The Western Conference finals and NBA Finals produced a series-deciding seventh game. Strip away all other what-ifs and what-could-have-beens: If the Thunder advanced to the Finals or the Warriors won their second consecutive title, the odds of Kevin Durant leaving for Golden State diminish considerably.
Here are a handful of pivotal plays in the final two minutes of each Game 7 that played a part in Durant’s decision.
Game 7 of the Western Conference finals: Serge Ibaka’s foul
Time remaining: 1 minute 18 seconds
Score after play: 93-86
After the Thunder led through the first two quarters, Golden State erupted for 29 points in the third quarter to take back the lead in Oracle Arena.
However, what appeared to be the series’ knockout blow was tempered by a late Oklahoma City surge. A seven-point Durant scoring run cut the deficit to four with 1:40 remaining. However, that was the closest the Thunder would get; Ibaka fouled Steph Curry while he was in the act of shooting an off-balance three-pointer. Curry, who shot a league-leading 90.8 percent from the stripe during the regular season, buried the subsequent free throws, pushing the lead to seven.
Curry’s free throws improved Golden State’s win probability to 98.6 percent, according to Inpredictable. The Warriors outscored the Thunder 6-2 the rest of the way to win the series, and Ibaka was promptly traded to Orlando.
The Oklahoma City trio of Russell Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka played together for seven seasons, which made novice mistakes, like Ibaka’s, all the more irritating for Durant to digest. Injuries crippled the Thunder’s postseason chances in recent years, but this was another moment where Durant realized that even a team at full strength, captained by veterans, couldn’t shed mental mistakes.
Game 7 of the 2016 Western conference finals: Durant’s missed three-pointer
Time remaining: 44 seconds
Score after play: 93-86
Down by seven with 44 seconds remaining, Durant opted to hoist a 26-foot three-pointer with two hands in his face.
He unquestionably had the hot hand for Coach Billy Donovan in Game 7, scoring a team-high 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting (52.6 percent), but couldn’t find the bottom of the net on the desperation heave. An ill-advised shot in the waning moments of a game nearly out of reach proved decisive for the Thunder. When Durant’s shot went begging, so too did his team’s chances.
An ill-advised shot in the waning moments of a game nearly out of reach proved decisive for the Thunder. When Durant’s shot went begging, so too did his team’s chances.
Yes, the shot was inadvisable, but Durant also was unable to get a decent screen set to take the shot. With the Warriors, a team as deft as any at intelligent screening, Durant won’t have to hoist shots over two defenders. Golden State scored 1,139 points off screens during the regular season, 411 more than any other squad, and did it on a proficient 1.06 points per possession.
Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals: LeBron James’s block
Time remaining: 1 minute 50 seconds
Score after play: 89-89
Arguably this postseason’s greatest highlight — and the one that will live on for decades to come — was James’s gravity-defying block of Andre Iguodala. With less than two minutes remaining, the game knotted at 89 apiece, Iguodala grabbed a defensive rebound and sprinted up the court. Curry delivered a pocket pass to Iguodala, who, in full sprint, double-clutched to get around J.R. Smith, who was positioned in front of the rim. What would’ve been a go-ahead layup was turned away by a soaring James, who pinned the ball against the backboard with his left hand like he was squashing a fly on a desk.
As James put it to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin: “Iguodala is a bad m—–f—– I had to go chase it down.”
If this was Durant, and not Iguodala, we wouldn’t have seen a double-clutch move; that much is certain. Not only was Iguodala’s blocked layup a sign of what Durant — a 7-footer with a seven-foot wingspan — could bring to the fold, it was another reminder that he could test his skills against James, who has long been considered his rival. Durant watched James produce another moment tailor-made for the record books without a chance to produce his own. James has been to the NBA Finals in six consecutive seasons; there’ll be a good chance he’ll be there if Durant and the Warriors reach the Finals for the third straight year.
Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals: Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead three-pointer
Time remaining: 53 seconds
Score after play: 92-89
The Block gave way to nearly a full minute of scoreless basketball. Irving broke the tie with an off-balance 25-foot three-pointer from the wing, putting the Cavaliers up three with 53 seconds remaining.
In a quintessential example of isolation basketball, Irving held the ball at the top of the key with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock, navigated his way around a Smith screen, which switched Curry onto Irving and Klay Thompson onto Smith. Irving dropped an in-and-out series of between-the-leg crossovers, sidestepped Curry and hoisted a fadeaway triple from the right wing with five seconds remaining on the shot clock.
The shot, according to Inpredictable, dropped Golden State’s win probability to 14.1 percent.
Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals: Kevin Love’s defense on Curry
Time remaining: 31 seconds
Score after play: 92-89
Draymond Green set a hard screen on Irving a few feet beyond the perimeter. What Golden State wanted was predictable: a chance to switch Love (a tepid defender) onto Curry (one of the deadliest men on the planet with the ball in his hands). Golden State got the switch, Curry got Love to bite on a behind-the-back crossover, and seemed destined to take it to the rack. Instead, Curry opted to try a step-back, hoping to find an open game-tying look from the perimeter.
Love didn’t bite, staying on his hip throughout the possession.
“I was searching for a three and rushed and didn’t take what was there, which was probably better to go around him and try to get into the paint,” Curry said after the loss.
Curry tossed an entry pass in to Iguodala, which was subsequently tossed back to him at the top of the key. A series of feints and counter-feints by Curry produced little breathing room, and Curry lofted a prayer at the end of the shot clock from 26 feet that struck the rim but didn’t go down.
For a moment — the biggest moment of the finals for Love — a man routinely ridiculed for his sieve-like defense exorcised his demons, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
Harrison Barnes, whom Durant is essentially replacing in Golden State’s schemes, struggled mightily in the Finals and was borderline comatose on this possession. He didn’t help Curry with a screen, and didn’t make the shots he was given. When Curry put up the shot, he was idling the inbounds line. Curry was forced to take a circus shot in crunch time; a feeling Durant knows all too well. With Durant replacing Barnes, this shot and this possession probably doesn’t occur.