At the end of one of the finest playoff series in recent memory we have the finals rematch that most expected heading in to the season. The record setting Golden State Warriors will face the rejuvenated Cleveland Cavaliers with the first game in Oakland, Thursday night. For the Thunder it is a deflating end to what has been a topsy turvy season in OKC.
The Thunder became just the 10th team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead in a playoff series. Given their penchant for 4th quarter meltdowns throughout the season, it is perhaps no surprise that this squad have become the most recent member. It would be easy to view OKC’s collapse as a microcosm of their season as a whole, talented and flawed in equal measure. But enormous credit must be given to the Warriors for the way they performed in 3 straight win or go home games.
Game 7 last night was a strange, breathless affair with the players clearly feeling the pressure of a season on the line. During the first half both teams shot the ball poorly, missing layups and open jumpers. However, OKC’s dominance on the offensive glass allowed them to build a 13 point lead midway through the second quarter. In games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City the Thunder translated these early leads into insurmountable deficits, from which the Warriors couldn’t recover. But for whatever reason last night, the pressure of an elimination game, the raucous and hostile crowd, the Thunder failed to stay aggressive and let the Warriors back in.
What happened next is what any team who plays the Warriors fears. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson heated up. The splash brothers combined to hit 13 three pointers, with the bulk of them coming during a barrage spanning the end of the 2nd and into the 3rd quarters. Suddenly, without doing a whole lot wrong, the Thunder’s 13 point lead had evaporated and they trailed by 11 heading into the final period. When the Warriors backcourt is in that kind of mood they really are unplayable, they hit ridiculously difficult shots and in turn create easy ones for their teammates. The Warriors, at their best, make their opponents feel like they are fighting against a rip tide, dragging them out to see. The more you struggle and panic, getting away from your offensive sets and taking poorer and poorer shots, the stronger they get and the quicker you drown.
To be fair to the Thunder they did show the fight that has characterised their playoff run, drawing to within 4 points with less than 2 minutes remaining. But then Serge Ibaka made one of those plays which have blighted OKC’s season. Ibaka had Curry trapped near the sideline, a shot that Curry may have made but a tough tough shot that you would happily give up at that stage of the game. Inexplicably Ibaka fouled Curry sending a 90% free throw shooter to the line for three attempts, Curry made all 3 and effectively iced the game. Ibaka has performed excellently this series but those are the kind of plays that must be avoided if the Thunder are to have championship aspirations in the future.
The Thunder’s performance during the post season has given OKC hope for next season, but the offseason will not be straight forward. Kevin Durant is a free agent, and it remains to be seen whether he signs on for another run in Oklahoma or seeks pastures new. Durant is still just 27 with most of his prime in front of him, much longer without a ring though, and KD will start to fear becoming part of the ‘best player never to win a championship’ discussion. With Russell Westbrook in the final year of his contract next season the Thunder’s championship window may be closing sooner than anticipated.
These are the harsh realities of American sports leagues. When you have superstar players it is imperative to succeed as soon as possible, before they get the itch to move on. Top players in the NBA control their destiny, with the ability to pick and choose a favourable situation where they feel best able to win. OKC will have to try hard to convince Durant and Westbrook that that place is in Oklahoma.