OAKLAND, Calif. — The game didn’t end so much as it exploded. When Stephen Curry finally sealed Game 7 of the Western Conference finals for the Golden State Warriors on Monday with a slick behind-the-back dribble and 3-pointer with 26.8 seconds left in an eventual 96-88 victory, it was permission to go crazy. Or at least, Curry took it that way, pulling his jersey up like former Warriors point guard Baron Davis after the famous Andrei Kirilenko dunk in the 2007 playoffs. Somehow, the uniform wound up in his teeth before he rushed over to the midcourt sideline. He took it as a moment to drink in the joy of thousands.
Or, as Curry put it after cementing Golden State’s comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder, “It was just a very cool moment to enjoy that fan noise and understand we were on the brink of doing something very special and coming back from down 3-1, and that was it.”
And that was it, finally.
Truth be told, Oracle Arena had never been more jubilant. That was especially so of the stadium hallways replete with players, coaches and their families. It was the anxiety that had launched the joy into orbit — not just the anxiety of Monday night, but really, the dread of spending a week on the brink.
What saved the Warriors from death? It’s complicated. Some will blame an epic Thunder choke at the end of Game 6 and some will credit Andre Iguodala for constricting Oklahoma City till it had nary an air bubble. Maybe it was strategy. The Warriors probably would have lost this series if they had maintained their fancy defensive look from the first few games (Draymond Green roaming off Andre Roberson, Klay Thompson guarding Serge Ibaka, Curry guarding Russell Westbrook).
This will not be what people generally remember from this series, as history tends to be reductive. Primarily, we will recall Curry and Thompson.
Perhaps that isn’t fair, but it isn’t altogether wrong either. Both were magnificent at times when they absolutely had to be, and both deserve acclaim for their efforts. Curry is still not completely healthy, according to team sources. He battled back from a three-week playoff absence, two separate rehab processes, and by Game 7 of this series, looked very much like himself. Finally, he was destroying big men off switches, like the good times of old. As Steve Kerr put it afterward, “I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”
Kerr also offered a succinct theory on why Curry’s perseverance and toughness gets discounted: “Because he looks like he’s 12.”
Thompson might love Harry Potter, but that’s about the only resemblance he bears to someone on the precipice of adolescence. He remains a large, imposing guard, punishing smaller defenders with a quick, high release.
The series represents the massive shift that has taken place in his career and development. Two offseasons ago, Joe Lacob’s front office was considering trading Thompson for Kevin Love. The Warriors were even widely mocked for not pulling the trigger. Nearly two years later, and the Warriors owner is on his knees after Game 6, bowing to Thompson for saving Golden State’s season. The man who’d nearly been traded completely outplayed Kevin Durant, on Durant’s home floor, in what might have been the biggest game of Durant’s career. Who could have seen that coming?
While Thompson did not start Game 7 on point, his four second-quarter 3-pointers relieved a situation that was trending dire. Thompson hasn’t played to his standard in the past three postseasons. This time around, he has been vital, rescuing the team as Curry missed time and searched for rhythm. He unleashed some incredible performances despite guarding Damian Lillard and later, Westbrook.
After Game 7, Lacob told ESPN.com, “Klay in Game 6 was honestly one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. And Steph tonight, for a Game 7 second half, was epic. So honestly I’m just so proud of them. They’re just a bunch of tough guys.”
“Tough” or otherwise, the Splash Brothers have certainly done much to persevere — and not just in climbing back from a 3-1 deficit.
There will be some revisionist history on Curry, just so we can make sense of what we’ve seen. There’s already a widespread notion that his rise was unanticipated because of ankle injuries. Not exactly so. Four years ago, almost nobody predicted All-Star games for Curry, for reasons beyond his feet. Golden State was a basketball backwater where nothing went right. The year before injuries ended his season, former Warriors coach Keith Smart was benching Curry for Acie Law. Four years ago, little was expected of Curry. He has won two of the past four MVPs, this year’s award arriving with a unanimous endorsement.
And now he and Thompson return to a second straight NBA Finals, this time to defend their 73-win season as much as their title. The Warriors, for years beleaguered and bad, are now on the cusp of enduring history. Two years ago, it was LeBron James‘ league. Over the next two weeks, the Splash Brothers will fight to maintain their hold on it.
Few if anyone saw this coming, which makes Monday’s celebration all the sweeter.