After rough fourth quarters during season, Thunder find late-game swagger in playoffs
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The team that struggled to protect a fourth-quarter lead all season long suddenly has figured out how to stage late comebacks in the postseason - against the toughest teams and in the most hostile environments, no less.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will look to build on their 1-0 lead in the Western Conference finals after rallying down the stretch to hand the defending champion Golden State Warriors their first home loss these playoffs and just their third all season at Oracle Arena.
“Just being able to go in and lock in,” Russell Westbrook said Tuesday. “You’ve got to give credit to our guys just coming in and focusing on the task at hand. We couldn’t have done a better job of that, especially in the playoffs.”
The Thunder won three straight road games against teams that had lost only three times combined at home all season. On Monday night, they did it with a fourth-quarter comeback against the defending NBA champion Warriors, who had won their first six playoff games at Oracle Arena. Game 2 is Wednesday.
Oklahoma City lost 14 games during the regular season when it led going into the fourth. But with Monday night’s 108-102 victory to open the best-of-seven series, the Thunder won their second straight road game when trailing after three quarters. They also came back in the crucial Game 5 in the last round at San Antonio.
“We just find a way to finish the game,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said. “Early in the season when we had a lead into the fourth quarter, we let a lot of games slip away. And I think just coming down in the postseason we’ve just been finding ways just to finish it out. We get up big, just try to keep the lead just to get the win.”
Now, Golden State is embracing the chance to rally from down 1-0.
“Every team that I was on that won a title lost at least a home game during the playoffs, so it happens,” Coach of the Year Steve Kerr said. “There’s a reason we pour champagne on each other when we win. It’s hard, it’s a grind, and this is a great reminder of that.”
This is the first time the Warriors have lost a series opener under Kerr, but last year they had to rally from 2-1 down in both the second round against the Memphis and the NBA Finals facing Cleveland on the way to the franchise’s first title in 40 years - an experience they believe could help them this time.
“I was telling the guys when we look at our championship run, anytime we talk about it, we talk about being down 2-1 to Memphis. Being down 2-1 to Cleveland. We never talk about beating the Pelicans 4-0. We never talk about beating the Rockets 4-1,” Draymond Green said. “You talk about the trying times. So right now is one of those times. We’ve never been down 0-1, so this is foreign territory for us. But at the same time we’ve been in positions where we’ve had to battle back before.”
After leading 60-47 at halftime, the Warriors allowed 38 points in the third quarter and scored only 14 in the fourth. They got outrebounded 52-44, with MVP Stephen Curry’s playoff career-high 10 boards leading the way along with his 26 points and six 3-pointers.
“Long series, we’ll be able to bounce back and get back to who we are,” said Curry, who last week was named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.
Kerr begged for a traveling call against Westbrook with 17.2 seconds left and the Thunder ahead 105-102, but a timeout was given. NBA senior vice president for replay and referee operations Joe Borgia went on NBA TV after the game and said Westbrook did drag his pivot foot.
Going forward, the Warriors want to handle what they can control down the stretch.
First-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan appreciates how his team has responded in crunch time when adjustments are needed. Oklahoma City lost Game 1 to San Antonio in the last round before beating the Spurs 4-2.
“I’ve always said this about these guys, I think as a coach, when you bring things to their attention of areas that we’ve got to get better at, concentrate and try to improve on, they really give a good, concentrated effort to do that,” Donovan said. “We just kept playing, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”