OKLAHOMA CITY — Watching a loved one relapse is a particular flavor of excruciating, an amalgam of helplessness, anger, befuddlement and despair that sends the mind racing with unanswerable questions. Why is this happening? What triggered this? Why now? Why me?
Those wheels started turning throughout a building that packed in 18,000-plus fans, most of them wearing blue Thunder t-shirts while they stood to watch one of the most competitive and intense basketball games in recent memory. Oklahoma City’s fans have witnessed more than their fair share of collapses this season, just not recently. After finishing the regular season ranked 20th in clutch situations, owing to bouts of one-on-one play and poor decision-making, the Thunder have ripped through the playoffs like new men, gutting out tough, controversial wins against the Spurs and blowing out the Warriors so badly on multiple occasions that the fourth quarter was inconsequential.
But with just five minutes separating Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder from their first Finals trip since 2012, all of the mistakes and bad habits came rushing back at once. The crowd, so energetic throughout the postseason, saw the relapse unfolding—no, they felt it unfolding. With three minutes left, some fans began averting their eyes, covering their face with their hands or turning their backs to the court. Others shouted profanities and muttered under their breath.
During the final minute, hundreds filed out to the concourse in complete silence, staring at the steps as they ascended. Finally, once Game 6 was officially over, in the books as a stunning 108–101 Warriors victory that evened the West finals at three games, one Thunder fan approached a row of sportswriters and said simply, “It was Kevin’s fault, just write that.”
A relapse is the particular flavor of excruciating that can turn a family against its favorite son, and that’s exactly what just happened.
Five minutes from pandemonium, five minutes from polishing off the greatest regular season team in NBA history, five minutes from a rematch with LeBron James, the Thunder—mostly Durant and Westbrook—let it all get away, reverting to the poor shot selection and mindless turnovers that represent the star duo at their worst.
“I think we’ve made such great improvements coming down the stretch, on both offense and defense of doing a better job of executing,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan lamented afterward. “[The struggles] really wasn’t, hasn’t been us the last month-and-a-half. I thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch.”
A little. With coach Steve Kerr finally deploying his ultra-devastating center-less lineup, the Warriors, who led the league in clutch situations this year, outscored the Thunder 19–5 in the final five minutes. The deeper the two teams waded into crunch-time, the more the Warriors started swimming circles around the drowning Thunder. During the final two minutes, Golden State closed on a 9–0 run, forcing four Oklahoma City turnovers along the way. This was poise versus panic, both in purest form, as Andre Iguodala deftly poked away two steals while Westbrook coughed up the ball in increasingly perplexing fashion.
Carrying Golden State through its late burst was Klay Thompson, who set an NBA playoff record by hitting 11 three-pointers, five of them during a 19-point fourth-quarter explosion. There was no one dagger; Thompson was simply a walking, talking cutlery shop as he tallied 41 points, although his final three-pointer, fresh off a Westbrook turnover, gave the Warriors the lead for good with 1:35 to play.
Thompson mixed quick-trigger ruthlessness with a stone-faced, matter-of-fact demeanor. Afterward, he shrugged off his record-setting performance in a way only he could.
“I should have had at least 13 because I missed some wide open looks early,” Thompson said.
Here was the expressionless, perfectionist heartbreaker at it again, sweating his misfires instead of indulging in his season-saving performance.
The difference between Thompson and the Durant/Westbrook combination down the stretch was as stark as can be: In the fourth quarter, Thompson scored 19 points on nine shots without committing a turnover, while the Thunder stars combined for 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry also delivered his second straight strong fourth-quarter, hitting two three-pointers, dishing an assist and avoiding any turnovers en route to 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on the evening.
While Thompson carefully lined up threes, some of them deep and many of them tightly-contested, Westbrook threw away an inbounds pass, Durant sent a misguided pass to Westbrook through traffic and both were stripped clean by Iguodala. Following Game 5, a loss in Oakland, Durant jabbed at Curry’s defense while Westbrook openly laughed, but both Saturday wore the faces of men on the wrong side of karma.
“They got hot from the three,” Durant said curtly, when asked to explain the one-sided ending.
“They got some hands on some balls,” Westbrook added. “They trapped, made us make some decisions. But for the most part I thought we tried to make the right plays and make the right decisions, especially down the stretch.”
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Durant and Westbrook had largely outperformed their star counterparts throughout this series, but both were guilty of pressing, and then cracking, in the biggest game of their season. Durant went 6-of-19 in the first half and finished 1-of-8 from deep on the night, scoring 29 points on 31 shots. Westbrook had 28 points on 10-of-27 and 0-of-4 from deep with his five turnovers working against his 11 assists.
If either player had gotten it going from outside, perhaps Oklahoma City could have held on. Instead, the Warriors finished with 21 three-pointers to the Thunder’s three, a +18 differential that set a new NBA postseason record. After bottling up the Warriors’ guards for so much of this series, the Thunder lost track of them in late critical moments, sometimes only for a split-second.
“Klay Thompson was ridiculous,” Kerr said before marveling at his guards who finished a combined 17-of-31 from deep, with many of the makes coming on high degree-of-difficulty looks. “That's the beauty of Steph and Klay. They kind of walk that fine line between lethal and crazy.”
“All Klay needs is a sliver of daylight,” said Curry, who was serenaded with “M-V-P” chants by a small contingent of Warriors fans as he left the court. “He understood the moment. ... I’m sure there’s more in the chamber for that for Game 7. So we need that punch.”
For the first time in a West finals that has seen the Warriors survive a letdown Game 1, Draymond Green’s flagrant kick in Game 3, an all-around stinker in Game 4, and tense finishes in Games 5 and 6, the defending champions finally seem to possess the momentum. Golden State has climbed out of its 3–1 hole and has the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a sublime series in Game 7 at Oracle Arena on Monday.
While Donovan set the tone for the Thunder by repeating how “excited” he was for Game 7, the Warriors have regained home-court advantage, they’ve finally unleashed their three-point shooting and they’ve held the Thunder’s offense in check for two straight games. Although Golden State has not played a Game 7 during the Kerr era, it is 5–1 in closeout games over the last two postseasons, with the only loss coming on the road in Game 4 while leading the Rockets 3–0 in the 2015 West finals.
“This is a huge win for us considering we’ve had two elimination games and we needed to take advantage of them and just find a way to win,” Curry said. “It doesn’t win us a ring. We’re not popping champagne or anything right now. … If we thought tonight was hard, Game 7 is going to be even tougher.”
The Thunder have but one off day to regroup from this unbearably cruel turn, but one day to shake off the nagging thought that lingered in the Chesapeake Energy Arena well after the final buzzer: They had been better than this, they had conquered these demons, until they hadn’t.