At the start of the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, TNT’s David Aldridge asked Warriors coach Steve Kerr how his team had wrested the lead from the Thunder. “We started trusting each other. We made a couple threes, but more importantly we started moving the ball,” Kerr said. “I thought [third-string center Anderson] Varejao made a couple of brilliant plays for us.”
Golden State outscored Oklahoma City 29–12 in the third quarter of Game 7. It was the decisive segment of the decisive game of the toughest series that this Warriors team—maybe the greatest of all time—has ever played. Steve Kerr is a great coach and he’s known as an honest guy, but singling out Anderson Varejao for his role in saving the Warriors’ season is like watching a pair of lifeguards rescue a drowning child, then praising the guy who toweled them off. Sure, the Warriors trusted each other. Yes, Varejao did have two assists. But the Warriors won Game 7 and made the NBA Finals for the second straight year because their heroes played heroically.
For the past two years, the Warriors have been praised for winning games at a record pace while “playing the game the right way.” In the moral code of the NBA, the right way means sharing the ball and the wrong way means handing the controls to your star players. The wrong way didn’t work for Oklahoma City in the fourth quarter of Game 6, when the Thunder put up zero collective assists as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook tried and failed to win the game on their own. This was “hero ball” in the most pejorative sense. It did work for Golden State in Game 6, when Klay Thompson made 11 three-pointers. And it worked again for the Warriors in the third quarter of Game 7, when Steph Curry and Thompson made a combined four three-pointers in a three-minute span to turn an eight-point deficit into a three-point lead.
The Warriors’ comeback started with 9:32 to go in the third quarter, when Curry grabbed a rebound off a missed Steven Adams hook shot. Three Oklahoma City players—Adams, Ibaka, and Andre Roberson—surrounded Curry as he dribbled slowly up the court, making sure he couldn’t pop a three-pointer in transition. As Adams dropped back into the paint, Draymond Green came over to set a pick on Roberson, Curry’s primary defender, leaving Ibaka to defend Curry on a switch. Curry shot 886 three-pointers this regular season; the previous record was 678. But this is the magic of Steph Curry: The guy who shoots more threes than anyone, ever, hasn’t yet lost the element of surprise. Curry dribbled behind his back, then hoisted from 28 feet before Ibaka could lift his long arms from below his waist. The shot went in. Thunder 50, Warriors 45.
After Ibaka made a jumper on the other end, Curry passed to Klay Thompson on the wing. Festus Ezeli had set a screen for Thompson, forcing Adams to switch on the perimeter. Thompson took two dribbles, backing up behind the three-point line. Adams kept his right hand in Thompson’s face. There was no element of surprise here. Thompson shot over him anyway, and the ball rattled in. Thunder 52, Warriors 48.
The next time down the floor, Durant made a baseline jumper over Andre Iguodala off one leg while falling away the basket. It was one of the most amazing shots you’ll ever see, but unfortunately for Oklahoma City it counted for only two points. Curry then dribbled up the court, put a sequence of moves on Durant, got into the lane, and hooked a left-handed pass to Iguodala. This was team basketball, to a degree: The NBA’s unanimous MVP drew three players, then passed out to a teammate for a wide-open three. Thunder 54, Warriors 51.
After a Thunder timeout, Adams missed another hook in the lane, and the ball went out of bounds, allegedly off Oklahoma City. Ezeli set a screen for Curry, again leaving Adams to defend one of the Warriors’ guards on the perimeter. Curry hopped sideways to the right—a move he’d been hesitant to deploy as he’d recovered from his knee injury—and shot another three in Adams’ face. Thunder 54, Warriors 54.
Westbrook, trying to end the Warriors’ run, raced to the basket and missed a layup, which Ezeli rebounded. Green scrambled up from his usual position—wrestling on the ground with Adams, in the middle of the paint—in time to set a screen on Roberson at the top of the key. It was a perfect pick: Roberson, who was covering Klay Thompson, smashed into the middle of Green’s torso, leaving him no choice but to reverse course and go under the screen. Roberson couldn’t recover fast enough, and neither could Adams. This time, Thompson missed. A reprieve for the Thunder. It lasted 30 seconds.
On the Oklahoma City end, Durant passed to Ibaka, who found Roberson wide open in the corner. This was great team play, the ball finding the open man. But Golden State left Roberson open because he’s a terrible shooter. It makes sense to play all-for-one, one-for-all basketball if everyone can make an open three. Roberson can’t, he missed, Curry got the rebound, Ezeli set a pick on Westbrook, and you can probably guess what happened to poor Steven Adams. Warriors 57, Thunder 54. (Note to those who criticized Thunder coach Billy Donovan for pulling Adams off the court in the fourth quarter: Watch this sequence again.)
The Warriors scored 15 points on five three-pointers in a three-minute span because Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best shooters in the world, and because Andre Iguodala can knock down an open shot. This was hero ball, and it wasn’t immoral or selfish. It was a great team hewing to the basic grammar of its offense, using very simple actions to put its best players in positions to succeed. In the third quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors showed that hero ball can be team ball, too.