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Warriors to face Cavaliers in Finals after completing furious WCF comeback
1:30 | NBA
Warriors to face Cavaliers in Finals after completing furious WCF comeback
Tuesday May 31st, 2016

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State team that conquered LeBron James, made basketball look beautiful and made impossible shots look routine was missing in action in the Western Conference finals, replaced by a careless, complacent squad that gave away its hard-earned home-court advantage and then lost consecutive games for the first time all season to fall into a 3–1 pit against Oklahoma City.

The Warriors therefore needed three straight victories against the Thunder to save their record-setting season, but more than that they had to rediscover the attributes that helped them win 73 games and breeze to the West finals in the first place. Four games in, Golden State’s stars were being outplayed, their vaunted offensive system was failing to produce good looks, their reliable defense was getting picked apart, their foolproof small ball lineup was suddenly being torched by Oklahoma City’s own downsized grouping, their miscues were fueling their opponent rather than the other way around and, perhaps most surprisingly, their three-point shooting was running dry. 

Stephen Curry, usually so cocksure, looked tentative from the perimeter and timid inside, leading to questions about his health. Draymond Green, one of the league’s most well-rounded difference-makers, couldn’t do a damn thing correctly to save his life, and he nearly ran afoul of the league office for a flagrant kick. Steve Kerr, usually armed with counters upon counters thanks to his experienced bench, was being outmaneuvered by Billy Donovan, who had fewer options at his disposal.

• MORE NBA: Warriors defy logic in win over Thunder | Finals schedule

After Game 4, a second consecutive blowout loss, Curry promised that the Warriors “won’t go out like this.” Yet his play to that point in the series, outside of a Game 2 flurry, didn’t offer much in the way of corroboration for the expressed confidence. The Thunder were tailing the back-to-back MVP like a group of private investigators, knocking him every chance they got and encouraging Golden State to look elsewhere for offense. Curry would need to play a leading role in saving the Warriors, but his grasp on the direction of the series was, it seemed, loosening by the game.

Although it was Klay Thompson who set up the Warriors’ comeback in this series, with a strong shooting performance in a Game 4 loss and a historic three-point explosion in a Game 6 road win, Curry sent the Thunder to the canvas. He did so the best way he knows how: with an endless barrage of three-pointers, one more difficult and pleasing than the next.

Golden State defeated Oklahoma City 96–88 in Game 7 of the West finals Monday, becoming just the 10th team in NBA history to climb out of a 3–1 deficit to win a seven-game series. After a Game 5 win helped them save face and a Game 6 win restored their swagger, the Warriors that we’ve come to know over the last 18 months reemerged in Game 7, suffocating the Thunder’s offense throughout the second half and putting away the game thanks to Curry’s late-game scoring.

Finally, the magical Curry, the one who flicks 30-footers with ease and maneuvers around the arc as if working against an invisible defense, returned in full force. Beset by ankle and knee injuries during the playoffs, Curry had alternated between sizzling performances—overtime against the Trail Blazers, Game 2 against the Thunder—and forgettable, turnover-filled efforts.

Gallery: 10 teams to come back from a 3–1 playoff deficit in NBA history

But he manipulated Game 7 like a puppet-master, particularly down the stretch, sending the Warriors to their second straight Finals where they will face James and the Cavaliers again.

“He’s had a rough playoff go because of the injuries,” Kerr said. “I think he finally felt right physically the last couple games. And this is who he is. Having a clutch performance in a Game 7? That’s Steph Curry.”

Curry provided a taste of what was to come at the end of the first half, streaking down the court to loft a banking lefty buzzer beater to cut Oklahoma City’s lead to six. When the two teams returned for the third quarter, Golden State quickly went on a 17–6 run, hitting five three-pointers in six possessions, with Curry hitting three of them. Game 7 turned during that stretch, as the Warriors erased a 13-point Thunder lead and never trailed the rest of the way.

The onslaught marked a carry-over from Game 6, when Golden State set an NBA postseason record by hitting 18 more three-pointers than Oklahoma City (21–3), thanks largely to Thompson, who hit a playoff-record 11 threes. In Game 7, Curry and Thompson combined to hit 13 three-pointers as the Warriors drained 17 as a team, 10 more than the Thunder.

MORE NBA: Athletes react to Warriors’ win | Durant talks free agency

Golden State sank 38 three-pointers in the final two games of this series while Oklahoma City managed just 10, a whopping plus-28 differential that proved decisive.

“They beat us in the three-point line the last two games,” Kevin Durant said after scoring a team-high 27 points. “We beat them everywhere else, they beat us from the three-point line, and that was the series.”

