Path to a Trilogy, Chapter VI: Thunderstruck

Mark D. Smith/USA Today

Welcome to Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter VI, we examine the 2016 NBA Playoffs, one that sees the Cavaliers succeed with relative ease over the rest of the Eastern Conference while the Warriors, the greatest regular season team in the history of the NBA, face injury and adversity in the Western Conference Playoffs. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

In the lead-up to the 2016 NBA Playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are favored to make it out of their respective conferences and meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals.

The Playoffs commence on Saturday, April 16, and the Warriors play in the second game of the day at 12:30 PM Pacific Time; they are on their home floor to host Game 1 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets. In spite of the star power on Houston’s roster, the Warriors are clearly the far superior team, as they jump out to a 33-15 lead after the first quarter. They are able to do this on the strength of 16 points from Steph Curry, the soon-to-be MVP of the league.

In the second quarter, though, Curry tweaks his ankle by stepping on a Rockets player. He stays in the game until early in the third quarter. When he leaves the game for good, the Warriors lead 65-39, and even though he only plays 19 minutes, he still leads all scorers with 24 points. Golden State goes on to win Game 1 by 26 points, but their main concern is the health of their best player.

The next day, the Cleveland Cavaliers open their Playoffs against the 44-38 Detroit Pistons. Detroit gives Cleveland slightly more than they had bargained for, as the Pistons lead by seven points with just under 11 minutes to go. And yet, the Cavaliers are able to come back and pull out a 106-101 victory to hold off the Pistons and avoid falling into a 1-0 deficit.

The Warriors’ next game is on Monday, April 18, and they make the precautionary move of sitting Curry in hopes of allowing his ankle to heal so he can play later in the series. The decision pays off, as the Warriors take Game 2 behind 34 points from Klay Thompson, 18 points from Andre Iguodala, and 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting from Curry’s replacement in the starting lineup, Shaun Livingston. The Cavaliers win their Game 2 two days later, and both teams have a 2-0 lead in their first-round series.

On Thursday, April 21, the still Curry-less Warriors and Rockets play Game 3. The Rockets lead for most of the game until an Ian Clark layup puts Golden State head 96-95 with 12 seconds left. On the other end, James Harden drills a turnaround jumper with just over three seconds left to put Houston back up one. The Warriors turn the ball over on the final possession of the game and Houston survives in Game 3. However, the Warriors are in good shape; Curry is set to return to the series in Game 4, which isn’t taking place until Sunday. The Rockets are barely able to win a game without him, so his return should give the Warriors a clear edge.

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are fully healthy and starting to run on all cylinders against Detroit. They are up five with 45 seconds left in Game 3 when Kyrie Irving hits this absurd corner three while falling out of bounds to sink Detroit and effectively put the Cavs up 3-0. Their Game 4 is also on Sunday.

In the Houston-Golden State series, Curry returns to action for a highly-anticipated Game 4. The soon-to-be-MVP, though, is less than 100%, and he only shoots 2-of-9 in the first half. On the last possession of that first half, with the score tied at 56, Curry tweaks his right knee over a wet spot on the floor and is forced to leave the game with an injury separate from the ankle sprain he suffered in Game 1. Instead of folding without their superstar, though, the Warriors outscore the Rockets by 27 in the second half to take a 3-1 series lead. That night, the Cavaliers close out the Pistons with a 100-98 victory; Irving leads all scorers with 31 points.

In Game 5, the Warriors absolutely bludgeon the Rockets. They outscore Houston 37-20 in the first quarter and don’t look back. Thompson leads the Warriors with 27 points and seven made three-pointers, and even reserve Brandon Rush gets in on the fun with 15 bench points. The Warriors beat the Rockets into submission and will face either the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers or the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the Playoffs.

On Friday, April 29, the Blazers defeat the Clippers on their home floor in Game 6 to win the series and set up a meeting with Golden State. For the second year in a row, the Warriors avoid playing the Clippers in the Playoffs, but L.A. would have been without their two best players, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, for the remainder of the postseason. Portland, however, is a young team whose core of Damian Lillard, C.J McCollum, and others has relatively little playoff experience.

And in their matchup against the Warriors, it shows. Golden State easily takes Game 1 behind 37 points and seven threes from Thompson; while the final score is 118-106, the figure is deceptive, as Portland scores nine of the final 11 points in the game. Portland takes an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter of Game 2, but a spirited team effort and lockdown defense propel Golden State to a 34-12 fourth quarter edge; the Warriors win the game 110-99. Portland has missed its best opportunity to draw even with the Warriors, and the news isn’t getting better for them, either; Curry is set to return to the Warriors in either of the next two games in Oregon.

Curry is not in the lineup for Game 3 of the series, and the Trail Blazers finally take advantage. Despite 72 points from Thompson and Draymond Green, Portland wins Game 3 behind 40 points from Lillard. The win marks just the second post-first-round single-game victory for Portland since 2000. However, a change of events is about to occur; Curry is activated for Game 4 and will come off the bench for the 73-win Warriors.

