You go through an entire preseason, an 82-game regular season, and six weeks of grueling postseason basketball to whittle the whole thing down to two teams. And here we are — the same two teams that we had last year in the finals, the two teams most thought would still be standing in the end.
But the ride this year in the Western Conference was far more compelling than last season's, in which we saw the Rockets bow out meekly in five games to the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals, buried under a record-setting pile of James Harden turnovers in the last game. This year, the Warriors followed up their history-making 73-win regular season with more history in the conference finals, as last night they became the tenth team to come all the way back from being down 3-1 in a series, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder by a score of 96-88 in Game 7.
Let's get right to it, analyzing winners and losers from last night and the series as a whole...
4. Oklahoma City
Before we get into Golden State and their second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, a few words on the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose future coming out of this series might be more compelling in defeat than the Warriors' is in victory. Heading into the postseason, the Thunder were viewed by many as a distant third in the Western Conference behind 73-win Golden State and 67-win San Antonio. And then they came within four bad minutes of basketball at the end of Game 6 of the conference finals from knocking off both of those teams. In the process, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan (who had a GREAT postseason) seemed to establish Steven Adams as one of the top centers in the league, rediscovered Serge Ibaka and got reliable role player minutes from Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and Enes Kanter. In short, even having coughed up a 3-1 lead, it's hard not to feel better about OKC's overall trajectory, assuming they bring back Kevin Durant next season (a semi-big assumption). This was one of those series that played out like a 15-round heavyweight fight in which both competitors come out of the match looking stronger than they did when they went in.
3. Cable and satellite subscribers
A few weeks ago, on this very website, we had a story about sports fans cutting the cord with cable and opting to cobble together cheaper bundles of viewing content. Well, one of those bundles, a so-called "skinny bundle" called Sling, had some major issues during the game on Monday night...
For all of the pondering I do of saving a couple of hundred a month on cable charges, this is the one thing that frightens the hell out of me — losing an online stream in the middle of a big sporting event.
2. Anderson Varejão
Steve Kerr hasn't always pushed the right buttons when it comes to his rotations in this series. His lineup at the beginning of the second quarter of Game 6 comes to mind, a quintet that included exactly zero players from the trio of Curry/Thompson/Green. However, one small button that Kerr pushed on Monday night that worked well for the two minutes he pressed it was inserting Anderson Varejão into the game toward the end of the third quarter. In his two minutes, he scored a bucket, assisted on two others, drew a charge from Russell Westbrook and led an 8-2 run by Golden State, taking a five-point lead to a more comfortable 11-point lead. That's an efficient 120 seconds!
1. Steph Curry
9:18 to go in the third quarter, Warriors down 50-42. Curry hits a three pointer. Then another. Then another. You look up and with 6:24 to go, in less than three minutes of game time, the Warriors are all of a sudden up three. That's what Curry does. He buries and demoralizes you.
4. Memes up 3-1
The Internet is a tricky thing. So much emotion can be expressed in the moment, but that damn digital fingerprint maintains everything for posterity's sake. After the Thunder went up 3-1 last weekend, the Internet made Russell Westbrook the daddy of all the Currys...
When Steph Curry responded with three games of 30-plus points, you knew the Internet would have a long memory...
God bless the Internet.
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3. Harrison Barnes
In Game 6, Barnes appeared to be in a little over his head, tentative on offense and out of sorts on defense. When Steve Kerr used Andre Iguodala, things worked out much better, especially at the defense end, where Iggy came up with huge stops late on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. So Kerr did the right thing in Game 7, eschewing a token start for Barnes to bring Iggy off the bench, and just biting the bullet and starting Iguodala. It made sense, and Iguodala ended up playing 43 minutes. Barnes, on the other hand, played just 22 minutes and scored five points, not exactly what Barnes needed heading into free agency looking for a big deal.
2. Oklahoma City supporting crew
After the game, the TNT studio crew seemed to be heaping a disproportionate amount of blame for the loss on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, with Shaquille O'Neal (whose analysis is about as logical and sensible as a roulette wheel) implying that the two All-Stars need to trust their teammates more. This, after Durant and Westbrook took a not-all-that-crazy 40 shots combined. When you consider that the supporting cast of Adams/Waiters/Roberson/Ibaka shot a combined 13-42, I'm not sure exactly what Shaq expected Russ and Durant to do.
1. Kevin Love and Channing Frye
Much of Curry's success in Games 6 and 7 came from the Warriors' running a lot of high screens and Steph's ending up with bigger, less mobile players covering him in the open court, which led to his either quickly releasing a three off the dribble (lethal) or blowing by the defender into a sea of open space in the lane (lethal, also). Pray for Kevin Love and Channing Frye, who will be in these spots in the upcoming finals.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.