An epic series that featured so much back and forth between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder ended with one last memorable battle.
It was Stephen Curry versus Kevin Durant, the world’s two best players putting on a brilliant shotmaking display in the final minutes to try to nudge their respective teams into the NBA Finals.
Curry drove for layups and rose for three-pointers. Durant carried a Thunder comeback bid with seven consecutive points.
Ultimately, it was Curry and the Warriors who prevailed during a 96-88 victory in a breathless Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Monday night at Oracle Arena.
Curry scored 15 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, including his team’s final eight points. He celebrated in the final minute by biting on the tail of his jersey and yelling as he stood and smiled near courtside fans who roared along with him.
“It was just a very cool moment to enjoy that fan noise and understand we were on the brink of doing something very special,” said Curry, who made 13 of 24 shots to quell any remaining doubts about a right knee that had sidelined him for more than two weeks earlier in the playoffs.
The defending champions will open the Finals on Thursday against the Cleveland Cavaliers after becoming the 10th team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series and the first since the Houston Rockets beat the Clippers last season in the West semifinals.
“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out in two straight games,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said, referring to losses by 28 and 24 points.
Golden State versus Cleveland will be a rematch of last year’s Finals, albeit with both teams essentially at full strength. The Cavaliers were missing Kevin Love for all of that series and Kyrie Irving for the last five games.
But Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka fouled Curry on a three-point attempt with just one second left on the shot clock and Curry made all three free throws.
“That was a dagger for us,” Durant said. “But we could have said a lot of what-ifs throughout the whole playoffs. You’ve got to give credit to them.”
The arena was festive after a third quarter in which the Warriors made five three-pointers and outscored the Thunder, 29-12, wiping out the remnants of what had been a 13-point deficit in the second quarter. Curry twice sidestepped Oklahoma City center Steven Adams with a crossover dribble to make a three-pointer, and Warriors backup guard Shaun Livingston escalated the decibel level when he drove into an open lane for a dunk and was fouled by Ibaka. Golden State’s Klay Thompson made one of his six three-pointers in the quarter and finished with 21 points.
Curry made seven of 12 three-point attempts, many of them coming over the outstretched arms of Thunder forwards and centers who switched onto him defensively.
Curry’s knee was not a talking point in the latter part of the series, though Kerr understood why Curry’s toughness kept being questioned.
“Because he looks like he’s 12,” Kerr quipped.
Curry and Durant shared a tender moment after the game, hugging on the court as yellow confetti flitted through the air. Curry placed his hand on Durant’s shoulder and Durant patted the back of Curry’s head after what could have been the superstar free agent’s final game with the Thunder.
There will be plenty of regrets to process after Oklahoma City dropped the final three games in the series, failing to close out the 73-win Warriors despite holding double-digit leads in Games 6 and 7. The Thunder were expected to be regular Finals participants after making their debut on basketball’s biggest stage in 2012. They haven’t returned since.
Now it’s the Warriors who are back in the Finals for a second consecutive year. The last time they did that was in 1947 and 1948, the first two Finals in NBA history. The franchise was based in Philadelphia then.
“I feel joy, for sure,” Curry said. “This is an unbelievable accomplishment, to go back to back to the Finals and continue this journey.”