The Golden State Warriors entered the Western Conference finals looking to reach a second straight NBA Finals that would help cement their status as one of the greatest teams of all time. After a 3-1 start for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 73-win juggernaut faced three straight elimination games to keep their dream season alive. They will now enter a highly anticipated Finals rematch with the East champion Cleveland Cavaliers having proved their ability to overcome adversity, defy extreme odds, and continue to win with the sort of three-point shooting that the sport has never seen before.
The Warriors followed their thrilling Game 6 win in Oklahoma City on Saturday night with another memorable victory at Oracle Arena on Monday, defeating the Thunder 96-88 to become back-to-back Western Conference champions for the first time in franchise history (and earn the franchise's first consecutive conference championships since before the NBA existed). Golden State struggled early to put up a postseason-low 42 points in the first half but dominated the third quarter 29-12 to take control. The Thunder made a valiant effort to get back into the game in the fourth quarter when the result looked decided, but Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were too good throughout.
The Warriors are now the first team to go down 3-1 in the conference finals and come back to make the NBA Finals since the Boston Celtics in 1981. If they go on to win the championship, this unlikely series victory will only add to their legend.
As ever, the Splash Brothers were the difference. Curry (7-of-12) and Thompson (6-of-11) followed the latter's record-setting 11 three-pointers in Game 6 with 13 of the Warriors' 17 total three-pointers. The greatest outside-shooting duo in league history made several extremely tough jumpers and carried the Warriors through several weak offensive periods, keeping pressure on the Thunder when they could have taken control early. It was only fitting that Curry came through with the series-clinching dagger, making this three-pointer in the final 30 seconds to give the Warriors an insurmountable lead:
Their reward is a quick turnaround for Thursday's NBA Finals Game 1 in Oakland. Cleveland will pose a different challenge for Golden State after gliding through three sub-contender opponents in the East, and the Warriors will not be able to rely on the successes of last year's series now that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love figure to be fully healthy for this matchup. Regardless, the Warriors will enter the Finals with the full confidence that they can overcome any challenge that an opponent throws their way. Golden State looked done a little less than a week ago and now appears to be stronger than ever.
However, Game 7 was anything but a breeze for the host Warriors. If the instant-classic Game 6 win appeared to give Golden State all the momentum, then OKC proved fairly early that the series would be decided on the basis of each team's performance in this single game. A choppy first few minutes established a few of the key factors in this contest, including a relative lack of whistles (the first foul didn't come until the 4:24 mark) and a low number of shots for Kevin Durant (none in the first six minutes and five in the first half) in a matchup with starter Andre Iguodala, swapping in for Harrison Barnes and finishing with 43 minutes. Yet the Thunder also seemed like the better team early, grabbing a large number of offensive rebounds (10 in the first half) and holding the same length and athleticism advantages that helped them to their commanding 3-1 lead and made Games 5 and 6 such competitive contests. A 3-of-9 start from three-point range turned around OKC's terrible 3-of-23 showing in Game 6, too, and the visitors appeared to have a reasonable chance at winning their first West title since 2012.
The game held to that same general structure in the second quarter, although the Warriors offense went from poor to straight-up terrible in scoring just three points over the first 5:59 of the period. The Thunder attack didn't exactly thrive over that same period, but they looked ready to take control when Andre Roberson finished off a Russell Westbrook assist at the 7:01 mark to make it 35-22.
Thankfully for Golden State, Thompson began to catch fire at around the same point he did in his record-setting Game 6 performance, making three-pointers on consecutive possessions to cut the margin to just seven points. Thompson knocked down two more triples before the end of the half to finish with a team-high 13 points and to keep the Warriors within striking distance entering the break. Russell Westbrook helped erase some of that damage with a tremendous three-point play with five seconds remaining ...
... but Curry answered back with this buzzer-beater to make it 48-42, a manageable deficit for Golden State despite the postseason-low total at the half:
That late second-quarter scoring set the tone for the Warriors' game-winning performance in the third quarter. It's rare for Golden State to win a game with a high point total in a quarter of only 29, but the style of Game 7 meant that key three-point shooting and OKC's offensive struggles had major impact. The Warriors did not score until Curry nailed a three-pointer with 9:18 on the clock, but that conversion began a string of five-straight three-pointers on only six field goal attempts (with the lone miss coming from deep, as well). The OKC defense was not especially bad during this stretch, but Curry and Thompson have shown countless times this season and this series that they do not require lots of space to make the defense pay. As our Dan Devine wrote after Game 6, there's not much a defense can do to stop the Splash Brothers when they get hot.
