Well, here we are. The Oklahoma City Thunder is about 24 hours away from tipping off for a Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors. That's the same Warriors team that is the defending world champions and broke the regular season record for wins in 2015-16.
If you strip away all other context, that's really not so bad of a place to be in for the Thunder. You could even argue they should be proud to have gotten this far. After all, most experts didn't even have them getting past the second round. They weren't as good as the Spurs or Warriors, they said. Yet, here they are, with a chance to steal a Game 7 on the road and forever etch their names in NBA history.
That's not the narrative you'll hear over the next 24 hours though, and it's especially not the narrative you'll hear if the Warriors take care of business the way they were supposed to all along and send the Thunder home without an NBA Finals appearance. That's the way it goes for the Thunder, it seems.
Sure, we can look at the final four minutes of Game 6, a game that just about everyone predicted the Thunder would win. It was a dismal stretch for a team that spent the previous five games proving they are no longer a team solely reliant on its two superstars. And yet, there they were, with a chance to put the game and the series away, and it was Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking turns forcing the action and unable to hold on.
All of that is fair criticism. Still, think about all of that for a second. The Thunder was favored against the 73-win Warriors, and they basically controlled the first 44 minutes of the game with a chance to end the series in six. It took the greatest performance of Klay Thompson's life, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) defensive efforts of Andre Iguodala's life, and the usual Stephen Curry heroics just for the Warriors to FORCE a Game 7.
The Thunder is right there, knocking on the door of championship glory. They've proven over the past month and a half that they have what it takes, but it takes the same effort, intent, and focus for every minute they are on the floor. We know they can do it, regardless of where Game 7 is being played, we just don't know if they actually will.
The signs coming in don't look great. Then again, the same was said about the Warriors coming into Game 6, and even heading into the 4th quarter. If there's one thing this series has taught us, it's that just when we think one of these teams has their backs against the wall, they find a way to fight back in it.
The Warriors showed that fight the past two games, and that's why everyone is quick to crown them before Game 7 even begins. But let's not forget everyone on the Thunder that has stepped forward in this series and this postseason.
It starts with Billy Donovan, who went from possibly-clueless former college coach to risk-tasking, fearless NBA coach basically overnight. He made a chess move that even the best coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, had no answer for that not only won the series, but kind of laid the smack down in the process. And here he is again, going toe-to-toe with the NBA Coach of the Year, countering with his own version of the Death Lineup, which has added an entirely new wrinkle that keeps the Thunder alive to fight for a Game 7.
Then, it just goes down the list. Andre Roberson has transformed from offensive liability that plays because his defense is pretty good, to a borderline offensive weapon and elite defensive presence. Seriously, after Game 2 when there were questions of whether or not he would even play in this series, how crazy is it that his foul trouble in Game 6 may have been the ultimate nail in the Thunder's coffin?
There's Steven Adams, who has always been endearing to Thunder fans, but has used this postseason to transform into one of the most dominant two-way centers in the NBA. No one has taken more bumps and bruises than Adams this postseason, and yet there he is, bouncing back up, never letting anything keep him down. He's been relentless in guarding everyone from Bogut to Curry, and his presence on the offensive glass has turned countless possessions into points that never had any business being so.
There's Enes Kanter, who swung the Spurs series and even had flashes of brilliance in this series - such as in Game 6 - despite his obvious struggles as a defender. It'd be easy for him to check out, knowing full well he can't hang with the Warriors deadly pick-and-rolls, but he's found a way to have an impact even in his limited minutes and, more than anything, hasn't let things get out of control when he is in there.
There's Dion Waiters, who continues to mature and make the right play, whether it's taking an extra second to let the driving lane develop (rather than settling for the stepback), to finding the right seams to set up teammates, to hitting the spot-up 3 that is so often there because Russ and KD garner so much attention.
That's before you even get into his defense, which has been better than anyone could have predicted. He's handled Shaun Livingston in the post, which is just about impossible, and has had no fear covering Thompson and Curry and made them earn everything they've gotten. Re-watch those 3s they were making in the 4th quarter of Game 6. Some were open, sure, but even more were contested shots that just went in because they are brilliant shooters, to no fault of Waiters.
There's Ibaka, who was missing in action basically until Game 3 of this series. Sure, he shot fine in the first two series, but he's been reinvigorated, no longer content to just hang out on the perimeter, but working inside to tip rebounds and earn second-chance points. He's been the 3rd member of the Big Three since the beginning, and it was looking like that was in jeopardy of slipping away. But he's returned, and you see it even in his leadership skills.
In Game 5, when the Thunder was struggling to come back in the fourth quarter, it was Ibaka that hit two 3-pointers to keep the scoring going, and it was Ibaka that was in his teammates faces, clapping, refusing to let them give in.
Lastly, of course, you have Westbrook and Durant. They've had their ups and downs, and Durant was as bad as he's ever been in Game 6. Again, it's easy to look at the final four minutes and say they don't trust their teammates and they cost them the game. It's silly to do that, though.
No one said a word when Durant took essentially the same shots in Game 4 against the Spurs. That's because he buried them time and again, and single handedly saved the season and, quite possibly, the franchise. Is it still "hero ball" if it goes in?
No one said anything when Westbrook essentially did the same in Game 5 against the Spurs, hitting tough pull-up after tough pull-up. That's his game, and sometimes it doesn't work. When it does, though, we tend to overlook it.
All of this is to say that this team is right there. They may have let their best opportunity slip away in Game 6, but that doesn't mean they don't still have another opportunity staring them right in the face. One thing is for sure, if you think Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are going to be scared of a Game 7 on the road, you don't know Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
This entire team has grown into the team we all knew they could be over the past month and a half. Even though they reverted to their old habits down the stretch in Game 6, they're still alive with a chance to shock the world in Game 7. Before the series started, I don't think anyone would have held that against them.
Here we are, and as complicated as we may want to make it with all of these narratives and opinions, it's as simple as Westbrook put it after Game 6: Win or go home.