OAKLAND, Calif. — Stephen Curry raised seven fingers as he departed the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday, a celebratory tribute to the Warriors’ final step in digging out of a 3-1 deficit against the Thunder in the Western Conference finals. After a thrilling Game 6 that saw record-setting shooting from Klay Thompson and mystifying late-game mistakes by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the defending champions return home to Oracle needing just one win to secure a rematch with the Cavaliers in the Finals.
“Game 5 was a battle, this was a war,” Draymond Green said after Game 6 was in the books. So what does that make Game 7? A nuclear war? An intergalactic clash? Hunger Games: Oakland?
This has been an epic West finals, even without its final chapter written. There have, already, been plenty of storylines that will stand the test of time: Curry’s Game 2 burst, Green’s kick, Russell Westbrook’s Game 4 triple double and Game 5 laughter at Curry’s defense, Thompson’s insane shooting performance, the Thunder’s Game 6 meltdown, and the coaching chess match between Steve Kerr and Billy Donovan. But everyone wants to know how this one ends, Namely, will LeBron James get a rematch with Curry, Green and Thompson or a rematch with Westbrook and Durant?
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Here’s seven key questions to ponder as the countdown to Monday night’s decisive Game 7 ticks down.
1. What does history suggest will happen?
There are a million factoids to consider when it comes to sizing up where the series stands now. Here are a few worth considering…
• Only nine of the 232 teams that have trailed a series 3-1, as the Warriors did, have gone on to win in seven games.
• Teams that have led 3-1 in a series, as the Thunder did, are 7-7 (.500) when they play Game 7 on the road.
• Home teams are 100-24 (.806) overall in Game 7s dating back to 1948. During the three-point era, home teams are 65-16 (.802) in Game 7s.
• The Warriors are 17-3 (.850) at home during the playoffs under Kerr. Golden State is also 47-3 (.940) at home during the 2015-16 season and 2016 playoffs combined, although one of those three losses came to Oklahoma City in Game 1.
• The Thunder are 5-3 on the road during the 2016 playoffs under Donovan, with a win over the Warriors, two wins over the Spurs, and two wins over the Mavericks.
Put all of those together, and the general assumptions and conventional wisdom that have floated around since Sunday are pretty accurately reflected in the numbers. Although Golden State would be bucking history if it completes its comeback from the 3-1 deficit, it has a significant home-court advantage and that’s something that’s long proven to be beneficial in a do-or-die game. Oklahoma City, however, has a puncher’s chance: Stabilizing in Game 7 after two straight losses has happened before, and the Thunder enter Monday’s game with the confidence that comes with a strong postseason road record to date.
2. Have either of these teams been here before?
No, not really. The Warriors haven’t played a Game 7 under Kerr and they had never even faced elimination under their second-year coach until Game 5 of this series. Golden State’s core players have played in just one Game 7 together: a first-round loss to the Clippers in 2014 that led to the dismissal of then-coach Mark Jackson.
The Thunder have only played two Game 7s since moving to Oklahoma City in 2008. Both of those games came against the Grizzlies (during a 2011 second-round series and a 2014 first-round series), and both were wins.
Neither the Warriors’ loss or the Thunder’s victories are truly comparable to what’s to come on Monday, as the stakes—one win away from the Finals—are significantly higher. At the same time, both teams have fared well in closeout games: The Thunder are 8-4 during the Durant/Westbrook era and the Warriors are 6-1 during the Kerr era in such contests.
What’s really interesting is how rarely the West finals goes the distance. Indeed, Monday will mark the first Game 7 in the conference in 14 years. Since the turn of the century, there have only been two West finals that have needed seven games: 2000 (Lakers over Blazers) and 2002 (Lakers over Kings). By contrast, the East finals has gone to a Game 7 four times in that time period: 2001 (Sixers over Bucks), 2005 (Pistons over Heat), 2012 (Heat over Celtics) and 2013 (Heat over Pacers).
The easiest way to summarize the state of affairs: Golden State and Oklahoma City haven’t been in this precise position before, but both teams have plenty of recent experience and success to draw upon.
3. What's at stake for the Warriors?
If the Warriors win: They would complete an entertaining, wild, remarkable, frenzied comeback from a 3-1 hole. The series victory would be arguably the most impressive and dramatic of the Kerr era—comparing favorably with the 2015 Finals given Cleveland’s health at the time—and it would, at the very least, add yet another layer of intrigue to the team’s 73-win season. A victory would set up a rematch with James’s Cavaliers, it would put the Warriors in position to be the first team to repeat since James’s Heat (in 2012 and 2013), and it would keep alive the aura of invincibility that has surrounded both Kerr and Curry over the last two seasons.
