Before Oklahoma City and Golden State tipped off the Western Conference Finals, we promised that this series would be one for the ages.
We were eyeing possibly the best conference championship out west since the Sacramento Kings – with Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac – gave Shaq, Kobe, Stanislav Medvedenko (just wanted to see who was paying attention) and the Lakers, who were gunning for three-peat, a thrilling run for their money back in 2002.
Before the first whistle ever blew, we told you that this series would be much bigger than just Chef Curry because it would also be featuring the last player to wear the MVP crown in the brilliant Kevin Durant. With Russell Westbrook factored into the equation, we had six of the seven most recent NBA scoring champions.
And with the human-Swiss-Army-Knife Draymond Green and the criminally underappreciated Klay Thompson mixed into the gumbo, we practically have half of what should be this summer’s 2016 Team USA Olympic squad in Rio.
Coming into this season, the casual fan thought that Thompson was a pretty good basketball player. But they didn’t see him as much more than Tatoo to Steph Curry’s Mr. Rourke. Klay was looked at as a nice piece in Steve Kerr’s Warrior machinery, but not a brilliant stand-alone talent in his own right.
But throughout the course of this magnificent season and series, we learned some new things in addition to further cementing what we already knew.
And as we head into an epic Game 7 to find out who will face Lebron, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, we look at seven things to consider as the Thunder and Warriors tool up with an all-or-nothing, Ready to Die mentality.
The most beautiful thing about Klay Thompson’s 41-point explosion in the Warriors’ 108-101 Game 6 victory was not merely the 11 three-pointers that he hit in helping to force Game 7. It was the actual nature of how he hunted those shots down. Most people are trained to watch the ball, but to understand the depth and nuance of the game, you also have to study what’s taking place off the ball.
My man was not shooting open, uncontested jumpers, but succeeding in spite of some of the best perimeter defense any NBA team could conjure. On any given sequence, he was guarded by every player on the floor due to his constant movement and running through screens.
The amoeba-type OKC defense is comfortable switching on any perimeter scorer and challenging them with the various degrees strengths of length, muscle, athleticism, hunger, quickness and footwork that Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka bring.
To watch Thompson fight for the slightest inch of separation before he even touched the ball should be required study for aspiring young guards. In the spine-tingling fourth quarter, Golden State was not looking for Curry. They were focused on getting the ball to the man who has proven to be their best offensive weapon for this entire series, Klay Thompson.
He’s no one’s sidekick, an inexorable offensive force in his own right. Last year, I thought the talk of Klay and Steph being among the best backcourts in NBA history was premature. Today, it’s official.
In Russell Westbrook’s performances in Games 3 and 4, he was basically telling the rest of the NBA to, “Lock your windows, close your doors.”
This was the moment the 29 other NBA teams have feared since Oklahoma City made it to the 2012 NBA Finals. And that is the full blossoming of Westbrook’s audacious talent merging with his ferocious competitive nature and otherworldly, mercurial energy. We’re seeing him balance his responsibilities as a floor general equally with his alien-life-form gifts as a scorer.
In those back-to-back, 133-105 and 118-94, blowouts in Games 3 and 4, which now seem like a lifetime ago, his 30 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds last Sunday, followed up by an encore of 36, 11, and 11 two days later asserted his ownership over the series.
This was before Klay and Steph got their Cypress Hill on, letting everyone who prematurely advanced OKC to the Finals after four games that, “We ain’t going out like that!”.
Durant will always have his foot on a defense’s neck, but when Westbrook plays at the crescendo of his abilities, it’s a wrap for the rest of the league, including Golden State if Steph, Klay and their entire Warrior collective does not bring their A+ games.
Westbrook, who is averaging 26 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and three steals through 17 postseason games this year, has a chance to help lead the Thunder into this year’s NBA Finals. It’s a slim chance, but if he unleashes his inner animal and has a career-defining game, don’t be surprised to see OKC shock the world in Game 7.
Give Steve Kerr his props. PLEASE!!!
In today’s microwave society, where a lobotomized fan base feels the need to downplay someone’s achievements by comparing them to someone else, on some, “LeBron is wack because he ain’t Michael Jordan” nonsense, we’re hearing similar rubbish about Kerr’s coaching acumen.
“Phil Jackson never even had to play a Game 7 in the Finals,” is what I’ve been hearing over the last few days. But these morons don’t seem to remember that those dynastic Bulls teams faced elimination twice in Game 7’s – against the Knicks in 1992 and the Pacers in 1998.
