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July 13, 2020

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July 13, 2020

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors entered the N.B.A. playoffs having spent months chasing basketball magic. As they overwhelmed a conga line of opponents, the Warriors went about the uncharitable business of obliterating records, each new number more impressive than the last.

Yet the Warriors have remained aware that all their feats would be meaningless without an opportunity to vie for another championship, their victories consigned to the dustbin of near renown, their records reduced to footnotes of almost greatness. They have always wanted the whole package: the wins, the records and the trophy.

Golden State sustained the dream on Monday by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder, 96-88, in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at Oracle Arena. The Warriors, the defending champions, are bound for the N.B.A. finals, where they will face the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight year. Game 1 is here on Thursday.

“You appreciate how tough it is to get back here,” said Stephen Curry, who led the Warriors with 36 points. “That’s the one thing I’ve learned.”

Of all the Warriors’ accomplishments, this one may have been the most impressive. They had to win the final three games of the series to outlast the Thunder, whose miscues — missed shots, turnovers and wasted chances to advance — could haunt the franchise for years to come.

Curry shot 13 of 24 from the field and made seven 3-pointers. Klay Thompson, his companion in the backcourt, added 21 points, including six 3s. The Warriors shot 17 of 37 from the 3-point line. They also set an N.B.A. record for 3-pointers in a seven-game series with 90, and Curry broke the individual record by sinking 32. (Yes, two more records. Big surprise.)

In the series finale, the Warriors trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half before overtaking the Thunder in the third quarter. Golden State conjured its usual brand of basketball sorcery, draining 3-pointers and flying for fast-break dunks.

When the Thunder threatened late in the fourth, whittling the lead to 4 on a short jumper by Kevin Durant, Curry emerged. With the shot clock set to expire, Curry sold Serge Ibaka, his 6-foot-10 defender, on a pump fake and drew a foul as he launched a 3-pointer. Curry made all three free throws.

“That kind of hurt us,” Durant said, adding: “But hey, it’s a lot of what-ifs. We could have said a lot what-ifs throughout the whole playoffs.”

Curry sealed the win with another 3-pointer. As the final buzzer sounded and confetti fell around him, he cradled the ball with his left arm and pumped his right fist.

“I knew we were ready for the moment,” Curry said. “We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise when, six or seven days ago, we were down, 3-1, and everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run. But in that locker room, the talk was positive. It was ‘Let’s figure it out.’ ”

Durant scored 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting for the Thunder, and Russell Westbrook collected 19 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds. Both players supplied huge minutes throughout the series — Durant played 46 minutes in Game 7, Westbrook 45 — and each suffered by the end.

Fair or not, the loss also opened the door to a flood of questions about Durant, who is due for free agency at the start of July. Will he stay or will he go?

“I mean, we just lost, like, 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even though about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season.”

The Warriors survived injuries, the antics of Draymond Green and three elimination games against the Thunder, including one in Oklahoma City. On Saturday, the Warriors erased a double-digit deficit to win Game 6, ensuring Monday’s do-or-die finale.

Kerr made one significant change for Game 7 by starting Andre Iguodala instead of Harrison Barnes. Iguodala, a versatile defender, shed his warm-ups, attached himself to Durant and wound up playing 43 minutes.

“He’s going to need some good treatment tomorrow, for sure,” Curry said.

Early on, the Warriors labored with their shooting. After having scored 41 points in Game 6, Thompson missed his first seven field-goal attempts in Game 7. Even after Thompson found his rhythm, hitting three 3-pointers in a span of less than 2 minutes, the Thunder took a 48-42 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, Curry made consecutive 3-pointers — the first to tie the game, the second to give the Warriors the lead. Later, after Durant bricked a 3-point attempt, the Warriors raced the other way. Shaun Livingston, the team’s backup point guard, absorbed contact as he soared for a dunk, his 3-point play pushing the lead to 6. The Warriors did not trail again.

“It was an emotional play,” Kerr said. “Our bench was into it, and it seemed to pick up our intensity that much more.”

In the finals, the Warriors will reacquaint themselves with the Cavaliers and their old friend LeBron James. Last season, with the Cavaliers hindered by injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Warriors clinched the series in six games. But Love and Irving are healthy, and the Cavaliers have been resting at home since they got past the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals last week.

It was no easy road to the finals for Warriors, who have been stretching themselves since the start of the season. They won their first 24 games to set an N.B.A. record, but their seasonlong pursuit of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best record in N.B.A. history seemed to take an emotional and physical toll.

At the start of playoffs, the Warriors flirted with disaster. Curry sprained his right ankle in the first game of their first-round series with the Houston Rockets, then sprained his right knee three games later. After missing about two weeks, Curry returned to help carry the Warriors past the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.

“I think anytime you go through a long postseason, you grow,” Kerr said. “The experience is incredibly valuable.”

But with their length and shotmaking prowess, the Thunder were a far greater challenge, especially when they dealt the Warriors back-to-back blowout losses in Games 3 and 4. The Thunder could sense the delicious possibilities, one win separating them from the finals. The Warriors’ dream season teetered on the edge.

On the team plane back to Oakland after Game 4, Green sat with Thompson, Curry and Andrew Bogut at a small table. They discussed their predicament.

“We just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do,” Green recalled.

On Monday, the Warriors proved once again that they are more than mere showmen. After a season spent chasing the impossible, they are four wins from making it real.