'The best game of any of our lives': The night that saved the Warriors' season
Klay Thompson sinks into a courtside seat at Quicken Loans Arena, hands on his knees. This is the way he sat that night. He talks about the ball, guided by his fingertips. This is the way it felt that night. He is in Cleveland, trying to summon Oklahoma City. He has already cued up the video of the Western Conference finals, Game 6. “I wanted to learn how I got all those shots,” he explains. “I wanted to see what I did right.” He searched for a formula, in the ways he bounded around screens and lost defenders, he could replicate in the Finals.
Thompson is the self-effacing Splash Brother, the one who watches Harry Potter movies, wears Star Wars socks and hits the park with his English bulldog, Rocco. He is content to let Steph Curry film the commercials and absorb the attention. The 2015–16 campaign will go down as the Season of Steph, Part 2, but the playoffs have belonged to Klay. He shadowed James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving in successive series. He threw flames at the Rockets and Blazers when Curry was rehabbing his sprained knee. And he dragged the Warriors out of the Dust Bowl, with 41 points, when they were withering at the bottom. “You’re the reason we’re still here,” Jerry West, a Golden State executive, told him.
Thompson is averaging 19.6 points in the Finals and inserted himself into the MVP conversation with 37 against the resurgent Cavaliers in Game 5. Golden State led the Cavaliers 3–2, despite losing amid unusual circumstances at Oracle Arena on Monday night. The Warriors had returned to Oakland for a coronation, but three-quarters of the way through practice Sunday afternoon general manager Bob Myers strode onto the court at their downtown facility and gathered the team.
Draymond Green, smothering the Cavs as a 6' 7" center, was suspended for Game 5 after picking up his latest flagrant foul: another groin swipe, this time on LeBron James. The Warriors had cause to debate the decision with the NBA office, but they reserved most of their ire for James, who stepped over a prone Green’s head during the play and reacted angrily when Green spewed a cuss word in his direction. “I guess his feelings just got hurt,” cracked the normally demure Thompson, essentially questioning the toughness of basketball’s Mack truck. After James declined to respond, saying he’d take the high road, Ayesha Curry broke from her upcoming cooking show to pile on via Twitter. When Steph’s wife finished, Golden State forward Marreese Speights accepted the baton, tweeting an emoji of a baby bottle. Speights has converted two field goals in the Finals.
The Warriors have grown accustomed to things bouncing their way. They missed Green—his absence, plus a knee injury sustained by center Andrew Bogut, allowed the Cavaliers to deploy traditional lineups and attack an unprotected rim—but they compounded their trouble with all the jabs at James. Though he may not be considered the best player in the world anymore, thanks to Ayesha’s hubby, neither is he a man to mess with. Booed every time he touched the ball, even at the layup line, James replied with a staggering 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. He and point guard Kyrie Irving, also with 41, became the first teammates ever to crack 40 in a Finals game. James now has more points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals than any Warrior in the series, and with a 112–97 victory, the Cavs forced Speights to pack his Similac for Game 6 in Cleveland.
Green will be back then, freed from the suite at O.co Coliseum, the ballpark next to Oracle Arena where he watched Monday’s game on TV. At full strength the Warriors have been the superior squad, this series and this season. Just once has their joyride genuinely been interrupted, the last time they faced a Game 6, in the Western Conference finals. Thompson will be deconstructing that classic for years, and he's hardly the only one.
“If we win, that will be the game we remember,” Golden State forward Harrison Barnes says. “That will be the best game of any of our lives.”
On the last Saturday in May, Warriors owner Joe Lacob played golf at Oak Tree National. Kerr snuck in a nap at the Colcord Hotel, where the team was staying. And reserve power forward James Michael McAdoo texted a devotional to the team’s group chat. Rev, as the 23-year-old McAdoo is known, started a Bible study for the Dubs this season attended by more than half the roster. On the road he gathers players for 10 minutes after lunch, but with only one day between Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in Oakland and Game 6 in Oklahoma City, Rev had to minister his congregants another way.
