ORLANDO- An exclamation mark on a hard fought series, Stephen Curry drained a wide open three to send Oracle Arena into a frenzy. The bucket extended the Warriors’ lead to 10 with 26.8 seconds left, all but sealing Game 7 and a trip to the NBA Finals for Golden State.
The last time the Oklahoma City Thunder played in a Game 7, the franchise had reached a crossroads.
Kevin Durant was in the final year of his contract and was the envy of the entire league.
Billy Donovan was a first year coach, trying to earn the respect of his peers in his maiden season in the NBA.
The underdog Thunder pushed the Warriors to the brink, finishing just a game shy of their second NBA Finals berth.
Tomorrow, Oklahoma City has another Game 7 ahead of them. While the stakes are much lower, the franchise could once again find itself at a crossroads this offseason.
Last summer the Thunder were thought to have hit the reset button. Russell Westbrook was dealt to the Houston Rockets for an aging Chris Paul and draft picks, and it was unclear if Paul would ever don a Thunder jersey.
Paul George was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers for a king’s ransom, netting more picks, experienced scorer Danilo Gallinari, and highly touted guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fresh off a promising rookie campaign.
While Gilgeous-Alexander looks the part of a building block going forward after leading the team with 19 points per game this year, the futures of Gallinari, Paul and even Steven Adams or Dennis Schroder are unknown.
All parties could return next year and try and build on a season which caught the NBA off guard. They could also all be sent in opposite directions, truly marking the start of a Thunder rebuild.
But tomorrow, none of that matters. Tomorrow, Sam Presti’s rag-tag group has just one goal.
Survive and advance.
Oklahoma City will enter the decisive contest riding a wave of momentum following an emotional 104-100 victory in Game 6. Once again, Paul’s late game heroics pushed the Thunder to a tight win down the stretch.
“This is who we are,” Paul said last night after the game. “We’re built for stuff like this.”
“A lot of guys on our team have been pushed out, traded or whatnot but we just stick together and we keep fighting,” he said.
This time around, the Thunder will rely on contributions from multiple first and second year players to get them over the hump.
Gallinari, Paul and Adams are the only three players in the Thunder’s main rotation who have experience in a Game 7. Adams is the only holdover from the franchise’s 2016 matchup against Golden State.
Attention to detail is the main thing Gallinari said he would be stressing to the young guys heading into tomorrow’s game.
“I think the way you approach is just like another playoff game,” Gallinari said. “We need to take the positive stuff we did in the last game, especially the approach and attention to details, for 48 minutes.”
Donovan downplayed the significance of tomorrow’s matchup with the Rockets, noting the Thunder have already survived elimination.
“Our Game 7was yesterday too,” Donovan said. “Game seven comes down to an elimination game, and we were in an elimination game yesterday.”
“It was great to see the way our guys competed, you know, we’re going to need to compete like that again.”
Turnovers were an area Donovan highlighted specifically.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” he said. “We had some careless ones that I think we can clean up and we’ll need to clean up.”
If the Thunder can take care of the basketball and the game is close down the stretch, Oklahoma City will like their chances to come out on top.
After performing the best in clutch time (during the last five minutes of a game where the point differential is five points or less) this season, the Thunder are 2-0 in games decided by fewer than five points. Oklahoma City’s additional win in the series also came in overtime.
“Our team, man. When it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people are built for it,” Paul said. “We just gonna keep hoopin’.”
The Los Angeles Lakers await the series winner, and will know their opponents after the game tips off at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.
Four years removed from the Thunder’s future changing in Oracle Arena against the Warriors, Oklahoma City can once again push forward and win their first playoff matchup since 2016.
It’s going to look a lot different. Neither Durant nor Golden State even made the trip to the NBA bubble. Westbrook and Paul will be trying to eliminate their former teams.
Paul insists there is no added pleasure considering a win tomorrow would eliminate his former team, he’s just happy to be in a position to compete in a decisive Game 7. Once the ball is tossed for the opening tip, none of the outside noise will matter.
“Ain’t nothing like it no matter who it’s against,” he said.
“I just want my guys to know that we gave ourselves a chance.”