While Portland leads for most of Game 4, the Warriors tie the game on a Harrison Barnes three with 52 seconds to play. The game heads into overtime, and like he did so often in the regular season, Curry takes over. Despite having not played for over two weeks, Curry scores 17 of the Warriors’ 21 points in overtime to carry his squad to a 3-1 series lead. Ultimately, 27 of Curry’s 40 points come in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he notches a +21 in 36 minutes off the bench. He’s back, and so is the terrifying offensive attack of the Warriors.

Game 5 is another entertaining, high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. Fittingly, in the final minutes of the game, the outcome is in the hands of Curry, who was named the first-ever unanimous MVP in NBA history the day before. He shows the world why he won the award with 12 of the Warriors’ final 17 points, including a stepback, fadeaway three over Al-Farouq Aminu to put Golden State up five with just under 25 seconds left. Curry hits four more free throws to salt away the win for Golden State and put the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The next night, in the other Western Conference series, the Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the San Antonio Spurs to win their series in six games and set up a meeting with the Warriors. Golden State won all three meetings during the regular season and comes into the series as the clear favorite.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers easily dispatch the Atlanta Hawks in a four-game sweep. LeBron James averages 24 points, 8.5 rebounds, and just under eight assists over the course of the four games, and the outcome of the series is never in doubt. The closest contest comes in Game 4, one in which the Hawks have a chance to take the lead on the final possession. Unfortunately for them, point guard Dennis Schröder’s shot is blocked by James in the final seconds and the Cavaliers survive. They will play the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals and are very heavily favored.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors take a 60-47 lead into halftime. The Thunder, though, make up the deficit and tie the game on the first possession of the fourth quarter. They take the lead with ten and a half minutes to go in the game; the Warriors would never tie or take the lead after Dion Waiters’ lead-changing basket with 10:30 to go. Oklahoma City goes up five points with just over 30 seconds to go and wins Game 1 by a score of 108-102. Their offensive is spearheaded by 53 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the two best players on the team. The team also gets a pleasantly-surprising 16 points and +19 from New Zealand-born center Steven Adams. Curry, Thompson, and Green contribute 74 points, but the team that prides itself on its “Strength in Numbers” is outscored 21-16 in bench points.

In Game 2, the Warriors respond. They trail for all of 12 seconds in the second quarter en route to a 27-point victory. Curry scores 28 points and drills five threes in 29 minutes, and both teams empty the bench in the fourth quarter. The Warriors are back….. or so it seems.

Both teams have a full three days off before Game 3; because they both closed their second-round series promptly, the Western Conference Finals started two days early and the teams were given an extra two days off traveling to Oklahoma City. The time off should help both teams heal any injuries they might have and make the necessary X’s and O’s adjustments.

The game is tied at 40 with over eight minutes to go in the second quarter and looks to be an even contest after 16 minutes of play. The Thunder go on an 8-0 run in the next two minutes. On a Golden State offensive possession halfway through the second quarter, Draymond Green drives on Adams. He draws a shooting foul, but on his way down from his jump, he kicks Adams in the groin area. For his transgression, Green draws a flagrant 1 foul; he is not ejected but the Thunder faithful voice their displeasure with Green. This play comes to be the defining moment of the game; Oklahoma City goes on a 24-7 run after the kick and leads by 25 points at halftime. Things would get worse before they would get better for the Warriors, as the Thunder lead by as much as 41 before the end of the third quarter. Oklahoma City takes a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 taking place two days later.

Before Game 4, the league looks into potentially suspending Green for his shot heard ’round the world in the previous game. They decide against it; however, in an important clarification, the league upgrades Green’s foul to a Flagrant 2. If a player receives three flagrant foul points in the Playoffs, he is automatically suspended for one game. Green has two points and is therefore just one flagrant foul away from a one-game suspension.

In Game 4, though, he won’t have to worry about flagrant fouls because he and the Warriors are a collective no-show. The Thunder carry another huge lead (72-53) into halftime and win Game 4, 118-94. Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo of Westbrook and Durant is giving the Warriors fits, and Curry does not appear to be his usual self, having shot just under 42% in the first four games of the series. In the span of mere hours after Game 4, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Curry’s knee and ankle injuries have him playing at roughly 70 percent of his usual athletic capacity. The report also passes along a quote from Green, who states that the team’s 3-1 deficit is “stunning”. Panic mode seems to be in full effect. All of a sudden, the Golden State Warriors, the best regular season team in NBA history, are down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals and within one game of being eliminated from the NBA Playoffs.

While the Warriors have jaw-dropping and deep problems, the Cavaliers have concerns of the first-world variety. They dominate the Raptors in the first two games of their series; the most memorable moment in the first two games for Toronto comes late in the first half of Game 2. With Cleveland leading 50-46 late in the second quarter, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, after being substituted out of the game, decides to leave the bench and head into the locker room to “decompress”; the Cavaliers go on a 12-2 run during the great decompression to carry a 62-48 lead into the half. The Raptors would go on to lose the game 108-89.

