The Golden State Warriors, down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, relied on their three-point shooting to win three straight games, completing the improbable comeback and will now face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
For anyone who likes to base decisions on logic, the evidence for a Thunder series victory was overwhelming. Oklahoma City built a 3-1 lead. Coach Billy Donovan played all the right lineups. He was able to use the “big” lineup, consisting of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter, to dominate the boards, and he was also able to match Golden State’s lineup of death by going “small” with Ibaka at the five. For whatever reason, during the first four games, Stephen Curry was unable to take advantage of the “big” lineup when Adams or Ibaka was forced to guard him on the pick-and-roll defensive switch. This was the kind of defense that was never supposed to handle Steph Curry. Then, to make matters worse for Golden State, their “small” or “Death Lineup” could not gain any ground. In fact, OKC’s athleticism on defense and transition offense was able to increase leads. The other achilles heel for the Thunder, the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, was not an issue as the Thunder were either comfortably ahead, or Westbrook and Durant were able to run isolation plays to score points. Despite all of the angst directed at Westbrook and Durant’s isolation offensive possessions, those possessions were effective as Durant and Westbrook made shots or got trips to the free throw line.
The series outcome was flipped, though, when Golden State reminded us that three points is greater than two. Like a long distance runner with a kick, Golden State made timely three-pointers to sprint past Golden State near the finish line to steal games from OKC.
Actually, Game 6 featured a barrage of three-pointers from Klay Thompson as he shot 11-18 from three-point range. This game has to taste especially bitter for OKC fans as their team had two seven point leads in the fourth quarter, the last with 5:48 left to play in the game. They also led after the previous three-quarters as well: 23-20, 53-48, and 83-75. Even with Klay Thompson’s record-setting night behind the three-point arc, the Thunder were still in good position to win the game. The game was tied 101-101 with a little over two minutes left to play. Unfortunately for OKC, they decided to play the worst two minutes of the entire game. Westbrook turned the ball over four times. Kevin Durant missed a three, and Golden State capitalized with a three by Thompson, followed by an incredible driving bank shot by Curry. The Warriors added two free-throws and won the game 108-101.
How well did Curry and Thompson shoot three’s in Game 7? Curry’s line was 7-12 and Thompson checked in with 6-11. There was a stretch in the game where Golden State erased an eight point deficit by making four three’s in a row. OKC didn’t go scoreless during this spurt of three’s, but they were only able to answer with a couple of conventional two-point baskets. Simple math tells us that 12 minus 4 equals 8. How many teams have that kind of three-point shooting? The Thunder rallied back from 11 points down at 3:10 left in the fourth quarter, behind eight straight points from Durant to cut the lead to four, 86-90 with 1:40 remaining in the game. The next possession was the first punch of the one-two combination that won the game for Golden State: Ibaka fouled Curry while he was shooting a three, so that gave three free-throws to one of the best shooters in the game. The game was sealed on a three-point shot from Curry, which was poetic as Golden State lives and dies by the three-point shot.
People second-guessed Coach Donovan for taking out Adams late in the fourth quarter in Game 7, which left OKC with its small lineup. There were a couple of possible explanations for this decision. One, Adams was worn down after all of the minutes he previously played, because Curry absolutely shook him out of his shoes the few times he was left defending Curry, which did not happen in earlier games; as a result, Ibaka was the best choice in this situation. Two, this lineup was effective the entire series. Unfortunately, Ibaka committed a crucial foul on Curry that rewarded him with three free-throws, but this wasn’t the decision that caused OKC’s loss in Game 7.
The series was decided when the all-time three-point shooting team started making three’s, and the achilles heel of the Oklahoma City Thunder appeared in Game 6. Without those dreadful last two minutes in the fourth quarter of Game 6, OKC is preparing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors didn’t let me down after all. Good luck, next round, Golden State. Once again, you are my only hope.