On Saturday, the Golden State Warriors return to the scene of the theft.
Their last visit to Oklahoma City, for Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, was a desperate fight for survival, waged against their current leading scorer. By all rights, the series -- and season -- should have ended that night. The Thunder were dominant at Chesapeake Energy Arena, overwhelming the Warriors in Games 3 and 4. Much of Game 6 was a continuation of Golden State’s struggle, as the Warriors trailed for 44 minutes of the game.
Warriors vs. Thunder on ABC (Saturday, 8:30 ET)
Previewing KD's return
• As KD returns, looking back on his OKC exit
• What Kevin Durant left behind in Oklahoma City
• Durant's return to OKC a reunion made for the NBA
• Kevin Durant talks OKC return and 'fake drama' involving Russell Westbrook
• Durant's move still stings around Oklahoma
• Durant says the game quiets the noise off the court
• Durant leaving OKC gave Westbrook more momentum
• 'It doesn't matter to' Westbrook how fans respond to KD
“It was going the way much of the series went, where every possession was a struggle,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They had us in a really tough spot. They were a dominant team. They really were. We were fortunate to get out of there alive.”
Though the Warriors outlived this moment, they would fall three weeks later, in the last seconds of a series they had led up until its final minute. For obvious reasons, Game 7 of the 2016 Finals is the one for the ages, and, at 1011 Broadway in Oakland, the one that is obsessed over. It's the one that obscures how Game 6 of the Western Conference finals might have been just as consequential in terms of shaping the 2016-17 Warriors.
When asked if winning Game 6 of the Western Conference finals helped Golden State land Kevin Durant, Kerr replied, “I would say that's true. I would say, and this is nothing coming from Kevin, but I think if you just look at it objectively and circumstantially, if they beat us, they go to the Finals, tough to see him going here.”
Late in Game 6, it may have been even harder to envision the Warriors winning than an outcome as absurd as MVPs joining forces. On its face, the comeback doesn’t seem so surprising. The Warriors cleared a single-digit hurdle in the fourth quarter, not exactly the stuff of legend. But given the game’s circumstances, that hurdle was deceptively tall.
From that night’s recap:
With 5:48 remaining in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Golden State Warriors were surely doomed. The Oklahoma City Thunder led 94-87 and Steven Adams was at the line for a second free throw. At this moment, Oklahoma City was in the bonus, while Golden State had yet to draw a foul in the quarter. Draymond Green, crucial to any theoretical Warriors comeback, was protecting the rim while carrying five fouls.
This was a taut tightrope for a team that had been stumbling. “Fans behind the bench were hugging and yelling, ‘We are going to the Finals,’” Andrew Bogut, now of the Mavericks, recalled about the game. “This was with a few minutes left. Then Thompson went bonkers.”
Thompson had been going bonkers over the entirety of the game, progressively so. His 41-point, playoff-record-setting 11 3-pointer performance had Warriors owner Joe Lacob so awed, so indebted, that the venture capitalist quite literally dropped to his knees and bowed before Thompson after the game.
Even if he was feeling it, Thompson’s ambition still was astounding under the circumstances. The comeback started with Thompson, feet askew, casting a 30-foot bomb through the net. The shot went up as Kerr was begging Thompson to move the ball.
“I remember looking at a woman sitting next to me in those really expensive courtside seats next to the coaches,” Kerr recalled. “She was in shock. I just looked at her and said, ‘I don't know how he does it either.’”
Does Thompson remember much from his signature playoff game?
"Barely,” he said, while fighting a battle with knots in his shoelaces.
When asked if he wondered, in the moment, whether he should be taking some of these crazy shots, Thompson was calmly definitive.
"Nah. They all felt good."
While Thompson remembers little from the game, he occasionally revisits it.
“I watch highlights sometimes, just to see what I did right,” Thompson said. “You know, I was in a good rhythm. I always think back on it because the playoffs are so much fun.”
Fun in retrospect, maybe not in the moment. In the immediate aftermath of Game 6, Steph Curry, in a TV interview, called it “probably the hardest of our lives.” Curry had struggled in the early going, but gained steam as the game went on, closing with two late 3-pointers and the game-sealing one-legged bank shot over Serge Ibaka.
Beyond Curry's heroics, the name that gets brought up when talking Game 6 with Warriors people is Andre Iguodala. While his eight-point scoring total didn’t seize headlines, he was crucial to a closing defensive attack that shut Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s water off. Though the Warriors were in the penalty, Iguodala was aggressive with his patented swipe down move.
As ESPN’s Royce Young wrote on the night of the game, “Andre Iguodala used his hands to disrupt Durant's ability to drive or even pull up for jumpers.” Iguodala’s most impressive swipe wrested the ball from Westbrook, a heist so decisive that Iguodala calmly recovered the rock almost instantaneously. He then flung the ball forward to Thompson, whose ensuing 3-pointer finally gave the Warriors a lead they would keep.
On Thursday, Iguodala offered a summary of his thoughts on Game 6: “Give me a purpose, and I'll execute the hell out of it.”
Iguodala, like other Warriors, claims to have few memories of the action. That figures, because when it comes to NBA outcomes, suffering appears to linger longer in the soul.
“In general, I think about losses a lot more than I think about wins,” Kerr explained. “I think most coaches and players are that way. It's true that the sting of losing hurts more than the joy of winning feels good.
“Winning, you love it for the moment, and then you move on. You want to win again. But losing? I still think about the 1988 Final Four. It's never going to go away for me. Game 7 [of the Finals] will never go away, that's part of sports. But I probably should think about Game 6 a little bit more often.”
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