Thunder look like NBA’s next big thing

SAN ANTONIO — Pickup basketball is the best
basketball, with king of the court rules prevailing and someone always
hollering about “Who’s got next?”

And for a long time, we applied this thinking to the NBA.

“Who’s got next?” was a question we asked yet thought we already had
an answer to for this season, an answer provided by The Decision and affirmed by
a promise of ” . . . not five, not six, not seven . . .”

The answer was LeBron. Kevin Durant and his young and talented Oklahoma City
teammates were a year away at least. They were not quite ready. It was not
their turn.

“We just never thought we were supposed to wait our turn,” KD said
Monday when presented with this line of thinking. “We always wanted to go
and take everything.”

And this is exactly what the Thunder did in a 108-103 victory against San
Antonio in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, exactly what Durant did,
what James Harden did by banging down a monster victory-sealing 3-pointer, what
all of them did when they did not fold (at least not all the way), when they
took Manu and Pop and San Antonio’s best punch and, though staggered, walked away
with a victory anyway.

Oh, it is on, LeBron.

And depending on how KD plays this out, he could close whatever (if any) gap
exists between you and him in the race for who’s next. My friends and I were
having this very debate early Monday. Was there anything Durant could do in
these playoffs to surpass LeBron as the best player in the game?

I was arguing yes, though not adamantly, based on what I have witnessed for
three rounds in these playoffs. Durant has delivered game-winning shots,
leadership and W’s. My friend defended LeBron, though also not adamantly, on
the theory that hauling around Dwyane Wade is tougher than doing so with
Russell Westbrook. This is infinitely more debatable after Monday. What we all
agreed upon was who was in the conversation — LeBron or KD? Into this debate
jumped Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, entirely accidentally.

“He’s arguably the best player on the planet,” Popovich said of KD.

He barked when asked if this was a vote in KD versus LeBron. And this may have
been a coaching ploy, as Durant humbly submitted when told afterwards of Pop’s
praise. “He’s trying to fire up his team a little bit, as well, to get
underneath me (Monday),” Durant said. But Popovich has been around a long
time and seen countless challengers — Dallas and Dirk, LA and Kobe, and now OKC
and KD. What he sees in Durant is a guy whose time quite possibly has come.

“These guys are hard to guard, talented, hungry and athletic,” he
said. “They’re in the Western Conference finals and they’re a hell of a
basketball team. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

It was Pop who in Game 1 was yelling at his team about how nobody said this was
going to be easy. This has become somewhat of a mantra of these playoffs,
repeated by Erik Spoelstra as recently as Wednesday.

This is not exactly true, though.

LeBron intimated it would be easy when he guaranteed multiple rings.

In fairness, he was not counting on KD and OKC being ready yet. Few of us were.
How do you know when you are ready? Better question: How do you declare it?

You do what Durant did when San Antonio made a run to start the second half.
The Spurs were trailing by eight, done in by their own turnovers and sloppy
play. They are also champions down here in San Antonio and everybody in the
building sensed this was not how they were going out. And they opened with a
run, a Manu Ginobili-fueled push back into Game 5.

It was at this moment that Durant asserted himself.

With the Thunder suddenly down six, Durant drained a 3-pointer, then a driving
lineup. He is why they escaped that run, and the San Antonio runs that
followed. They had the Spurs on the ropes at least four times, done in by Tony
Parker’s erratic play and Tim Duncan’s age and just general lack of ball
safety. 

OKC still has a Westbrook problem. He has stretches of brilliance, and his line
from Game 5 certainly looked tantalizing. He had 23 points and 12 assists. Yet
when the wheels started coming off, Westbrook was the one steering.

He was forcing shots, turning the ball over and very much had Parker in his
head. That they did not break under the weight of Westbrook is a testament to
how unwilling the Thunder are to wait.

In the final moments, with San Antonio having cut what had once been a
double-digit lead to two and the shot clock winding down, Harden recognized the
planned play to Westbrook was not happening. He had to shoot. And into this
moment, he launched a 3-pointer.

It was a playground shot. It was good. It won a game and delivered a message.

This was the Thunder saying, “We’ve got next.” It was a huge road
win, setting up a Game 6 in OKC on Wednesday with a win sending them to the NBA
Finals.

Oh, it’s on, LeBron.

And KD does not believe in waiting his turn. He is coming to take everything.
He’s got next.