Years from now, Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder may not be remembered as a pivotal turning point in NBA history, but its impact could be felt for years.
After Kevin Durant’s monumental decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, that game is looking more and more like a crucial moment in laying out the current NBA landscape.
Game 6 was supposed to be the Warriors’ funeral and the Thunder’s arrival. The Warriors were trailing the Thunder 3-2 in the series and facing elimination for the second straight game. Despite pulling out an inspired Game 5 win while facing elimination at home, Game 6 was taking place in front of a raucous Oklahoma City crowd, where the Warriors had just been pummelled in Games 3 and 4.
And for much of the game, it looked like the 73-win Warriors wouldn’t even make it back to the Finals. While it was a close game, the Thunder held a slight edge, continuing to stifle the Warriors in the paint while out-working them on offence.
With five minutes to go, after Kevin Durant knocked down a jumper, the Thunder led 96-89. That’s when Klay Thompson — who had been having a monstrous game, single-handedly keeping the Warriors in it with a bevy of difficult, contested three-pointers — nailed a deep three-pointer to quell the Thunder. It marked a strange atmospheric shift in the game.
Those final five minutes saw the entire series reverse course. The Thunder became stagnant and tentative, while the Warriors, playing for their lives, became the aggressors. Andre Iguodala, acting as a one-man defensive Swiss Army Knife, got key stops on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. One strip of Westbrook led to what became the dagger three from Thompson.
Another stop by the Warriors led to a Stephen Curry layup to put the Warriors up five and seal the win.
In those final five minutes, the Thunder went 1-5 from the field with six turnovers. Though it simply evened up the series, they breathed life into the Warriors, much in the same way the Warriors would later breathe life into the Cavaliers with Draymond Green’s suspension.
The Warriors won Game 7 in Oakland, returning to the Finals while breaking Oklahoma City’s collective heart. Three times the Thunder had the chance to put away the Warriors and they couldn’t.
Following Durant’s decision to join the Warriors, ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted that the final five minutes of Game 6 were so crazy that Warriors GM Bob Myers immediately re-watched them just to try and process what happened.
“I never do that,” Myers told Lowe. “I just wanted to see what happened. I didn’t understand it. I still don’t.”
“Golden State’s road win in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, after being down 3-1, will live forever as a comeback that changed the foundation of the league. That game made Thompson an NBA immortal. He saved the Warriors’ season — and ultimately nudged Durant away from Oklahoma City.”
“Those shots are the margin between the Thunder making the Finals and this complete franchise devastation.”
There’s no guarantee that a trip to the Finals would have changed Kevin Durant’s decision, but it’s fair to argue that it may have affected it. It would be difficult to leave a team who just returned to the Finals for the first time since 2011. It would be even tougher to do so if the Thunder had won the Finals.
Had the Thunder won the championship, the ripple effect across the league would be huge. A few things that would have possibly changed:
- Durant re-signs in Oklahoma City, at least for a year.
- The Thunder’s big draft day trade sending Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and No. 11 pick Domantas Sabonis, perhaps doesn’t go through.
- The Warriors, out on the Durant chase, make the difficult decision of pursuing other big-name free agents or re-signing Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli and holding onto Andrew Bogut.
- The Cavaliers, after losing in the Finals for the second straight year, consider ways to improve the team. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said in this year’s Finals that a loss would have huge ramifications.
- LeBron James, currently a hero after delivering Cleveland its first title, has a 2-7 record in the Finals.
- The Thunder sign Al Horford, who reports indicated would have joined Oklahoma City if he had been given assurances that Durant was staying. The Celtics don’t sign Horford as a result.
- The Thunder put to rest questions about Russell Westbrook’s future, at least for the time being, with Durant and Horford in tow.
This doesn’t include the multitude of events that have yet to unfold in the wake of Durant’s decision. For instance, how teams will go about building their rosters to overcome this monster in the bay. The super-team construction is alive and well, and on paper, the NBA looks more top-heavy than ever.
None of these are guarantees — perhaps the Cavaliers would have beaten the Thunder in seven games. Perhaps they would have swept them. Perhaps Durant would have left Oklahoma City even after winning the championship. It’s all unknown.
But collapsing to the Warriors only reinforced the fact that it will never be easy for Durant in Oklahoma City. Failing to close them out three times in a row made room for doubt to creep in. That Game 6 was the Thunder’s best chance to get over the hump and return to the Finals and they couldn’t do it.
That group of Warriors players that tore apart the Thunder as we’ve known them are now Durant’s teammates. Together, they have formed a super-team unlike anything the NBA has ever seen.
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