They pulled out those games, but they lost Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Knicks in 1994. But the Bulls and Phil Jackson riders have dementia when it comes to that.
In case you don’t recognize what you’re seeing, Kerr is in the midst of navigating the early stages of a modern-day dynasty.
He is a veteran of Game 7’s going back to playing with the Cavs in 1992, when they faced Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For all of you armchair point guards screaming that he’s a failure if Golden State somehow loses and doesn’t advance to this year’s Finals, that’s sillier than Reefer Madness!!!
Nothing makes me more upset than some dunce screaming that Steph Curry is just a shooter, that he’s simply a system player who’s also a liability on the defensive end. It makes me scream at the top of my lungs, “What is ya, ignorant?”
Have you not seen the man pass the ball, his vision in transition and his abIlity to make a defense collapse in a half-court set before lacing his teammates with beautiful assists?
And because he’s not the primary defender on Russell Westbrook in this series, that somehow translates to mean that he can’t play defense? C’mon, son. Stop it.
Steve Kerr would be a doofus to not utilize the full arsenal of defensive options at his disposal on Westbrook, rotating Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston on him, along with Curry.
In addition to being the greatest shooter this generation has ever seen, Curry led the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares. He’s also led the NBA in steals for the past two years.
The matchup between two of the top four (my others include Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul) point guards in the league is bound to be isolated and dissected. And yes, Steph has struggled with turnovers and some lingering ankle and leg ailments in the playoffs. Westbrook has been the best point guard in this Western Conference Finals thus far, that’s undeniable.
But to denigrate Steph’s defense is simply ludicrous. Westbrook is undeniably ferocious on the defensive end. But when you get down to the analytical nitty gritty, The Chef graded out higher than Russ defensively this year. Curry had a +0.96 in ESPNs Defensive Real Plus-Minus rankings, which was one spot higher than Westbrook’s +0.75. Curry’s overall defensive rating, 98.3, was nearly four points better than Westbrook’s 102.2.
Did you miss what Klay Thompson did in Game 6?
During tonight’s Game 7, we could possibly be witnessing the greatest Western Conference Finals ever. If we get the game that we’re fully expecting, one that comes down to the final minutes, and barring a blowout, we’ll be talking about this series and these performances right along with the best I recall seeing:
* The Rockets vs. Spurs in 1995, when Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 4.2 blocks per game and forever laid claim to owning David “A Dream Deferred” Robinson.
* The Lakers vs. Trail Blazers in 2000, when L.A. made a 15-point comeback in Game 7 behind Kobe’s 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to win 89-84. People forget how good that Portland crew was, with Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith and Arvydas Sabonis.
* The Lakers vs. Kings in 2002, undoubtedly the best Western Conference Finals of all time. Four games came down to the final seconds and Game 7 featured 16 ties and 19 lead changes. Shaq was a force of nature, but I’ll also forever recall how phenomenal Chris Webber played in this series.
Whoever sips the champagne tonight will have fully deserved it. Oklahoma City had all of the momentum when leading 3-1, but Golden State is fully in the driver’s seat, having tied the series up with the deciding game taking place on their venerable home court, where they’ve only lost three times this year.
“Everybody on both sides of the ball is going to leave it all out on the floor,” said Curry after the Warriors pulled out Game 6 on the road. “It’s win or go home.”
The other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, gave us the latest scintillating performance in this battle with his playoff-record 11 3-pointers and 41 points in the 108-101 Game 6 win. But given how this series has unfolded, somebody, whether it’s Draymond Green, Curry, Thompson, Durant or Westbrook, is going to give us something to put an exclamation point on this exceptional Western Conference Finals.
“This is what you dream about, getting this opportunity,” said Kevin Durant yesterday. “We’ve got to take advantage of it. Go up into their building, and it’s going to be great atmosphere. … No matter where you play, you’ve still got to play.”
Billy Donovan, despite being a rookie NBA coach, has pushed all of the right buttons for the Thunder. Steve Kerr has delivered a season like no other in NBA history for the Warriors. Curry, Thompson, Durant and Westbrook are all on their way to the Hall of Fame. The complimentary players for both teams have played some outstanding ball.
We should be treated to greatness tonight as both teams realize that this it it. In order to get to where they want to go, they have to take advantage of what’s in front of them, right now. They only have this game, and one more chance, to do it.