The Warriors won a championship a year ago. Stephen Curry won two MVPs. Steve Kerr won Coach of the Year despite being absent from his own sideline for 43 games. They did the unthinkable and went 73-9. But the journey they finished tonight with their 96-88 Game 7 victory, coming back from a three games to one deficit against a team that routed them twice in three days, makes this elite team whole.
There were comebacks inside the comeback, too. For the second consecutive game, the Warriors found themselves down 13. The Thunder began Game 7 with ferocious defense, proving they wouldn’t fall victim to the sort of heartbreak-fueled letdown we’ve seen befall so many teams facing their particular situation in the past. Oklahoma City’s switching was impeccable, and Andre Roberson derailed the Klay Thompson Express for a quarter or so. The Oracle Arena crowd, which wanted to take over from the start, went from boisterously jubilant (perhaps even arrogant) to a tight-sphinctered group that produced that familiar type of nervous energy which has forced the Warriors into quick shots and ill-advised passes multiple times this postseason.
Thompson recovered his shooting stroke and he and Curry combined to make 13 threes. The Warriors launched themselves ahead of the toughest opponent they’ve faced to date with a wild 29-12 third quarter, and held on in the fourth quarter with Curry’s peerless ability as a closer on full display. It was a fitting end to the best series of these playoffs, which ended the same way it began.
Remember when the Warriors took a (you guessed it) 13-point lead into halftime of Game 1? The “Warriors in five” crowd felt pretty confident. Then the Warriors urinated that game away, won Game 2 easily, then got smashed in Games 3 and 4. That’s when just about everyone other than Mo Speights started comparing the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors to the 2007 New England Patriots.
— Marreese Speights (@Mospeights16) May 25, 2016
Is this what the Warriors needed to prove to the world that they aren’t lucky, soft or gimmicky? No, they still need to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the second straight season, and even if they do, people will still come up with slights. That’s just how people are. However, the Warriors probably needed this come-to-KDeezus moment to solidify their belief that no matter the circumstance — an injury to Curry, large deficit on the road, large deficit at home, large deficit in the series — they can overcome.
“I think everybody will look at 73 wins and say, ‘wow, this team never hit any adversity,’ but there is adversity in every season. It all comes in different forms,” said Draymond Green, who overcame a cold shooting start and foul trouble with a strong all-around performance in the fourth quarter.
“But when you’re talking down 3-1, and everything’s on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. So it’s definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome, and it took a great, tremendous effort and fight to overcome it.”
That’s as close as any of the Warriors are going to come to admitting the pressure that comes with 73 was even greater than the pressure to get 73 back in February, March or April. They’re knee-deep in the legacy zone, which is something humans are rarely aware of while it’s happening. The Warriors gleefully took on history throughout the first several months of this season, and were almost anchored by it in this series.
Let this be a lesson to all of us, including myself. I picked the Warriors to win in seven, and while I never *publicly* backed away from that prediction, it was difficult to watch the middle three games of this series and believe the Warriors could avoid another miserable night in Oklahoma City on Saturday. So if the Warriors fall behind by double-digits on Thursday, or fall behind in the Finals (again), maybe the best course of action is to sit back and ready ourselves to be dazzled instead of assuming fatigue or breakdowns, either strategic or within the team’s chemical structure.
The Warriors are who they are. They made 17 threes while attempting just 8 free throws. That’s how they came back in Game 6, and that’s how they won Game 7. It’s not a fluke, winning 85 games this way. And if they’re going to win four more, they’ll do it by shooting, shooting, and shooting some more. Sorry, Chuck.
The unsung hero
The Thunder had a lot to do with the Warriors’ angst, in large part because they turned their most important weapon, the ballyhooed small-ball “Death Lineup,” into a relatively harmless collection of five similarly-sized players in Games 3 and 4. There were times when Steven Adams punished them with rebounds, put-backs and rim protection. Other times, Oklahoma City’s own version of that lineup (Westbrook-Waiters-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka) simply out-deathed Golden State’s vaunted fivesome of Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Barnes and Green.
But Golden State’s problems ran deeper. Too often, Durant was able to do whatever he liked. And the Warriors played without the same attention to detail and self awareness possessed by their intellectual leader, Iguodala.
