Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals is a few hours away and there’s far more on the line than punching a ticket to face the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, the opportunity to represent the West in the Finals is the ultimate goal, but history, legacy and pending free-agency are all tied into the outcome for tonight’s game.
The Golden State Warriors are the defending champions; they won an NBA record 73 games this season and Steph Curry has been crowned King. A loss in tonight’s game clouds the historical significance in this record-breaking season and will cause some to question the validity of Curry’s unanimous MVP season. The run to 73 without the season ending in a second-straight title will give the naysayers fuel in their arguments of these Warriors’ claim of being an all-time great team. Curry’s injury in the first round has surely slowed the momentum the Warriors gained this season, but head coach Steve Kerr has repeatedly said Steph is healthy and his 4th quarter play in the last two games points to that being a truth.
With Curry slowed, or struggling, the Warriors have looked less like the buzzsaw that ran through the NBA and more like a team facing a formidable opponent who’s physically healthy and giving them a run for their money. Looking back at the Warriors’ last two postseasons, all of the match-ups we’ve wanted never materialized, largely due to the Spurs inability to advance, the Clippers’ collapse last season and injuries this season, plus the depleted Cavs in last year’s Finals. So, this match-up against the Thunder is truly testing the mettle of the Warriors and they’ve answered the bell in the last two games.
Curry’s the NBA’s current golden child, but Klay Thompson has carried the Warriors from the brink of elimination (and ridicule) with 27 points in Game 5 and an astounding 41 last game, including a playoff record 11 three-point field goals. Add his defense on Russell Westbrook to his clutch offense and Klay is making his claim as the Warriors’ postseason MVP, especially with Draymond Green’s struggles. Green’s stats are down across the board and at times he’s looked completely out of place on the court, as talk of a possible suspension and subsequent kicks, technical fouls and problems with the Thunder’s bigs have frustrated him. He played much better in the second half of game 6, which is encouraging for Golden State and their fans, but his struggles (and mental toughness) may continue to show themselves tonight, which may place the team in the precarious position of having to sit him for the benefit of the team.
On the other side of the court, Billy Donovan has the Thunder on the verge of making it back to the NBA Finals and possibly eradicating the underachieving label that’s dogged this team since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ascended to elite status. The team has been snake bit by injuries since losing to the Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals, alternately losing Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Durant in previous years, making this year’s team its first healthy roster in four years and it shows. The Thunder plowed through Dallas, San Antonio and has the Warriors on the brink of elimination.
However, we’re heading to game 7 after the Thunder went up 3-1 in the series and the whispers of Durant’s choking have become deafening, as will the speculation of his impending free agency if the Thunder are unable to close out Golden State tonight. The way the Thunder played in the beginning of the series quieted the rumors of Durant leaving OKC for Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, Golden State, San Antonio and every other place he’s been linked to. But, the current collapse has started to raise speculation about his decision this summer, as well as struggles from the field and late-game turnovers have placed a different label he’ll have to wear this summer. Choke artist.
The Thunder had the opportunity to clinch the series on their home court, but Durant went 10-31 from the field, including 1-7 in the fourth quarter. Throw in a few costly turnovers and an image of Reggie Miller grabbing at his throat in Madison Square Garden should appear over his shoulder. The late-game failures have dogged the Thunder for years, as their offensive execution fizzles down the stretch, often resulting in poor shots late in the shot clock by Durant and/or Westbrook. Oklahoma City, as pointed out by Deez the other day, is hoping its Thunder can continue this magical run and keep Durant in town to continue with the renaissance of the city and its basketball glory.
Then there’s Westbrook. Westbrook has dominated the series, but “Bad Russ” has surfaced in games 5 and 6, as he’s turned the ball over 12 times and shot 21-55 from the field and went 0-5 from three in game 6. His octane style of play and supreme confidence keeps opposing defenses on alert at all times, but it also puts his team in precarious positions, especially in late-game situations. When “Bad Russ” checks into the game, one-man fast breaks that result in poor shots or errant passes become the norm, especially after he feels he’s been fouled on a drive to the basket.
The lack of a consistent, capable third option has plagued OKC in their attempt to win the Western Conference, because a struggling Durant and “Bad Russ” have led the Thunder to squandering a two game lead and the unenviable task of trying to win a game 7 in Oracle Arena. Durant and Westbrook need to be at their elite best tonight, but Dion Waiters, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter all need to have the game of their professional lives for the Thunder to win. For the Warriors it’s simple, their three All-NBA players need to show up and be who’ve they been all season and they’ve punched a return ticket to the Finals.
Either way, LeBron James is waiting with a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.