They limped, they stumbled, they were vulnerable. They appeared doomed, destined for a disappointing end to a magical season. And then the sky cleared, the pressure escalated, and the Golden State Warriors pulled off a near-miracle in Oracle Arena.
Down 3-1 in this best-of-seven Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder – the team of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – the Warriors did their little dance, altered the plot more than a little bit, and then did what they do: Win. Win. Win.
Three consecutive games. Three convincing victories. Three straight times they controlled the second half and rejected the Thunder, and on Monday, secured a 96-88 clincher and an NBA Finals reunion with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
We should be used to this by now, right? Every time Steph Curry dances to the basket and shoots from three, the ball goes in, right? Every time Klay Thompson gets that look in his eyes, and with just a sliver of daylight releases a deep jumper, the ball goes in, right? Every time Andre Iguodala is asked to smother an opponent, he provides a suffocating answer, right?
And Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Mo Speights, Harrison Barnes, and on and on it goes. Strength in numbers. Got that right. Just check out the history. On Monday, the Warriors became only the 10th team to capture a series after facing a 3-1 deficit.
Also of note is this: The last time a conference finals had been extended to a seventh game, the 2002 Kings owned homecourt advantage but faltered against the Shaq/Kobe/Phil Lakers in the building formerly known as Arco Arena. Kings insiders will forever wince at the memories, at what woulda, coulda, shoulda been.
Basketball enthusiasts everywhere offer a different perspective, preferring to give collective props to a matchup that was a ratings buster and an all-time classic.
The duel between dynamic, loquacious opponents, between the defending champs and a few alleged floppers (that would be you, Vlade Divac), had everything except today’s social media alerts: The Kings losing the opener at home; Kobe allegedly sickened by a spoiled cheeseburger at a local hotel; Mike Bibby hitting a last second game-winner in Game 5; the controversial – no horrific – officiating in Game 6; a seventh game that went to the defending champs in overtime.
OKC-GSW? Initially, this matchup was more puzzling than compelling. Three of the first five games were blowouts. The Warriors, who flew through the regular season without losing consecutive games and established a league record with 73 victories and never flinched during Steve Kerr’s early-season absence (recovery from spinal surgery), seemed completely out of sorts. They also appeared less than healthy, with Curry nursing knee and ankle injuries and center Andrew Bogut slowed by an injury.
Saturday night changed everything. Coming off their Game 5 win at Oracle, the Warriors went to Oklahoma City and came up with an epic performance. Iguodala harassed Durant. Curry almost produced another triple double. Thompson erupted for five crucial triples in the Warriors’ fourth-period comeback.
Stunned. Shocked. Shaken. The Thunder players were barbecued speechless in their own backyard, psychologically as well as physically.
“I think there’s emotional swings in the series,” OKC coach Billy Donovan noted earlier Monday, “and how we respond to those emotional swings is very, very important. When you come out of a win or a loss, there are always residual effects.”
For the Warriors, the most important residual effect these last few days has been the medical and training staff’s work with Curry. Sure, the knee is still sore, but his conditioning is improving, his confidence is soaring, and on this particular night, he was not going to be denied.
“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” said Kerr. “This is just who he is.”
Darting inside, scooting outside, hitting threes, driving to the basket, leading the celebrations in Oracle Arena, once again a standing-room-only facility awaiting another round.