To solve all of these problems, Steve Kerr did something I felt he should’ve done after Game 3. He started Iguodala in the second half of Game 6, and kept Iguodala in the starting lineup over Barnes to begin Game 7. In a game where Curry scored 36 points, and howled “WE AIN’T GOING HOOOOOOME!” to the upper bowl and beyond after hitting that last dagger three with 27 seconds left, it’s easy to forget Iguodala played more minutes than any other Warrior — three more than Curry.
“Oh, he’s going to need some good treatment tomorrow, for sure. I didn’t realize he played 43,” said Curry after glancing at the box score.
“We could have easily just started making some vacation plans but we’ve got some competitors, guys who like competing, and we’ve done a lot this year,” said Iguodala. “The guys showed a lot of toughness, a lot of heart.”
And he was at the top of the list.
— Thompson was named Western Conference Finals MVP after averaging 24.7 points, 4.3 threes and 4.4 rebounds per game. And unlike Green, the 73-win season and everything that came with it wasn’t really on his mind.
“Believe it or not, I really didn’t think about our accomplishments.”
Don’t worry, Klay. We believe you.
— Russell Westbrook, who went 7-for-21 but finished with 19 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds, didn’t stay to congratulate the victors. He doesn’t sound like the most gracious person in any respect, really.
When asked if Curry showed him anything in the second half he hadn’t seen in the rest of the series (Curry scored 24 on 8-of-13 shooting and was +18 in his 21 second half minutes), he said this and only this:
“He scored a lot on our bigs. He did a good job of making some tough shots over our bigs. Our bigs on the switches came out and he made some tough shots over top of them.”
What a great teammate! Westbrook probably doesn’t remember letting Curry blow by him several times in this game, or the layups Curry made.
— What the hell got into Anderson Varajao? That was the moment that bordered on the absurd, the moment when everyone in the building starting thinking about the Warriors playing games in June.
— Steve Kerr loved what the bench did (other than Speights and Festus Ezeli, who had better moments in this series).
“Shaun Livingston had that fast break dunk, which brought the house down, and I thought our two Brazilians were fantastic. Anderson had an incredible one minute and 51 second run. Sounds crazy to say, but a couple of assists and a big bucket, and the energy he brought and he took a charge from Westbrook. Barbosa, who I’ve gone away from the last few games, comes in, stays ready, hits a big shot for us. And Harrison, who we moved to the bench obviously tonight, hit the corner three from Varejao, which was just a huge shot.”
— Billy Donovan’s decision to play Roberson over Adams throughout much of the fourth quarter was somewhat baffling. Roberson’s defense was outstanding early on, but he wasn’t doing much in the fourth quarter and seemed afraid to shoot. Adams gave Oklahoma City extra possessions throughout the series. Perhaps Adams making only 4-of-11 shots spooked Donovan, or the fact that Curry looked capable of putting OKC’s bigs on skates for the first time all series.
— Interesting halftime quote from Kerr (courtesy of Green): “The thing that Coach Kerr says, ‘Hey, force doesn’t beat these guys.'” Speaking of lessons, that was an important one for the Warriors, who’ve been able to blow teams off the court with a few flicks of their wrists and some aggressive switching defense for the better part of two years. Against the Thunder, who had two noticeable advantages (size and athleticism), they needed to trust their minds, their plan, and each other.
— More Kerr:
“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games. So obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. Then Game 6 was kind of magical. What Klay did that night, basically putting us on his shoulders and allowing us to have this opportunity tonight at home. It’s a pretty remarkable comeback, and it shows, I think, a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”
— Just like how there was no way the Warriors would fold on Monday night after what they accomplished in Oklahoma City two nights earlier, there’s no way they’ll let the Cavaliers derail them now. Not with Curry finding his form for longer than a five-minute stretch, and Thompson becoming a known superstar instead of a secret one, and Green looking to bounce back from a tough, physical Conference Finals that saw him garner a lot of unwanted attention, and Iguodala probably/hopefully starting every game. And not with their chance to do what many mocked them for avoiding a year ago — as if they had a choice — beat a fully healthy Cavs team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. This version of the Cavaliers shoots a lot more threes, but the last two games of the Western Conference Finals proved once again … no one does that quite like Golden State.
— No predictions quite yet, but if the Warriors defend the way they did tonight (OKC shot 38.2%), I doubt it’ll take seven games to check one last box: repeat as NBA champions.