Curry was indiscriminate with his splashing. He hit over Steven Adams from way behind the line, he used a step-back to free himself from Russell Westbrook from the left angle, he used a behind-the-back crossover to shake Serge Ibaka near the top of the key, he beat Adams with a double-crossover near the right angle, he circled around from the corner to lull Adams for a moment before launching from the left angle, he executed a beautiful off-the-dribble step-back to hit in Durant’s eye, and, with less than a minute to go, he weaved through traffic to run some clock before shaking off Andre Roberson to deliver a fate-sealing three.

He celebrated that three by ripping his jersey free from his shorts and biting it with his teeth as he mugged for an Oracle Arena crowd that began the night in festive fashion, tensed during the first half, and then erupted in mass jubilation down the stretch.

“It was just a very cool moment to enjoy that fan noise and understand we were on the brink of doing something very special, coming back from down 3–1,” Curry said. “This whole playoff run … was just a roller coaster from the time I got hurt, to coming back and dealing with injuries and whatnot, and now we’re four wins away from our goal. That’s a pretty special accomplishment.”

When Curry wasn’t hitting threes, he was scaring Ibaka into fouling him as he attempted a three with 1:17 left to go. That mistake pushed Golden State’s four-point lead to seven, extinguishing Oklahoma City’s comeback hopes for good.

“When we fouled on the three-point shot, I think that was a dagger for us,” Durant said. “That kind of hurt us. … But, hey, it is a lot of what ifs. We could have said a lot of what-ifs throughout the whole playoffs. You’ve got to give credit to them, they came out and played well the last three games of the series and won three in a row.”

A subdued Durant kept his gaze fixed at the podium table in front of him, looking and sounding much different than he had a week ago, when he brushed off a question about Curry’s “underrated defense” by noting that Golden State often hides its point guard on weaker offensive players, as Westbrook sat alongside him laughing at the question’s premise. There were no chuckles for Westbrook after Game 7, not after he scored just 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting and failed to atone for a poor finish to Game 6. 

“He scored a lot on our bigs,” Westbrook said when asked about Curry’s second-half performance. “He did a good job of making some tough shots over our bigs. Our bigs on the switches came out and he made some tough shots over top of him.”

Embedded in that answer seemed to be a level of stubbornness from Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard, a bit of distancing from the fact that Curry had flipped the script and badly outplayed him during Golden State’s final two wins.

If Durant’s dig and Westbrook’s chuckling provided added motivation for Curry, he wasn’t telling. Instead, he pointed to the the second quarter of Game 6 in Oklahoma City as the turning point of the series because the Warriors had kept contact when the Thunder threatened to blow the game open.

Then, asked if he had learned anything about the Warriors during their three-game comeback, one that keeps them in the “Greatest Team of Alltime” conversation, Curry opted to express his faith in his team’s established track record.  

“Actually, nothing,” Curry said. “I knew we were ready for the moment. We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise outside. ... Everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run. But in that locker room, the talk was positive. It was, let’s figure this out.”

Golden State figured it out by taking better care of possessions, ramping up its defensive intensity, deploying its small lineup to better effect, capitalizing brilliantly on Oklahoma City’s crunch-time struggles and by nailing three after three after three during tense moments and over tightly contesting defenders.

“They put you in binds,” Donovan said, out of answers. “Listen, they won a World Championship last year, and they’ve broken an NBA record. … You’ve just got to give them credit. Just give them credit. That’s what they do, and that’s what they’ve been able to do. Give them credit for the shots that they make.”

With Curry back in full swing, Thompson playing superbly on both ends, Green surfacing from what he called “slumps” and “struggles,” and with home-court advantage, Golden State will enter its Finals rematch with Cleveland as clear favorites.

MORE NBA: Most memorable Game 7s ever | Green pulls Adams to ground

The Warriors will approach the Finals knowing they were tested and pushed by the Thunder in ways that the Cavaliers simply weren’t in the Eastern Conference. Sure, Cleveland has the edge when it comes to rest days prior to Thursday’s Game 1, but Golden State possesses something more important: a perspective that was sorely missing as recently as last week.

“I told every single one of my teammates when I saw them in the locker room, embrace this accomplishment, this moment, because of how hard it is to get back here,” Curry said.  “I feel joy, for sure. This is an unbelievable accomplishment, to go to back-to-back Finals and continue this journey.”

His message was clear: these make-it-look-easy Warriors now know how distressing it was to stare directly at their season’s end, day after day, but also how gratifying it was to escape their three-game brush with death in surging triumph.

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