If the Warriors lose: It would be a truly stunning end to the best regular season in NBA history. Going out in the West finals, even if it took seven games and an incredibly worthy opponent, would place an asterisk on a phenomenal and memorable campaign. The Warriors would become the first 69+ win team not to win the title and their regular season point differential would be the second-highest of all time among non-champions.
4. What's at stake for the Thunder?
If the Thunder win: Durant and Westbrook would be off the hook for their Game 6 struggles, Donovan would be hailed as a coaching and motivational genius, the Thunder would be in a strong position to capture Oklahoma City's first title, and the Thunder’s stars would get a rematch with James four years after losing to his Heat in five games. The victory, considering Durant’s impending free agency and the strength of the Warriors, would be viewed as the biggest win of the Oklahoma City era. Probably by a wide margin.
If the Thunder lose: Hearts will be broken and hopes will be crushed. The Game 6 loss was so painful by the end that many Thunder fans averted their eyes and left the building before it was over. Losing three straight games while sitting on the brink of the Finals would bring comparisons to last year’s Clippers, who fell apart while needing just one win to reach their first conference finals, and it would lead to heightened criticism of Durant and Westbrook, given their late-game struggles. If James spent more than a week sulking inside after losing the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks, this type of “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” loss might send Durant and Westbrook into hiding for months.
5. Are minutes becoming an issue?
Some observers wondered whether fatigue—either physical or mental—played a role in the Thunder’s Game 6 collapse. Given how hard both teams competed throughout that game, and how the stars for both teams logged 40+ minutes, it was a reasonable question to ask.
So far during the series, Durant and Westbrook have both played more minutes than any of the Warriors’ players. However, the gap isn’t as big as you might think: Durant has logged 19 total minutes more than Green, while Westbrook has played just 12 total minutes more than Curry. (Obviously, the blowout nature of many of the games in this series plays a role in these figures.)
When it comes to accumulation, the Thunder’s stars have logged more minutes that the Warriors’ stars during the 2016 playoffs because 1) they needed six games to finish off the Spurs and 2) because Curry missed so much time with ankle and knee injuries. Again, if Curry is put to the side, these aren’t gigantic margins. If Golden State is able to outlast and out-execute Oklahoma City down the stretch of Game 7, it will likely be because of the energy boost from having home-court and/or the momentum/psychological impact of retaking control of the series rather than a produce of a massive disparity in mileage or workload.
One key decision on this front: Will Kerr shift Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup? In Game 6, Iguodala moved into the second-half starting lineup in place of Harrison Barnes in order to align his minutes with Durant’s. That move paid huge dividends, as Iguodala had an excellent second-half defensively. Starting Iguodala, or at least increasing his minutes, is the most logical way for Golden State to push Durant physically and mentally.
6. Have the Warriors gotten their three-point shooting on track?
Thanks in large part to Thompson’s heroics, the Warriors set an NBA postseason record by hitting 18 more three-pointers (21-3) than the Thunder in Game 6. This was the first real taste of Golden State’s destructive capability from the perimeter during this series, and it begs the question: Was the hot shooting an anomaly or have the Warriors figured out the Thunder’s defense and/or settled in after a somewhat rocky start to the series?
Here’s a game-by-game look at Golden State’s perimeter marksmanship from the 2016 postseason. Note that the true valleys, prior to the West finals, generally came in games when Curry was sidelined.
Through five games in this series, the Thunder had done well to keep Golden State in check. The easiest way for the Warriors to take Game 7 would be if the Thunder slip up when it comes to defending the three-point line and tracking both Curry and Thompson in transition situations.
7. Will the Thunder's supporting cast show up on the road?
There’s no doubt that Oklahoma City’s most complete performances in this series came at home during Games 3 and 4, when role players like Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters really found their groove. Durant and Westbrook almost always find a way to get their scoring numbers, but they’ll need help if they are going to steal a second game in Oracle.
So far in this series, the Thunder’s most important supporting cast members—Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Roberson, Waiters and Enes Kanter—have averaged a combined 53 PPG at home and 37 PPG on the road. During Game 5, those five players combined for just 28 points in a nine-point loss. Someone—preferably, multiple someones—will need to step up for Donovan.