The Golden State Warriors are going back to the NBA Finals. The defending champs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 96-88 in Game 7 on Monday, becoming the 10th team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.
Golden State was led, of course, by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The MVP had 36 points on 13-for-24 shooting, plus eight assists and five rebounds. Thompson had 21 points on 7-for-19 shooting, plus five boards. The Thunder's season is over despite an efficient night from Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points on 10-for-19 shooting.
Six things to know:
1. The champs catch a spark in the third quarter
Oklahoma City led by as many as 13 in the first half and held a six-point halftime lead. Then everything turned. In less than three minutes, the Warriors made five 3-pointers, three by Curry. That stretch gave Golden State a lead it would not surrender, as the Thunder could not get anything going.
Early on, Oklahoma City pounded the Warriors on the glass. Once Golden State started its run, though, the Thunder did not get another offensive rebound in the quarter. Without extra possessions, OKC's offense looked stagnant, especially compared to the Warriors' ball movement.
It wasn't just the Splash Brothers show -- late in the period, Shaun Livingston drove for a fierce dunk and Anderson Varejao made a beautiful pass to Harrison Barnes for a 3-pointer in the corner. Oracle Arena might have been louder for those plays than they were for the Curry flurry.
"With everything on the line, our guys all came through," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
The Thunder missed all seven of their 3-point attempts in that quarter, by the way. Which brings us to ...
2. For OKC, 3 > 2
That third-quarter swing wouldn't have happened against most other teams. Golden State was trying to shift the Thunder's defense, but that was not easy. It took a while for the Warriors to find their rhythm, and Oklahoma City's length and anticipation had a lot to do with it. When Golden State desperately needed scoring, though, its two historically great 3-point shooters found a way.
From deep, Curry went 7 for 12 from deep and Thompson went 6 for 11. Overall, the Warriors made 17 of 37 3-pointers. Thunder coach Billy Donovan refused to take credit earlier in their series when Golden State wasn't so hot, and he shouldn't get the blame here. The way the Warriors play, combined with their talent, it is almost impossible to keep them quiet.
"In the first couple games everybody wanted to talk about why our defense was so great, and I said it's not our defense," Donovan said. "We're working hard and we're giving great effort. But I've seen enough film of those guys making a lot more difficult shots than they were taking against us. And I thought we were really giving terrific effort."
Late in the fourth, Oklahoma City swingman Andre Roberson passed up a wide-open 3-pointer in order to swing the ball to Dion Waiters, who missed a contested mid-range jump shot. Roberson missed all four of his 3-point attempts, Waiters missed all five of his and the Thunder went 7 for 27 from long range as a team. It is tough to overcome that sort of disparity in any game.
It was fitting that, with 26.8 seconds left, Curry threw the dagger. It was a 27-foot 3-pointer off a behind-the-back dribble when OKC seemed to think he was just going to run out the clock. That put the Warriors up 96-86, which would have been the final score if not for two meaningless free throws from Serge Ibaka.
3. The Warriors had to earn it
As much as it seemed like Golden State had this under control in the second half, the Thunder kept hanging around. Late in the fourth, Durant went on a personal 7-0 run to cut the deficit from 11 points to four. Ibaka fouled Curry on a 3 on the next possession, but the point remains: You just can't relax against Oklahoma City, not with Durant and Westbrook on the court.
"I think they got dramatically better during the playoffs. I really do," Kerr said. "They've always been very, very talented. They've always been formidable. Our three regular-season games games we played against them, we won, but every one was down to the wire. So we knew no matter what that they were going to be a challenge. But I think they got better as the playoffs went on. The series win against San Antonio, they really, I thought, blossomed. I thought they played a great series against us and we were fortunate to kind of eke it out."
Westbrook will draw a ton of criticism for his shooting in this game -- he went 7 for 21 -- but he put pressure on the Warriors throughout and finished with 13 assists. This performance should not become a referendum on his style of play.
The Thunder entered this game with an extraordinarily difficult challenge. They had to beat the best regular-season team of all-time on the road after failing to close Golden State out in two straight games. In the end, Oklahoma City just couldn't make enough shots, but it has given the Warriors much more trouble than the rest of the league. There is no shame in losing this way.
4. Durant had some positive words about OKC
People will try to connect this to free agency, and I want to be clear that this is not a guarantee that the superstar is staying. It is worth noting, though, that Durant raved about the Thunder organization after this heartbreaking loss.
"We wanted to win the whole thing," Durant said. "There's no moral victories in our locker room after the game. We were all upset. We wanted to get a chance to play for a championship in the Finals. So that hurts. But when you sit down and look back at what happened throughout the season, you can be proud of not just the players, but everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom, people that you guys don't even know or ever see contribute to what we bring out on that court.
"That's just pride, that's just effort, passion, love for the game," Durant continued. "Pure love for the game every single night. And that comes from just walking into our practice facility every single day and feeling those vibes and feeling that energy from everyone. And I'm just proud that, with all we went through this season, we stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That's what makes this game so special."
5. The Finals MVP remains essential
It should not surprise you even a little bit that Andre Iguodala played more minutes than any other Golden State player. Once again, when the Warriors were most desperate for a win, Kerr decided to put Iguodala into the starting lineup and trust his defense and decision-making. Iguodala started the second half in Game 6, and everyone remembers what he did in last season's NBA Finals.
The game's first basket was scored on a layup by Draymond Green, and it was assisted beautifully from Iguodala. Harrison Barnes can make 3-pointers and guard power forwards better than Igudoala, but he can't make that play. Unlike Saturday's game, Iguodala did not have a series of highlight steals near the end. Those plays aren't what makes Iguodala special, though. His value to the Warriors is how he keeps them calm and balanced on both ends of the floor, and they needed that in this high-pressure situation.
6. A comeback for the ages
No one should have written Golden State off after losing three of the first four games in the conference finals. This team won 73 games in the regular season, after all. At the same time, though, it would have been sort of silly to just expect the Warriors to come back because they're the Warriors. The Thunder beat the 67-win San Antonio Spurs by playing big, then went small against the NBA's premier smallball team.
Oklahoma City appeared to be peaking at the right time, and it was already dangerous because it had two of the best five players in the league. Golden State had all the pressure in the world on its shoulders after Game 4, and it managed to avoid losing any confidence.
"After [Game 4] we just said this team has done a lot of stuff that no one has ever seen," Green said. "People have seen teams down 3-1 before but they ain't seen many. And they've definitely never seen a 73-win team down 3-1, so let's continue to do the things that they haven't seen, and that they'll never give us a chance to do. And the flight back was all us talking -- me, Klay, Bogut and Steph, we sit at this front table, and we just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do."
If the Warriors go on to win the title, it will seem almost inevitable. Storybook seasons aren't guaranteed, though, and this could have easily gone another way. Framing it any differently would be disrespectful to the Thunder. Green called the adversity in this series "definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome" for a reason.
"I mean, we were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games," Kerr said. "Obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. And then Game 6 was kind of magical. I mean, 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."