As we learned in grade school, three is greater than two. At a basic level, that's how we can sum up the Golden State Warriors' comeback from 3-1 down to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and advance to the NBA Finals.
We can point to other factors such as the Thunder's poor "hero ball" offense in Game 6 and their disastrous third quarter in Game 7 as reasons for the collapse, but Oklahoma City largely outplayed the defending champs throughout this series. They just lost to simple math.
Kevin Durant agrees with this notion, per ESPN's Royce Young:
"They beat us from the three-point line the last two games. We beat them from everywhere else," Durant said. "That was the series."
As the Thunder bricked their way to 10-of-50 shooting from long range in Games 6 and 7, the Warriors shot a scorching 38-of-82 to gain an 84-point advantage on three-pointers. It was A Song of Ice and Fire on a basketball court, with winter coming at the wrong time for Oklahoma City and Golden State's dragons breathing deadly fire when on the verge of extinction.
Klay Thompson shot 17-of-29 from three over the last two games after shooting below 30 percent in the first five games, including a playoff-record 11 bombs in Game 6. The surge gave him 30 threes in the series, which beat the old playoff record of 28 but was bested by Curry's 32 by the end of Game 7.
It's not like the Thunder suddenly forgot how to defend after doing such a bang-up job earlier in the series. There were a few breakdowns, sure, but this was a case of Thompson catching fire and consistently hitting shots that few are capable of knocking down. In fact, he shot 7-of-9 on threes with "tight" defensive coverage, which is defined by SportVU as the closest defender being two to four feet away.
Here's the most obvious example from Game 6:
For every other player, a standstill, contested 30-footer early in the shot clock is an awful shot attempt. But Thompson isn't a normal player. He calmly sized up Russell Westbrook, spread his legs in a non-shooting motion and buried the long ball right in his eye anyway. That shot deflated the Thunder and helped kick-start the Warriors' comeback that would've been that much more difficult if this shot missed its mark.
Thompson's fellow fire breather, Stephen Curry, made 13-of-26 from long range over the last two games, including 7-of-12 in the deciding Game 7 as part of a tour-de-force, 36-point performance. Curry had struggled mightily in Games 3 and 4 and wasn't quite himself from long range in Game 5, but it was only a matter of time before the three-point mojo returned.
Like Thompson, Curry hit a handful of threes that are downright impossible:
The two-time MVP's shake-and-bake verve was on full display in Game 7. In addition to this Steph-back over Durant, Chef Curry routinely made mincemeat of Oklahoma City's bigs:
Whereas most of Thompson's threes were in catch-and-shoot situations, the majority of Curry's were off the dribble, only adding to the difficulty level. All seven of his Game 7 threes were unassisted, per NBA.com, as were three of his six treys in Game 6. Nine of the threes came after three or more dribbles, and he shot 60 percent on those attempts, per SportVU.
When the Warriors are playing pop-a-shot from three and their opponent is playing the rigged carnival game, it's nearly impossible to beat the defending champs. That makes the Thunder's overall level of play all the more impressive given how close both Games 6 and 7 were.
Oklahoma City put itself in position to win both games by relentlessly attacking the offensive boards and protecting the paint with its length, athleticism and physicality. The Thunder had 30 offensive rebounds combined and got even more extra possessions thanks to hustle that kept the ball on their end of the court. They had a whopping 41-22 advantage in second chance points in Game 7.
Oklahoma City also held Golden State to 30-of-68 shooting in the paint in the final two games. When you factor in mid-range shots, the Warriors managed under 39 percent on two-pointers. The Thunder, meanwhile, made 48 percent of their two-pointers on 38 more attempts, and they also made 15 more free throws.
But all those advantages didn't matter because that math didn't add up. The only advantage that mattered was that three is greater than two. Nobody knows this better than Golden State. We'll see if the three-point-happy Cleveland Cavaliers can better tilt the math in their favor in the Finals.
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