“There was no time to meet, so I typed out the whole story in the Bible about Moses, leading the Israelites away from Pharaoh,” McAdoo says. “When they were wandering in the wilderness, God sent 12 men ahead to scout land in Israel for their tribes. When the 12 came back, 10 were like, ‘Yo, the people there are huge. They have big armies. We can’t possibly take this land.’ But two believed they could do it. I told our guys, ‘We have to be the ones who believe we can take this land.’”
In NBA history 232 teams had trailed 3–1 in a best-of-seven series, and only nine had survived. The 73-win Warriors responded, running off with Game 5 at Oracle Arena, but Game 6 was back in Bricktown, where they’d been throttled earlier in the week by a combined 52 points. “We just have to get one here,” Kerr told his players on their first swing through OKC. “Just one.” Here was their last chance.
At 5 p.m., three hours before tip-off, Golden State assistant coach Jarron Collins played half-court one-on-one at Chesapeake Energy Arena with development coach Chris DeMarco. Westbrook warmed up on the other end of the floor. For almost 48 hours, DeMarco had been mulling the benefits of “switching sides” for Game 6. In the NBA teams typically shoot on the basket in front of their bench during the first half and guard that hoop in the second. Visiting coaches are given the option to flip, but they rarely do, preferring to communicate with their defenses down the stretch. But Oklahoma City was running a variation of the same set—a high ball screen—on virtually every fourth-quarter possession. The Dubs didn’t need a coach to tell them what was coming. There was a better chance that the Thunder D, untethered from its bench in the final minutes, could become discombobulated by Golden State’s more versatile attack.
DeMarco suggested the switch to many on the Warriors’ staff, except the two people who could implement it, Kerr and lead assistant Luke Walton. From the floor Collins egged DeMarco into calling Walton, who reached Kerr, who ran the idea past roster elders Curry, Green and Andre Iguodala. The move was both strategic and psychological. “Maybe it smacked of desperation,” says a Warriors coach, “but we had to do something.” Nick U'Ren, the special assistant who made the series-altering recommendation to start Iguodala in last year’s Finals, found Oklahoma City staffer Royal Ivey on the court and informed him of the change. U’Ren apologized for the late notice, but when the news was relayed to Thunder players, they were not pleased. They probably didn’t care where they shot in what half. But suddenly they had to switch sides for warmups, which meant breaking from established routines, working with different ball boys, and navigating a baseline swarmed by TV reporters doing stand-ups. “It wasn't a big thing,” says another Golden State coach, “but maybe it f---ed with them just a little bit.”
Or maybe it didn’t. Oklahoma City led by 11 points deep in the second quarter, and at Halftime Sports Bar in downtown Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. sipped his pineapple juice and covered his ears. “It was packed, it was hot, it was steamy,” says F.A.B., a famed Bay Area rapper, who sneaked into Oracle Arena as a boy and now owns season tickets in the first row. Everybody at Halftime was pulling for the Warriors, except for Slick, an old friend perched at his table. “I’m buying my tickets to Cleveland right now,” Slick crowed. F.A.B. was outraged. Two days earlier he had appeared on the nationally syndicated Sway in the Morning show on satellite radio and freestyled for more than six minutes about his home team, name-dropping a dozen Dubs from Rick Barry to Sarunas Marciulionis. (“They say we down 3–1 so it’s ‘ova—yeah right, we got Steph, that’s the second coming of Hova.”) F.A.B. took $11,000 in bets from other rappers who were enamored with the Thunder.
“This is just history repeating itself,” Mistah F.A.B. told Slick, flashing back to the days when the Thunder were Seattle’s SuperSonics. “It’s the 1996 Finals, Bulls-Sonics. The Bulls were 72–10 and we’re 73–9. Russell Westbrook is Gary Payton and Kevin Durant is Shawn Kemp.”
