As you know by now, the Oklahoma City Thunder will take on the Golden State Warriors on Monday night in a sudden-death matchup to determine who will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
The contest itself carries unprecedented levels of hype for a non-NBA Finals game -- not just because of the intense, biblical nature of this series, but the era-defining narratives at stake for the teams, players and coaches involved.
For the Thunder
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Monday night is an opportunity to prove, once and for all, that they can seal the deal when it matters most.
Since falling to LeBron's Heat in the 2012 Finals and trading James Harden to Houston that summer, Oklahoma City has always seemed to be "one piece away." Whether you think the franchise successfully obtained this "piece" between 2012 and today is a separate conversation. However, the fact remains that the Thunder have not returned to the NBA championship series since their 2012 defeat despite the evolution of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into perennial superstars.
Ravaged by debilitating season-ending injuries to key players during the past three seasons, the Thunder have recovered and resurrected into a powerhouse -- featuring two of the five best basketball players in the world -- which makes what they did this regular season all the more confusing:
What you're looking at are 13 games this regular season where the Thunder led after three quarters and ultimately ended up losing. It didn't matter if OKC was up by 35. The sentiment around Chesapeake Energy Arena this regular season was that no lead is safe.
Why the Thunder aren't contenders in one graphic. That's nauseating. pic.twitter.com/XQ6njDyiL7— Josh Eberley (@JoshEberley) April 3, 2016
Fast-forward to the playoffs, and the Thunder are a completely different team -- not only coming back from fourth-quarter deficits but consistently expanding late advantages. That was true until Saturday night, when the proverbial monkey latched itself onto OKC's back once again under the lights of Game 6.
Want to cleanse yourselves of this narrative and all of the "Choklahoma" and "Oklahoma City Blunder" nicknames the media has assigned you for the rest of the decade? Go win Game 7.
Does Durant want to shed the comparisons to Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley as the best basketball player of his generation to never win a title? Go win Game 7.
Do you want a little re-assurance that Westbrook and Durant are going to re-sign after their contracts expire (this summer for Durant, next summer for Westbrook)? Go win Game 7.
For the Warriors
A chance at basketball immortality is at stake.
After a 2015-16 campaign where it's easier to find records that Golden State didn't break rather than ones they did, the one test the Warriors never truly faced until this 2016 Western Conference finals was adversity.
You want to say the Warriors got "lucky" last year facing a bunch of injury-riddled teams en route to the championship? Then the answer is no, Steph Curry missing a couple games against the lifeless, underachieving Houston Rockets and "how the hell are they here?" Portland Trail Blazers does not qualify as "adversity."
What does qualify is a 3-1 series deficit against a team that uses its superior physicality and athleticism to dominate every aspect of the game against every opponent it's faced this season. Whether Curry is currently "70 percent" or not does not matter -- something hurts inside of every player at this point in the season -- but the fact that his team has come out on top two games in a row with its all-world point guard performing at a less-than-mediocre level (for his standards) is what this Golden State team will be remembered for.
Not the 2015 title.
Not the 73-win season.
Not the record-shattering shooting numbers.
But the seven-point deficit the Warriors overcame in Game 6, with less than five minutes left on the clock, in one of the most hostile sports atmospheres you will ever see.
We've seen amazing comebacks before, but with Golden State it's the way they come back, launching shots that shouldn't even be attempted in NBA Jam. It's the way they are re-defining how to successfully play basketball.
Yes, they will not only need to take Game 7 but also win a second straight Finals against a worthy Cleveland Cavaliers foe to cement this hypothesis and everything they've accomplished these past two seasons. However, if Golden State does, we will not only be talking about this team setting the bar of originality and perseverance for the remainder of this era in the NBA, but also how the Warriors stamped an unparalleled legacy on the report card of professional sports' greatest teams.
Game 7 isn't just a basketball game; the future of the league is on the line. While it's near impossible to predict who will come out on top, one thing is for certain: If the Thunder are not the perfect storm they've been this entire postseason, the Warriors will be the ones who make it reign.