The 2015-16 NBA season was a good one for Oklahoma City Thunder fans. With first year NBA coach Billy Donovan at the helm, the Thunder finished the regular season with 55 wins and 27 losses, placing them third in the Western Conference. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Thunder muscled their way past two aging but solid Texas teams: the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs. In best of seven contests, the Thunder beat the Mavericks in five games and San Antonio in six to make their way to the Western Conference Finals to face the Golden State Warriors.
The Golden State Warriors finished the 2015-16 regular season 73-9, besting the previous record held by Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and claiming the best NBA regular season record of all time. The Warriors shattered the previous best undefeated streak of 15 wins by going 24-0 in the beginning of the season. Golden State shattered dozens of records this season, mostly in part to the “Splash Brothers,” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry made 402 3-pointers in the regular season, smashing the previous season record of 286 (he held it). Thompson made 276 three-pointers (the second most in the league) and won the three-point contest held during the All-Star Weekend. This season Curry tied the record for the most three-pointers made in a single game (12) while Thompson broke the record for the most made in a playoff game (11).
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder surprised sports fans by going up on the Warriors three games to one. When presented with the odds of coming back from being down 1 games to 3 in the conference finals, Warriors coach Steve Kerr replied, “I don’t think most of those teams were the defending champions.” He was right. Over the next three games, the Thunder imploded spectacularly on the world’s biggest basketball stage, losing three games in a row to end their season and send the defending champs back to the finals.
Believe it or not, the biggest implosion of the finals was yet to come.
Not so quietly in the east, a legacy was brewing. In the summer of 2010, during a news broadcast so infamous it has its own Wikipedia entry, LeBron James left Cleveland and signed with the Miami Heat. While Cleveland fans were busy burning his jerseys, James won two titles with Miami before returning to Cleveland out of either remorse or obligation. James promised Cleveland fans a championship. “Get on my back,” he said, “and I will carry you.”
The Splash Brothers made early work of the Cavaliers, putting them in the same 1-3 position they themselves had been in against the Thunder. And then… Cleveland — and specifically, LeBron James — came to life.
Winning NBA teams have deep rosters these days. The days of winning a championship with only one superstar are over. Now, it takes two or three to get deep in the playoffs. Golden State’s bench is particularly deep with multiple guys they can count on to score, but one they didn’t count on was LeBron James and his promise to his city and the country.
The 2015-16 finals were strange in regards to fouls. At times it seems almost nothing was called; at others, the slightest grabs made by superstars were whistled. At the end of game six, Curry got so frustrated after fouling out that he threw his mouthpiece and hit a fan, which got him ejected (after he had already fouled out — the first time I can remember that happening). When the three-pointers were dropping, Curry and Thompson looked (to quote the Beastie Boys) “as cool as cucumbers in a bowl of hot sauce.” When they weren’t, the two pouted on the bench, unsure of what to do next.
No team has ever come back from a 1-3 game deficit in the NBA finals… until last night. With the game tied with less than a minute to do, a three-point shot by Kyrie Irving combined with a single free throw point by James put the Cavaliers up by 4 points. The Splash Brothers were helpless to come back, making only six three-pointers combined, tying Draymond Green’s own six from downtown.
As the buzzer sounded the end of the game and LeBron hit the floor crying, it was the shot of Curry sulking on the bench that told the story. After avoiding elimination three times in the Oklahoma City match-up, the Golden State Warriors — a team that broke records by raining down three-pointers and beating every other team in the league at least once during the regular season — couldn’t get it done.
The story this morning is the spectacular demise of Golden State. Soon, it will be the legacy of LeBron James, and how one man was able to lead a team into victory.
In ten days, the story for Oklahoma City Thunder fans will quickly become “is Kevin Durant staying in Oklahoma City?” We’ll find out around the time all the confetti has settled in Cleveland.