Could the Thunder really stop the historic 73-9 Golden State Warriors from making the finals??
I am still in disbelief.
I haven’t written a post in a number of months, since my Nets’ shambles of a season finally ended. But today, I have to write. I have to make sense of this.
It’s no secret how I’ve felt about the Thunder in the past. Steven Adams, being from my country of New Zealand, is naturally one of my favourite players. I met him in September 2014 at a Footlocker here, and have his signed jersey hanging on my wall:
But despite my fondness for Adams, I’ve been firmly in the camp of “the Thunder are not that good” for a long time. Why? Because I, like many others, believed Westbrook tried to do too much, be too much of a hero, creating a smokescreen of triple-doubles that didn’t translate into wins. In retrospect, I was foolish to think that there wasn’t a chance that Westbrook would taste blood, and realise he just had to alter his game ever-so-slightly to more favourably benefit his team and win the championship. I honestly didn’t think it was possible. After game 1 against the Spurs, I tweeted:
I was dumbfounded when the Thunder won the series against the 67-win San Antonio Spurs. But I wasn’t worried about my prediction that the Warriors would win the championship. In my opinion, the Warriors of this season are the best team of all time, even despite my strong Jordan fandom. Again, I believed there was no chance for the Thunder:
And then, this afternoon my time, I sat down to watch Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The game started exactly how I was expecting: the Warriors came out strong, their small line-up easily outplaying the big line-up of the Thunder. The first half came to a familiar end, as Steph hit a buzzer-beating patented three, giving the Warriors a commanding 60-47 lead:
Russell Westbrook was struggling, and three minutes into the third had shot a miserable 1-10. What happened next is the stuff of fairytales. He suddenly hit two threes and a long two with a hand right in his face, and the Warriors lead began to fluctuate between single and double digits. Golden State seemed fallible, as everyone watching came to the slow realisation that the Thunder had kept the game somewhat within reach without peak-Westbrook. And peak-Westbrook was starting to emerge from the shadows.
But then Curry started doing Curry things again – shooting a looong three after Kanter didn’t close out on a pick fast enough, and then banking in another crazy three straight afterwards – this time with Kanter right on him.
The crowd exploded. Anything they can do, we can do better.
Adams checked back in.
Then the Warriors started to get lazy – and who can blame them? They’re used to getting by easily. And they were up by 16. The Thunder started forcing turnovers – which is one of the Warriors’ few weaknesses. And it worked rather well:
After getting within six, the Thunder began a hack-a-Ezeli strategy, which was returned with a hack-a-Adams. The result? 1 point for Golden State, 2 for OKC, as Adams calmly hit both free throws. Adams continued to be a factor – uncharacteristically hitting his free throws while being a force defensively – clogging the lane and snapping up rebounds.
At the end of the third, the score was 88-85, Warriors. At this point, the momentum had swung, and the combination of Westbrook and Adams seemed to be the driving factor.
First play of the fourth, and Kevin Durant hit a three. After being down by so much in the first half, the thunder had tied the game.
And before you could blink, the Thunder lead. Even while Westbrook sat, the big line-up succeeded.
Bizarrely, the warriors stopped passing to Curry (say it with me now: when in doubt trust in Curry), and took ill-advised shots that clanged off the rim, while the Thunder continued to dominate on the glass.
With 4:30 left in the game, the Thunder lead 101-93 and the crowd started to feel something they hadn’t felt in a looong time. Fear of losing a pivotal game. Curry hit what would be his last shot of the game, and while the crowd celebrated, you could feel their nervous energy. This could be bad.
Golden State continued to pass up open looks for Curry in favour of drives into the big defenders, and totaled 14 turnovers for 20 Thunder points. The Thunder had 9 turnovers in the first half, but just two in the second.
In other words, the Thunder turned up when it counted, and the “twin towers’ line-up well and truly outplayed the Warriors’ death line-up. Steven Adams sealed the deal by hitting two crunch-time free throws (a 60% FT shooter on the season!).
As a New Zealander, this is unbelievable. Basically our only player to ever play in the NBA (apart from Sean Marks…) is not just playing but is making a huge difference. In fact, he was the most important factor, according to the plus-minus:
New Zealand media used to massively overrate Steven Adams, calling him an “NBA superstar”. Now they are seriously underrating him. I wish I could adequately express to New Zealanders who don’t follow the NBA how big of a deal this guy his. He’s 22 years old, from Rotorua, and he might be the most vital piece in defeating the best regular season team of all time. Sure, you need Westbrook and Durant in order to compete with Golden State, but it looks like you can’t beat them without a tough, dominating defensive force such as Adams. Just crazy.
Do I think the Thunder are going to the finals? No – I still believe that the Warriors are legit, and will bounce back from this. But I well-and-truly respect the Thunder now. Winning game one on the road is nothing to be sniffed at. They’ve proven us all wrong already. They might just do it again. And I definitely wouldn’t be disappointed with an OKC-Cleveland finals. In that scenario, I’d be rooting for Adams to bring the Larry O’Brien home.
Credit to Reddit /u/splash2ndcousin for Streamable videos.