With 4:55 left in the second quarter the Warriors sat on the bench during a timeout, and Kerr talked about what he wanted to run. Collins turned to Walton and reminded him how poorly Golden State had played at this juncture of Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City. Walton spoke after Kerr. “This is when they blow our asses out!” he yelled. “Lock the f--- in!” The Warriors cut the deficit to five at halftime and Kerr’s speech in the locker room was upbeat. “Thunder is in trouble,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley told the Inside the NBA crew, watching from a private room on the first floor of Chesapeake Energy Arena. Barkley picked Oklahoma City in the series, but the Dubs were luring Westbrook and Durant into one-on-one challenges, a familiar undoing. Barkley wondered if they’d again isolate themselves into oblivion.
Kerr told Iguodala that he was starting the second half instead of Barnes. The Warriors were content to let Westbrook keep chucking, as long as they corralled Durant, keeping him away from his preferred spots at the elbows and the nail. Needless to say, they view KD as a substantial upgrade from Shawn Kemp. Though Iguodala guarded Durant, his defense was not the main reason Kerr tabbed him. Oklahoma City’s cartoonish length, embodied by Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, changed what Golden State coaches call “the geometry of the court.” Passes the Warriors had grown accustomed to threading were deflected. Drives were stifled. Layups were blocked. Iguodala was an extra ballhandler who could relieve Curry and Thompson, and possibly find them coming off screens.
Eleven seconds into the third quarter, Thompson hit his fifth three-pointer of the night, and 26 seconds after that, his sixth. Mychal Thompson did not make the trip to Oklahoma City. “I’m only coming to the Finals,” he had informed his son. From his couch in Ladera Ranch, Calif., Mychal noticed the lift on Klay’s shot and the bounce in his step. Mychal fired a text to his wife, Julie, who was in the stands: “I think he’s getting into that Klay Zone.” They have seen it many times before, most memorably in January 2015, when he reeled off 37 points in a quarter against the Kings. Mychal and Klay pinpoint the same moment that he stepped into the zone against the Thunder. It was the first minute of the third quarter and he took a pass from center Andrew Bogut on the right wing. “I was coming around a split cut, and Westbrook was there, but I rose up and shot it anyway,” Thompson says. “That’s when I knew I was on.”
After Thompson’s second three, the Warriors took a 54–53 lead. In the sixth row behind the visiting bench, Kent Lacob—the owner’s son and the team’s coordinator of basketball operations—got up to go see a friend. “What are you doing?” asked Kent’s older brother, Kirk, an assistant general manager. “Why would you change seats now? If we lose, you’re fired.” Golden State slumped at the end of the third and trailed by eight heading to the fourth. Kent’s job looked to be in jeopardy. “Will this be the final 12 minutes of the season for the Warriors?” play-by-play man Marv Albert intoned.
The words were barely out of his mouth when Thompson sank another three. Four times in the fourth he would hit triples that pared deficits from eight to five or seven to four. By this time the Dodgers had beaten the Mets at Citi Field, and L.A. outfielder Trayce Thompson was on the bus back to the hotel. He was following his older brother’s game on his phone, regaling teammates with updates: “Klay Thompson 3 ... Klay Thompson 3 ... Klay Thompson 3.”
But those were the Warriors’ only baskets of the quarter, and with 5:48 remaining, the Thunder led by six points and were in the bonus. Thompson sat on the bench at a timeout, hands on his knees, dead eyes staring into space. “You couldn’t tell if he was listening,” Kirk Lacob says, “That’s what I’ll remember from that night. His stone face.” Meanwhile, reserves hopped around him. “We’re good, we’re good!” backup guard Shaun Livingston hollered. “We’re right there.”
