OKLAHOMA CITY — It seems almost greedy to ask another 48 minutes of the Warriors and Thunder after all the intrigue they’ve supplied in this series, and particularly after the staging of a tremendous Game 6. Yet the defending champions enabled that vice by knocking off Oklahoma City on its home floor on Saturday night, 108–101, amid high performance and somehow higher tensions. This win will give the Warriors yet another chance to make history: if they’re able to gut out a third straight game against the Thunder in Monday’s Game 7, this all-time team would become just the 10th in league history to survive a 3–1 playoff series deficit.
Looking ahead even that much, however, does a disservice to Saturday’s proceedings. Golden State finally traveled well for the first time in this series, even as the crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena amped up the pressure with a wall of sound. The best home crowd in the NBA was in rare form. So, too, was the best team in the league this season, even if it took strategic negotiation and maximum effort to build to that point. This series demanded an MVP-level performance of Curry and got one in the form of a 29-point near-triple double (nine assists, 10 hard-fought rebounds). Klay Thompson, however, was the real buoy of Golden State’s offense in a turbulent game.
Like Curry, Thompson had to string together consecutive moves and fakes off the ball just to get open for a fleeting second. It only took defenders like Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant and Steven Adams a single beat to close the gap often in time to deny the pass or at least contest it. In the hard-earned cases where Thompson was able to create some kind of separation and actually make a catch, he had but a tiny window to fire up a shot before the defense recovered. It didn’t matter. Thompson finished the game with a career playoff best 41 points, including a playoff record 11 three-pointers. Nineteen of those points came in the pivotal fourth quarter, during which Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for just 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting with six turnovers.
Much of Oklahoma City’s letdown in the fourth quarter seemed the product of evident exhaustion. Search out Durant (45 minutes) or Westbrook (44 minutes) during a dead-ball in the late-game film and you’ll likely find them clutching their shorts and fighting for breath in a precious moment of rest. Andre Iguodala didn’t help; the Warriors’ top perimeter defender took turns on Durant and Westbrook down the stretch, channeling both into difficult shots and painful turnovers when the game tightened up. Thunder coach Billy Donovan can hardly afford to take his two best players off the floor, particularly in a game in which Roberson, a crucial wing for a team short on them, had been hampered by foul trouble. Oklahoma City experienced the unfortunate demands of that workload in those desperate moments, marked by snap, frustrated reactions.
Ultimately, the stat lines of the two Thunder stars—much like Curry’s—are cold and incomplete. Both of these offenses demand of their opponents a certain high-wire exceptionalism. The smallest miscommunication can unravel the entire defense. A half-step out of position can undo an entire possession of hard work. Somehow, Golden State and Oklahoma City managed to deliver in coverage for the bulk of Game 6, gifting basketball fans the best all-around game of the NBA postseason. The box score is littered with evidence of how two heavyweight teams battered one another down. Durant took 31 shots and made just 10. Westbrook committed five turnovers. Curry went scoreless in the first quarter and made just 38% of his shots overall. What it fails to convey is how monumental every make became in the absence of high efficiency; when the defense takes so much away, every shot that breaks through carries the weight of an entire series.
We saw that in the body language of both teams after critical possessions, whether they were sealed with a Warriors three-pointer or a Thunder putback. To a man, these teams strived with such aching need that to assign one of them a loss feels wrong. Still, it struck in the official record with a weight cruelly equal to the dominant wins the Thunder claimed in this same building. These are the games a team like Oklahoma City can never get back. Its only hope is to, in due time, erase all that they stood for.