The Raptors and Lowry would come back strong in Game 3. A stifling Toronto defense holds Kyrie Irving to 3-of-19 shooting in what later becomes a 99-84 victory for the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan leads the Toronto charge with 32 points and the much-maligned Lowry chips in another 20. The Raptors have a chance to tie the series at two in Game 4. In that game, the Raptors lead for virtually all of the first half and are assisted by an inspiring defensive and rebounding effort from backup center Bismack Biyombo. The Cavaliers come back to take the lead with a little more than eight minutes left, and the game experiences eight lead changes in just four minutes and 21 seconds. Toronto pulls through at the end of the game, and a DeRozan runner with 1:33 to play puts them up 103-99. After a Cleveland miss, an offensive rebound from Biyombo off a Lowry miss keeps the possession alive for the Raptors, and the latter hits a layup to put the team up six and tie the series at two. For as well as Cleveland played at home, they too may need to scratch and claw to go back to the NBA Finals.

Game 5 between the Cavs and Raptors takes place on Wednesday, May 25, and it’s not so much a game as it is a bloodbath. Cleveland dominates from start to finish and, at one point in the fourth quarter, leads by 43 points. James, Irving, and Kevin Love combine for 71 points as the Cavaliers pull to within one game of their second straight NBA Finals.

The next night, the Warriors host the Thunder trying to stave off elimination and force a Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday. They are able to do just that with a 120-111 win in which Curry scores 31 points and Thompson scores 27. Possibly the most significant and surprising contribution for the Warriors, though, is that of Marreese Speights, who scores 14 points in just eight minutes. The Warriors have forced Game 6, and their home fans are feeling so confident that they chant “see you Monday” in the game’s final stages. Monday, May 30, is the date for a potential Game 7. Golden State needs to win Game 6 first.

On Friday, the Cavaliers, as expected, take care of the Raptors behind 33 points and 11 rebounds from LeBron James. With the win, James becomes one of a handful of players in the history of the league to play in six straight NBA Finals. They are through to the NBA Finals, and will meet the winner of the Warriors-Thunder series.

Game 6 of that series takes place the day after the Cavaliers clinch their place in the Finals. And just like the first two games in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are off to a good start, jumping out to a 13-point lead with under five minutes to play in the first half. The highlight of the first half for the Thunder is an Adams dunk on Green, one that is seen as emblematic of revenge for Green’s kick to Adams’ groin in Game 3. The Warriors stage a minor comeback and shave the lead down to five points at the half.

The Warriors come out hot to start the second half, but the Thunder weather the storm and, after a Kevin Durant basket, lead 96-89 with 5:09 to go in regulation. Chesapeake Energy Arena is rocking, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are five minutes away from eliminating the 73-win Warriors and punching their ticket to the NBA Finals.

And then, in a bizarre and stunning turn of events, Durant disappears and Klay Thompson catches fire.

Before Durant’s basket, Thompson had scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. He had been hot all night, and was just one three-pointer shy of breaking the NBA record for most threes made in a playoff game. Thompson breaks that record with his tenth three of the game, a side-winding, 28-foot bomb that brings Golden State back within four points and kick-starts their comeback. Oklahoma City’s offense goes dormant, and a Curry three ties the game with just under three minutes to play. The game is still tied when Thompson drills a pull-up three with a minute and a half to go. The shot puts the Warriors up three, and they are ahead for good. Curry hits a runner with 14 seconds left and the Warriors go on to win, 108-101. Thompson finishes the game with 41 points, 19 of which come in the fourth quarter, and 11 made threes. Curry and Thompson are collectively known as the “Splash Brothers”, and they live up to the mantra in Game 6 with 17 three-pointers between them. The Thunder have blown their opportunity to close out Golden State at home, and the Oracle Arena crowd will see their team on Monday.

In that game, the Thunder again jump out to a double-digit lead late in the second quarter. And just like Game 6, the Warriors close that lead to single digits at the end of the quarter, as a Curry floater brings the lead down to six points at the half. The Warriors come out of the locker room hot, and a Curry three gives the Warriors the lead with 6:24 to go in the third quarter. It would be the final lead change of the game, as the Warriors are able to hold off several Oklahoma City surges to win the game, 96-88. For all of the reports of Curry’s demise, he sure looks like the unanimous MVP tonight; he throws in 36 points and a dagger three with 27 seconds left to push the Warriors to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Thunder were five minutes away from reaching the NBA Finals. Now, they’re eliminated. And in the season of Curry’s greatness, Thompson is the true hero in the Warriors’ conquering the odds and returning to the Finals for a rematch with the Cavaliers. And while he doesn’t yet know it, Klay Thompson, with his fourth-quarter heroics in Game 6, has irreparably changed the future of the NBA, for better or worse.

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