Less than a minute later, Thompson cradled the ball just inside the Thunder logo at half-court, 28 feet from the hoop. His feet were offset, left sneaker in front of right, and Westbrook was on him. There was no screen. There was no action. “It was just a terrible shot,” Thompson says. Bill Duffy, his agent, calls it a corkscrew. Like Curry, Thompson can hit a jumper even when his feet aren’t set, as long as his upper body is organized. “I was praying a lot right then,” says the 6' 9" McAdoo, in uniform for the first time all series, activated because of his length. “It’s not, ‘God, let Klay make this shot.’ That']’s not how the Lord wants me to come to him. It’s praying for him to have the strength to remain positive and locked into the plan.” Prayers answered, Thompson drilled the deep corkscrew over Westbrook, and when Curry evened the score with another moonbeam, McAdoo tumbled from his position of prayer on the bench down to the floor. There is no way to know if switching sides affected the Thunder, but their airtight defense was springing leaks.
“OKC is great,” Speights says. “But they have some breakdowns, and you could see it happening, some players trying to get their own and not put the team in it.” For five games, and 43 minutes of the sixth, Westbrook and Durant piggybacked the Thunder. But as Barkley anticipated, they reverted to hero ball, which as usual produced the opposite effect. The hero, besides Thompson, was Iguodala.
“Tie game, last two minutes, and Russ comes at me from the top of the key,” Iguodala says, contorting his body to reenact the climactic sequence. “He jumped at me to initiate contact, but I backed up, and he slipped. He turned to shoot, but his back was to me, so I couldn't see the ball. I could just see his body, but I was like, ‘The ball has to be right here.’” Iguodala swiped down, a signature move since the 76ers drafted him a dozen years ago out of Arizona, and snatched the loose change.
“In this day and age, guys get the ball and look down to dribble,” Iguodala says. “But in college, I was taught to get it and look up.” He took two dribbles and scanned the court. Spotting Thompson on the wing, he unleashed a chest pass from one three-point line to the other. Thompson caught and fired in a single motion. “I knew we had three more possessions, so I was like, ‘You know what, nobody is within five feet of me, I feel good, and I work on this all the time.” He often meets DeMarco on the Warriors' practice court in downtown Oakland at night, blares Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and re-creates transition threes. DeMarco stands at half-court, Thompson on the right wing. This was no different, except the best season in NBA history was on the line.
Thompson's last splash—his 11th, a playoff record—put Golden State ahead for good. Oklahoma City never scored again, and as Curry dribbled out the clock on a 108–101 win, Nick Kerr hugged his mom. A graduate assistant at Cal, Nick traveled with the Warriors through the playoffs, tagging along with his dad to coaches’ meetings and rebounding for Green in warmups. But Nick could not make Game 6 in Oklahoma City because his younger brother, Matthew, was graduating from The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif. So Nick stayed back in San Diego and watched with his mother, Margot, at their home in Rancho Santa Fe. When Margot gets nervous during games, she breaks out the five-pound weights and does curls. But she remained calm. “I was shaking,” Nick says.
As Thompson walked to the locker room, Joe Lacob spotted him in the hallway and dropped to his knees, bowing in thanks. Kent Lacob reached out for a high-five, but Thompson brushed past him. By the time he opened the locker room doors, Green was already howling: “This is who we are! We’re gonna get this done! Let’s f---ing finish this thing off!” Coaches relaxed in an adjacent office, playing ’80s music and drinking Modelo Especial. Friends and family gathered in the hall, cheering every time a player emerged. When Westbrook and Durant rode by on a golf cart, headed to their press conference, the group respectfully fell silent for a moment. Then the ruckus began again. “It felt like we should have had some champagne,” McAdoo says
When Thompson boarded another cart for his presser, USA Today reporter Sam Amick hitched a ride next to him. Fixing a button on his shirt, Thompson said: “This wasn't going to be my last game, man.” Amick was struck by the pronoun he chose: my. “I’d never heard him with that alpha attitude before,” Amick says.
Thompson later apologized to Kent for accidentally blowing him off. Walton showed McAdoo the clip of his fall to the floor, provoked by a higher power. Mistah F.A.B. bid goodbye to Slick at the bar and hasn’t been able to reach him since. “I don’t know why,” F.A.B. says, “but he won’t answer his phone.”