengers. (Also, Ali was the crowd favorite at 20th of May Stadium; the Warriors at Chesapeake Energy Arena, not so much.) But in this matchup, especially with Stephen Curry at less than 100 percent, the Thunder are like Foreman. They are bigger, faster and grimly relentless.
The Warriors are standing at the ropes, gazing at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and gazing within themselves as well. What are they made of? How will they respond?
The Game 5 victory allowed the Warriors to catch their breaths. Game 7, should they get there, would be the knockout. But tonight is the moment of truth. Tonight, the Warriors will add a another verse to their growing legend. Or they will accede to youth and limp away to lick their wounds.
And like Ali, the Warriors’ response must be cerebral. Nobody questions their heart or their will at this point. Likewise, no one who has watched this series questions the Thunder’s physical superiority. If they are to win in Oklahoma City, the Warriors must do it by playing smart, patient, controlled basketball in a vortex of noise and duress.
Tonight, the Warriors must invent their rope-a-dope. Or the team that went 73-9 will be picking itself off the canvas.