Oklahoma City trailed by 18 points… at home… in a closeout game… against a seasoned, veteran, championship team in San Antonio.
It was both masterful and stunning. The Spurs looked invincible, playing free and loose for the first time since Game Two. The Thunder looked wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the moment and the pressure to finish with an amped up crowd at home.
A team like Oklahoma City always has a puncher’s chance and what the team accomplished Wednesday night to reach the franchise’s fourth first NBA Finals was simply astounding. Never has a team absolutely worked the vaunted Spurs enough to leave Gregg Popovich leaving flowery appreciations on the opponent like this.
San Antonio was good, Oklahoma City was better.
Kevin Durant was just better in helping the Thunder spark a rally in the second half. His impossible double-clutch 3-pointer at the end of the half gave the Thunder tons of momentum heading into the locker room. But from there, this game was not about youthful exuberance. This game was about the quiet poise of a team ready to ascend to the top — and now with the chance to do so.
Oklahoma City looks like a veteran team. And that is a thought that should scare any team hoping to win a title the next decade.
Out with the old small-market, Southwest dynasty, in with the new small-market, Southwest dynasty.
This was a team that grew up together and had to fight and learn together. There were bumps in the road, but their management and their team knew the goal at hand.
Two years ago, the Thunder made the Playoffs for the first time with the Durant-Westbrook nucleus. They pushed the Lakers to six games and learned they had the talent to compete and win championships. They just were not ready yet.
Last year, the Thunder got home court and began to feel like the team of destiny everyone expected them to be. They were not ready yet though. The Mavericks used their experience to make the Thunder unravel a bit. Russell Westbrook seemed to be taking too much control from Kevin Durant, the team’s quiet but killer superstar. The Thunder lost late leads and fell apart at the end of games as the Mavericks went on to the Finals in five games.
Another lesson learned.
This year, Oklahoma City was the favorite to win the West. This team had to deal with the pressure of expectation. Not of potential success but of expected, present success. Not an easy thing to do for a team that has an average age of just north of 23 years old (yes, the average age is a person two or three years out of college, a crazy thought indeed).
In that first game, it looked like the same old problems for the Thunder. A late lead gone and inexperience showing through. But that is when Kevin Durant took over. He set the tone for the postseason with his game-winning floater in Game One over the Mavericks.
Those two teams that taught the Thunder so much? They were gone. The pupils had become the teachers.
Now that they are in the Finals, the doubters will not go away. In fact, they are likely to grow louder and louder with microscope firmly on Oklahoma City now.
Can this team continue to co-exist with a quiet superstar and a seemingly shot-happy point guard? Can this team overcome its inexperience to win a championship? What about its offense — can it create shots when defenses stop them (Oklahoma City was last in the league in assist rate and the only team in the league at worse than 50 percent)? What about defense — can the Thunder keep up the focus on the defensive end of the floor?
These are all valid questions. And they have been adequately answered to this point. The Thunder continue to give no reason to doubt them behind the poised play of Kevin Durant and a defense that has been able to turn it on and get tight when they need to.
That is what happened in Game Six against San Antonio on Wednesday. The Spurs were running roughshod over a Thunder team that looked to be shrinking under the pressure of winning and finishing the series at home. They were tight. But Durant’s masterful play gathered them together. Scott Brooks adjusted and got his team to play with more energy on the defensive end. The offense became a precise machine and got rolling.
From there, the Spurs were playing on their heels. And that is one thing you cannot do against the Thunder. Because they will attack.
This is why the young Thunder are true threats to win the championship. This is not a young team catching fire or a team learning to win. This team is ready, and there appears to be no doubt after Oklahoma City dispatched San Antonio in four straight games after dropping the first two.
There were plenty of times for Oklahoma City to crumble. The Thunder never did.
There is a bad habit among young teams to celebrate reaching the Finals too much. These teams believe they will be back plenty of times and so that silver trophy looks as nice as the gold trophy. Sure, Durant ran into the stands to celebrate with his family before the final buzzer sounded. But there was no crazy dancing, only focused faces. We do not know what effect Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins might be having on that locker room in that regard.
This team knows the final goal though. It does not matter who Oklahoma City faces between Boston and Miami. The Thunder will keep their poise and be ready.