OAKLAND — In the end, it wasn't about one team's stars being better. Or its coach being smarter. Or its bench being deeper. Or even its home-court advantage being greater. Add up all the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder's physical components and it remains debatable who has the more robust plus column.
No, the Warriors are going back to the NBA Finals because of the connection between all those components, an airtight bond forged by the fiery cauldron endured a year ago at this time. They didn't complete their climb out of a 3-1 deficit by winning Game 7, 96-88, Monday night at Oracle Arena because they played their best. Far from it. They won because of one simple concept they have a slightly deeper supply of than OKC:
The invisible web between coach Steve Kerr, his nucleus of stars—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—a bench brigade usually led by Andre Iguodala and an arena full of exuberant fans masquerading as Minions proved to be more indivisible than that of the Thunder.
Considering how new some of the pieces the Thunder have are, it's a credit to them that they've developed their own healthy bond in such a short time. It's little consolation now, no doubt, but the trust Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook showed in Steven Adams, playing in only his second postseason and first as a starter, was a big reason the Thunder pushed the Warriors to the limit. The willingness of rookie NBA coach Billy Donovan to change strategy from game to game and series to series reflected an immense trust not only in his team's ability to adjust on the fly but in his plan.
Ultimately, though, Donovan didn't trust his bench enough to go beyond Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter in Game 7. He also didn't trust his third-best player, Adams, to play him more than 26 minutes with everything on the line. And Andre Roberson didn't trust his three-point shooting enough after an 0-of-4 start to take an open fifth attempt Monday night. On such small variances are Game 7s decided.
Green, meanwhile, trusted his long-distance stroke after four misses to start, burying his fifth to give the Warriors their first double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Curry and Thompson trusted each other to alternately provide points from deep all night long. Why? Because they did so successfully a year ago to win it all, an element no other team in the league can boast right now.
Kerr even trusted Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa to protect a six-point lead for a two-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter, a crucial breather with Curry, Green, Iguodala and Thompson on their way to 40-plus minute nights. Both had played sparingly in the series, neither had scored in their last two appearances. They didn't just protect the lead—they expanded it. In two minutes on the court, Varejao gathered a basket and a pair of assists, and Barbosa added one of his patented floaters, helping push the difference to 11 by the end of the period and bringing the Oracle crowd to full boil.
This series proved to be another learning adventure for the Warriors as well, one that can only add to their reserve of self-knowledge as they start their rematch Thursday with the Cleveland Cavaliers, another team whose bond has deepened almost as dramatically as the Thunder's in recent weeks.
The Warriors forfeited home-court advantage against OKC by carelessly closing Game 1, seeming to think a couple of hastily fired threes would take care of business in the final minutes. Instead, they found those drifting-out-of-bounds or barely-across-half-court heaves not falling.
Their struggles—losing Game 1 at home and then Games 3 and 4 by a combined 52 points in OKC—suggested they perhaps had begun to see themselves in the likeness of the 72-win Bulls, having broken their regular-season mark with 73. And maybe, just maybe, they began to see Curry and his unanimous selection as MVP as somehow meaning he could dominate in the same fashion as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The word “dynasty” and “all-time greats” were being thrown around, despite the fact they had exactly one title to their name and are as unconventional a championship team as you could find.
What they forgot is that their greatest strength is not their individual greatness but how they blend together: Green's pick-and-roll defense covering for Curry's deficiencies, Curry and Thompson's otherworldly shooting making up for a lack of pure blow-by ability, the uniform tenacity of Iguodala and Harrison Barnes and Thompson and Green allowing them to focus on the KDs and Westbrooks—and now the LeBrons and Kyrie Irvings—for short bursts rather than extending a select few past the point of effectiveness. True, at a basic level, Thompson and Curry deliver the most dramatic buckets and Green is the primary glass cleaner and paint protector, but the Warriors truly hit their stride when everyone is chipping in timely baskets and chasing down rebounds and making the extra pass.
The Cavaliers are not quite like that. They rely on their Big Three—LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love—more heavily to score and their Big One—LeBron—to make plays, but the workload is more evenly distributed than it was a year ago in the Finals. Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, neither of whom were on last year's roster, have provided depth and long-range shooting and increased overall poise. J.R. Smith was on the roster last year but only half of the two-way player we see now.
LeBron, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson made the long trek together and are back, the latter two in roles more appropriate than the outsized ones they were forced to take last June. Bringing it all together is Tyronn Lue, head coach since January yet more trusted than his predecessor, David Blatt, ever was during his one-plus seasons in command.
The question is simply a matter of time. The Warriors' cohesion has developed over a greater span of it, stood the longer test of it. Perhaps that is to blame for their surprising lapses of late in concentration and execution—they're simply worn down from taking everyone's best shot all season long and not having a Jordan or James who can carry the load all by himself, regardless of the opponent. That is both the strength and potential flaw of what the Warriors are—greater than the sum of their parts but only when those parts fit seamlessly together. The Thunder showed how vulnerable the Warriors can be when they don't, just as the Warriors showed how resilient they can be because no one player wholly dictates their success. Limit Curry and Thompson can go off; keep Green out of the action and Andrew Bogut can rise up for a double-double.
Will the formula work a second time against the Cavs? Will the synchronicity that Kerr and his stars and his bench and the Oracle faithful have be enough to thwart the unstoppable force James can become when a long-sought goal is within reach? Or will James find that balance with his teammates to an nth degree more than Durant and Westbrook found with theirs?
If the Warriors' trust in each other is deeper today than a week ago—and how could it not be, as the 10th team to recover from a 3-1 hole—they have the Thunder to thank. And if the Cavs ultimately find their willingness to sacrifice for each other wanting, they will have the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors to blame. Sometimes it's not what a team can do; it's what a team is made to do that is the difference.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.