However, it's worth pointing out that Curry and Thompson were able to give the Warriors the lead during this stretch in large part because their defense ended the Thunder's possessions after one shot. OKC's size and quickness advantages led to big offensive rebound totals throughout this series, and the Warriors' ability to get defensive boards in the second half of Game 7 was arguably the biggest reason for this result. Just look at this difference between the two halves:
First half, Thunder got 50% of their misses. Second half, 4 orebs to 23 drebs for GSW.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 31, 2016
Anyone watching this game without an eye on the box score likely would have thought that the Thunder had more than three turnovers in the second half (and seven for the game), but that's only because Golden State's defensive rebounding created transition opportunities that had come from OKC miscues in previous runs this series, including at the end of Game 6. The Thunder — particularly the 7-of-21 Russell Westbrook — will receive criticism for their shot selection in the second half, but their looks weren't clearly worse than what they got earlier. The biggest issues were the lack of offensive rebounds and the officials' reluctance to call fouls on either team, resulting in 17 total foul shots for a team used to getting to the line often.
Golden State also took control on the strength of their bench, which had picked up just four points in the first half. A 12-2 run to close the third quarter involved no buckets from Curry and Thompson and no minutes from Draymond Green (four fouls), but it featured plenty of big plays from the previously ineffective Shaun Livingston and the offensively challenged Anderson Varejao. The latter was an especially surprising contributor, coming up with two assists, one forced turnover via a charge, and the world's most unlikely crossover dribble for a contested lay-up in all of two minutes of court time.
Yet OKC still didn't go down easily despite entering the final quarter of its season down 71-60. The Thunder got within five points of the Warriors on three occasions in the first 10:30 of the fourth quarter. The last instance came on a jumper from Durant with 1:42 that made it 90-86 with 1:36 remaining, at which point we looked headed for a thrilling final minute. Curry ended that possibility relatively quickly, drawing a foul from Serge Ibaka on a three-pointer at 1:17 (making all of them) to force the Thunder into playing a perfect game over the duration to stay in it.
That obviously didn't occur, but the fourth still served as a strong stretch for Durant, who was the most consistent (and arguably the best) player in this series despite losing in seven games. After heading the Thunder's excellent defensive effort throughout the series, KD did his best to keep the Thunder in it late by scoring 12 of his team-high 27 points in the final period. While there's some question as to why he only took 19 shots in an elimination game — Iguodala deserves a lot of credit for limiting his attempts — Durant was very efficient and would have been celebrated for his performance if the Thunder had won.
Frankly, the same can be said of the Thunder — OKC did very little in this game (or the last three of the series) to suggest that it did not deserve to play for a championship in the cosmic sense. They peaked at the right time, ousted a 67-win San Antonio Spurs squad that had one of the best regular seasons ever, and would have been a formidable opponent for the Cavaliers in the next round. The Warriors were just better.
And, yes, the Warriors were better because Curry and Thompson have no equals as a shooting duo. If Thompson emerged as the hero of Game 6, then Curry occupied the role in Game 7 with 36 points (13-of-24 FG, 7-of-12 3FG), eight assists, and five rebounds. Curry still might not be at 100 percent in his recovery from his MCL sprain and could end up looking limited at times in the finals, but these three series-ending wins over the Thunder have proven he is plenty capable of playing at an MVP level against one of the league's best squads. His return to form after struggling mightily in Games 3 and 4 of this series stands as the biggest reason why the Warriors will play for a title.
Sometimes a season's worth of analysis can come down to a fairly simple point — the Warriors won 73 games and came back from 3-1 down against a high-level defense because they have two shooters who do things no one else in NBA history ever has. The Thunder learned the hard way that all the length and athleticism in the league can't hold Curry and Thompson back over seven games. The Cavaliers, like every other team the Warriors have faced in this incredible season, will have to try with talent that may not have a reasonable answer.
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