OKC Is Coming of Age

06.05.2012

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The San Antonio Spurs emerged from their final timeout in the waning seconds of Game 5 on Monday, disillusioned but not yet defeated, looking to Manu Ginobili to deliver another miracle. Ginobili, who had made an ardent return to the starting lineup, had carried the Spurs all evening, making play after play, 3-pointer after 3-pointer, en route to 34 points, six rebounds and seven assists. But, when it mattered most, the Argentine dynamo was unable to deliver any last second heroics– because Oklahoma City wouldn’t let him steal their Thunder at the Alamo.

The Thunder, the youngest and most athletic team in the NBA’s Final Four, were too much for the Spurs at the AT&T Center. Behind the young gun trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder celebrated a 108-103 victory, handing San Antonio its first loss at home since April 11 and its first three-game losing streak all season. Now, the Spurs championship core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili are on the brink of elimination.

KD, the league’s reigning three-time scoring champ –who was praised by Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich as “arguably the best player on the planet”– put on another fourth-quarter clinic in Game 5, hitting circus shot after circus shot to ensure that the Thunder would prevail. He erupted in the second half to score 22 of his 27 points, including willing in a shot from the baseline after botching an alley-oop attempt. Westbrook, who added 23 points and 12 assists, drained a clutch 17-footer to extend OKC’s lead after Ginobili buried a pair of free throws to cut the lead to two. But it was the southpaw Harden, the league’s sixth man of the year, who finished with 20 points, that scored the decisive 3-pointer from the right wing over Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard’s outstretched arm, to end a late San Antonio rally with 28.8 seconds remaining to steal Game 5.

We often put too much emphasis on identifying that singular moment when a team reaches its maximum potential. Last night, that moment of ascension was achieved during the Thunder’s refusal to allow the Spurs to rally back in the fourth. They withstood a valiant effort from Ginobili, contained a reinvigorated Duncan, who finished with 27 points, while stopping the Spurs’ dynamic Frenchman, Parker, from penetrating their defense. The cycle of maturation hasn’t stopped for the Thunder, but they have reached a peak in their progression. A lot can be said about the Thunder making poised plays down the stretch against a team as masterful as San Antonio, but what stood out the most seeing this youthful squad work in unison to achieve their ultimate goal.

Depth was supposed to be San Antonio’s strength, but nine OKC players scored, with Westbrook and Durant combining for 11 assists. The Thunder’s bench outscored the Spurs by 25-13, including an 8-point explosion from guard Daequan Cook. His consecutive threes from the right corner, set up by Westbrook’s penetration, gave the Thunder a 40-33 lead- that they never relinquished.

Once up 2-0 in these Western Conference finals, riding the wave of a league-record 20-game win streak, the Spurs’ Big Three are now one loss from going fishing for the summer. San Antonio beat writer Jeff McDonald reported that the Spurs have never won a series when forced to play a Game 6 on the road. He later tweeted a fiery comment from a frustrated Popovich: “Championship teams win on the road. Oklahoma City just did that,” Pop lamented. “If we can’t do that Wednesday, then we’re not championship caliber.” After remaining unbeaten for 50 days before arriving in OKC, San Antonio has lost three games in five days. Now, the aging Spurs must win two straight to avoid losing the last opportunity of winning a title in the Pop-Duncan era.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, when a best-of-seven NBA playoff series has been tied at two games apiece, the winner of Game 5 has advanced to the next round 83.5 percent of the time. Now headed back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 on Wednesday night, the Thunder will have a chance to become just the 15th team in NBA history to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 2-0. It seems that they’re ready!

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