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How the Thunder humbled the mighty Warriors

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The Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals, but not before the Thunder gave them the biggest postseason challenge they've faced. Despite making a historic comeback from down 3-1 in the series, the Warriors first looked inferior to their competition for the first time this season.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was never supposed to be this difficult.

Or at least not to the point of staring the end of it all right in the face.

All season long, hell, even for the past two seasons, the Golden State Warriors had fielded all challenges and brushed them aside with the ease of a Stephen Curry step-back. And all of a sudden, that wrist shot not only failed, but the rest of the Golden State Warriors fell back once, and again, repeatedly, until the entire Oklahoma City Thunder team seemed to be on the brink of vanquishing them whole. It was always going to be Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook but as the series shifted, it became Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Roberson, and even Dion Waiters.

We likely didn't expect Draymond Green to lose composure and poise repeatedly or to that extent while getting outplayed by Steven Adams on the boards and Kevin Durant on the perimeter. We probably didn't expect the bench to be unable to buy even a single minute when it mattered. Maybe we expected Andrew Bogut to vanish again, but not to the point where it left the team seemingly without answers.

Be it Stephen Curry's knee, ankle, or his opponents' athleticism, the head of the snake was unable to take over entire halves and games the way he has done so often in the postseason — or even three months ago in OKC — and the Warriors found themselves staring at defeat with most of their answers rendered ineffective.

A regular season that featured 73 wins, a unanimous MVP, numerous records broken, and an aura that became unmistakably arrogant the more they won, the Golden State Warriors suffered a humbling for the ages even in victory. Much like the season itself, everything the Warriors battled and dealt with came at the highest of levels.

Their opponents treated their regular season games like the NBA Finals. Steve Kerr battled a back injury that wasn't just potentially season-ending but life-altering as well. When something happened with the Golden State Warriors, it happened at a level that made the rest of the league seem tiny and unimportant as a whole. The Spurs won nearly as many games but mattered as much as the JV high school team. When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to a team at home in the regular season, nobody wrote more than two panicked sentences. When the Golden State Warriors lost at home to the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves at home in a span of a couple weeks, it was a referendum on their entire playing style and one that altered the landscape of basketball for the foreseeable future.

The Golden State Warriors have mattered in a way that teams had not in a long, long time. So when they lost Game 1 at home, It shocked the basketball landscape that only cared about how long it would take the Warriors to win the title and what it meant to LeBron James' legacy. When they discovered at least a part of their confidence and cockiness, it led to the belief that three more wins would come in the nonchalant and showy aura that had defined this team for the past two years.

But when the series moved to Oklahoma City, that identity wasn't so much lost as lapsed for nearly lethal lengths of time.

For two games at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Warriors played shaken, scared, and unable to weather storms that smashed them from all angles. They didn't believe that Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters could beat them. They didn't believe that they needed to stretch their starters any longer than at any time in the regular season. They didn't believe that the Thunder would simply impose physical will underneath.

Most shockingly, the Warriors, and the rest of the universe, simply did not believe the Death Lineup would lose their matchup but get completely annihilated when it did happen. And over and over again, lineups with Draymond Green at center — used sparingly to blow by teams and clean up the mess that was in its wake — failed repeatedly against Durant, Westbrook, and the length and power of Andre Roberson, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams. Not once, not twice, but really for the majority of the series, the Warriors greatest counter, its final adjustment, its coup de grace, came up shockingly short.

The Golden State Warriors slipped back to the historical errors and pains that tortured this fan base for years, even as the team ascended to legendary status — making unforced mistakes, dropping passes, taking ill-advised shots, committing unwarranted defensive fouls, and the worst timing of errors when they tried to claw their way back into the game.

These were the Warriors that caused so much heartbreak over the past 20 years, suddenly morphed into the Warriors of 2016 at the worst possible moment for a team that held so much regard in the conversation in the greatest of all time.

Games 3 and 4 ushered in a jarring turn of events that was almost confusing — the Warriors unraveled, collapsed, and were unknown to us. In Game 6, with their backs against the proverbial wall and fighting for historical acknowledgement, fought against the tide in the only way they knew how: with each and every conviction they had.

So fittingly, with 5:48 remaining in Game 6, the Warriors turned small, turned to their greatest possible counter. They responded to everyone who has doubted them despite their achievements to turn in an instant classic after the Thunder had all but erased the memory of Curry's regular season heroics in OKC.

Inevitability returned in time for Game 7, which will go down as yet another historic feat albeit one that pushed them to the limit of their capabilities.

When the stories of these great Warriors are told again, perhaps this will be missed: the 2016 Western Conference Finals became The Humbling of Arrogant Season, which might be exactly the type of adversity this team needed to overcome to defend the title they still hold.