NBA Playoffs: The Comeback

MVPBehaviorI have never felt so good about eating crow. On May 24, I was about 90% sure the Warriors were done. I even wrote about it here. This series was exhausting, emotional, and for me, the most enjoyable playoff series I have witnessed in my life. I am biased because I’m a Warriors fan but accounting for the talent, the stakes, and the high-level of play, I’d feel comfortable putting these seven games up against any other in NBA history.

So what happened? How did the Warriors mount this incredible comeback? Looking back at what I wrote, I still stand by my statement: the Thunder have a gear that the Warriors cannot hit. But there are two gigantic things I got wrong. The first, that the Thunder would sustain that level of discipline for the entirety of the series. And the second, that Steph Curry at an MVP level might not swing the series. After watching the last three games, a strong argument can be made that you need the second to get the first. Here are my observations from the Warriors amazing comeback:

  • You’ll hear a lot of people talking about how the Thunder, “choked.” Stop it. They beat an all-time great regular season team in a relatively dominant fashion and took the all-time greatest regular season team to seven games. They outplayed the Warriors for most of the series and without two incredible performances by Klay Thompson and Steph Curry respectively, the Thunder would be in the finals. Both teams deserved to be there.
  • The Thunder’s success against the Warriors can be tracked by the efficiency and discipline of Russell Westbrook. In games 5-7, the Westbrook of old came out to play. There was the gambling on defense, there was the well below 40% shooting from the field, and there was providing the MVP with bulletin board material by laughing at the idea of Steph being an underrated defender. Kevin Durant pushed the issue too much in Game 6 but OKC’s ceiling is only as high as Westbrook takes them.
  • Kevin Durant is incredible. Yes, he had subpar offensive outings in games 5 and 6 (if you can call dropping 40 a “subpar” outing). However, his ability to make difficult shots, endure 40+ minutes, and play outstanding on-ball and help defense against the best offense in the league cannot be highlighted enough. In game 7, he single handedly willed the Thunder to within striking distance after the Warriors delivered what felt like was the final blow. A great performance by a great player.
  • On the flip side, KD wants game 6 back. When Westbrook loses his composure, it’s up to KD to step up and make the right decisions with the ball in tight games. Instead, he rushed shots all game and allowed the Warriors D to push him outside of his comfort zone. Making a few better decisions on offense and a rematch with LeBron is in the books.
  • Andre Iguodola’s defense on KD cannot be talked about enough. He was practically inside the man’s jersey and his disruptive defense without fouling swung the series for the Warriors. Clutch strips, strong contests, and physicality off the ball – he was incredible. AND he’s one of the better playmakers on this loaded Dubs team. It will take this type of effort against LeBron for the Dubs to repeat.
  • It bears repeating: the Thunder can stop these Warriors. But it takes a herculean effort on defense to get it done. When they are making the right switches and staying at home on shooters, the Thunder have the athleticism and length to cover up all of the Warriors beautiful motion offense. I have never seen more possessions end empty for this Dubs team than this series. It’s difficult to sustain but the recipe is there. And it can only be done by playing their key players 40-plus minutes a game. The Thunder outrebounded, commited fewer fouls, and had fewer turnovers than the Dubs… and lost the series. That’s how hard it is to stop the Warriors.
  • Making terrible shots is in the Warriors’ DNA. Look at Klay’s 41-point performance. Look at some of the shots Steph took last night. There are questionable shots there. But they go in. You play 23 seconds of great defense, force a difficult shot, and the Warriors still come up with three points. That’s what buried the Thunder. Those off-the-bounce threes Steph made on Adams, Ibaka, and Durant led OKC to change their defensive game plan. They had it figured out, but they blinked when Steph broke basketball.

  • Steph is incredible. Not just as a scorer, but as a basketball player. His ability to make outrageous shots forces teams to adjust in ways that open up the game for the other Warriors. In the third quarter of game 7, the Thunder switched to trapping him out of the pick and roll. Considering the hot streak he was on, you could understand if he wanted to try to split the trap and continue calling his own number. That’s your instinct as a scorer. But instead, he went to how the Warriors got those 73 regular season wins – he passed out of the trap and let his offense play four-on-three. There was no need for a timeout, just an immediate recognition and the willingness to make the right play. This opened up the floor for the Warriors and turned into a deluge a points for a team that had struggled to find its rhythm all game. Steph’s improved decision-making is an underrated aspect to his game and the Dubs’ success.
  • Steph is back, or at least back enough where there should be no more questions about his knee. Early in the series, it was obvious something was off about his game. He wasn’t shooting off the dribble and his shot looked inconsistent. The longer the series went, the better he looked. Call it injury, call it psychological, but something was off early and now, he’s displaying textbook MVP behavior.

  • Draymond is happy this series is over. After dealing with the likes of KD, Ibaka, and Steven Adams for seven games, I’m sure Draymond is looking forward to play Kevin Love, Channing Frye, and Tristan Thompson. It sounds like a knock on the Cavs but it’s really just the level of athleticism that Dray was forced to manage. There are just not a lot of teams  no teams with the speed and length that the Thunder have.
  • Donovan is NBA ready. He outcoached Carlisle, Popovich, and Steve Kerr this year in the playoffs. If the Thunder stick to their game plan, they’re the ones playing on Thursday. And his post-series press conference was all sorts of classy. I’m excited to see what he does with another year of this roster.

While watching game 7, there were two moments that made me confident that the Warriors were going to pull out the victory (even though it was still close). The first was the aforementioned run by Steph and Klay in the third quarter. The Thunder called timeout with the Warriors up a possession. Despite the fact that the game was close and the Warriors had basically made this run by making a slew of terrible shots, there was a lot of finger pointing on the Thunder bench – their body language was terrible. In stark contrast, the Thunder opened the fourth quarter by making two straight, highly contested jumpers in back-to-back possessions. The Warriors responded, not by complaining, but by staying the course and not allowing great shotmaking to take them out of their game.

The second was a coast-to-coast Livingston fastbreak. He pushed the ball up the floor against three Thunder players in transition and despite not having numbers, slammed it home for an and-one. Why was this important? Because that possession shows what Curry and Klay do to the minds of other teams. The Thunder were scrambling, looking at the three point line for would-be shooters which made them forget the first rule of transition defense: stop the ball. Sometimes you forget how much teams have to adjust to the way the Warriors play.

What a legendary series. And, if things go right for the fans, what an incredible rivalry. Westbrook leaving the floor without congratulating the Warriors show that this was a chippy series and for NBA fans, it doesn’t get any better than two high-level teams meeting each other year-after-year for emotionally charges series in the playoffs. Crossing my fingers for round 2 next year.

On to the Finals!