How do you measure the heart of a champion? How do you accurately quantify that grit and determination, that single-minded drive to compete despite the odds and the body begging to quit? Is it best defined in numbers, by the amount of clutch shots made in dire circumstances (see: Klay Thompson, Game 6). Or is it better gauged by wins and losses, like a record 73 regular-season victories? Perhaps a term as ambiguous as “a champion’s heart” is indefinable in mere words or numbers. Maybe it requires the eye test, like how the US government deciphers pornography: It’s difficult to say exactly what it is, but you’ll know it when you see it.
In Game 7 on Monday night in Oakland, we all saw it. We all saw the Warriors demonstrate that naked determination and unadulterated confidence in their thrilling victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Behind 36 points from the NBA’s unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, and with the Oracle Arena crowd roaring with every flick-of-the-wrist three-pointer, Golden State overcame the odds to win their fourth game of the series and advance to meet Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Who would’ve thought this possible just one week ago?
(Maybe that’s how you measure the heart of these champions. By the number of unanswerable questions asked by fans left staring in disbelief at the amazing feat their team just pulled off.)
Here are 10 thoughts on the Game 7 clash and the “heart of a champion” victory:
1. Consider where we were just six days ago. The Warriors had been annihilated yet again by the too long, too athletic, too offensively potent Thunder and were facing a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series deficit. Most national media and NBA fans had left them for dead, an inconvenient roadblock to a rematch of the Thunder and Lebron James in the NBA Finals. Who but the fans and media in the Bay Area could have foreseen then that the Warriors would eke out a victory in Game 5, stand on the back of an all-time shooting performance from Klay Thompson to rally in Game 6, and then ride the wave of momentum and Oracle crowd noise to complete the three-game run in Game 7? In the history of the NBA, only nine teams had ever managed to crawl out from a 3-1 deficit, and now the Warriors have become the tenth. Truly amazing.
2. Stephen Curry was unequivocally the best player on the court. That’s something that probably wouldn’t have been true at any other time this series if not for his two-minute takeover in Game 2. Whether he’s hurt, or just fatigued from get mugged by OKC’s defenders, Curry hadn’t looked right all series. But somewhere around Game 5, he turned a corner and was back, little by little, to looking like the MVP we’re all accustomed to seeing. Whether it’s because he’d learned how to play on the balky right knee or because he’d gotten use to the Thunder’s length on the perimeter is uncertain, but there’s no denying that from Game 5 on, Steph was able to improve his output incrementally each time. After scoring only 19 points on a frigid 6-of-20 shooting, while committing 6 turnovers, in the Game 4 smack down, Steph came back and dropped 31, 31 and 36 points in the final three contests, increasing his three-point percentage in each outing. In Game 7, the MVP was unstoppable, especially in the second half where he was crossing fools up, canning step back jumpers over outstretched arms, and cold icing games with daggers from deep. Steph dropped 15 points in the final quarter and finished with a line of 36-5-8 and a game-high plus-18. I guess he wanted to let the world know that Game 7 was “the Steph Curry game.”
3. Steph and Klay made 30 threes in the last two games. OKC connected on 10. Total. As a team. When KD said, “they beat us from the three-point line, we beat them from everywhere else,” he wasn’t far off.
4. I don’t think Russell Westbrook is laughing anymore. But I wouldn’t know since he left the court before shaking the hands of any of the Warriors players. (But that actually doesn’t bother me at all. Dude is a beast of a competitor and was completely distraught. Why must grown men go through these rituals of “good sportsmanship” to demonstrate their professionalism? By all accounts, Westbrook is a standup dude.)
5. Klay’s magnificent Game 6 will go down as one of the great post-season performances regardless, but imagine how history will treat that game should the Warriors win another championship. Without that Klay explosion — where he knocked down some absolutely bonkers three-pointers, — the Warriors were probably on their way to going fishing for the summer. Then “11 three-pointers in a game” happened and the Dubs’ season was saved.
6. Have to give credit where credit’s due. Anderson Varejao, who I’ve been killing in this space for over two months, provided a huge spark in his two short minutes off the bench. He made a key pass to HB for a corner three and then drew a momentum swinging charge. On the very next play he hit a crossover flip shot to put the Warriors up 13. I guess that’s why Kerr has been going to AV again and again despite the repeated failures. He knew AV would be a plus-5 contributor in Game 7.
7. Serge Ibaka fouled Curry twice on that late 3-pointer. Once on the rip-through and once on the follow-through. (Oh, and Ibaka fouled Steph roughly 371 times on shoves and holds and bumps and straight maulings before that play.)
8. Is there a stat that backs up the universally accepted truism that bench players play better at home than on the road? Because that certainly looks like a small-sample size reality judging by the last two games. After getting nothing from the bench in Game 6, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, and Leandro Barbosa provided 12 points in the Warriors 29-12 third quarter. Livingston’s unencumbered and-1 dunk down the lane ignited the crowd and sparked a 10-2 run to end the frame.
9. Unlike Reggie Jackson, I have nothing but respect for this OKC squad. Consider what they just accomplished. Sure, they underachieved in the regular season winning “only” 55 games (fewer than the Toronto Rapto-Drakes) but they defeated the 67-win Spurs (twice in the AT&T Center where San Antonio had lost once all season) and they had the Warriors on the ropes at 3-1. At one point, the Thunder had beaten two teams that went a combined 140-24 in the regular season seven times in nine tries. If Durant stays in OKC for at least another year, which most people think he will, these Warriors-Thunder games can replace the old Warriors-Clippers slugfests as Must Watch NBATV in 2017.
10. The Warriors have to turn around and play the Cavs in two days. They are likely mentally and physically exhausted after this seven-game bloodbath. Cleveland has been off since Saturday and will be well-rested having only played 14 playoff games to the Warriors’ 17. But at this point, is a little fatigue any reason to doubt this team? Have we learned nothing from this season and these playoffs? Despite the odds, the Dubs will always have a chance to win because they have the heart of a champion. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I just saw it with my own eyes and I don’t doubt it.