Thunder are one win away from being crowned the new kings of the West.
By ANDREW GILMANFS Southwest
OKLAHOMA CITY— After a Game 5 win over the Spurs, Kevin Durant said he and his
Thunder teammates never felt like they had to wait their turn in the NBA's version of "Game of Thrones."
Maybe Durant's right. There's no hierarchy in the association, at least since Michael Jordan retired and left the many kingdoms of the league to muddle over the aristocracy.
Heading into this season, Dallas was the defending champ, but the 2012 talk was all about LeBron James and the Heat. Later in the season, 20 wins in a row shifted the conversation toward the Spurs.
Not anymore. After a road win Monday, the Thunder are set to play their next biggest game, this one even bigger than the last. They are a win away from their first NBA Finals appearance, against the guys who seemingly always have been in the way for the past decade-plus.
Game 6 against San Antonio will be in arguably the best environment in the league, ripe with a collegiate feel from a crowd that at any other time would be divided between red (Oklahoma) and orange (Oklahoma State). Wednesday, it will be united in Thunder blue, and they'll see something they haven't seen all season.
It might not be the Thunder's turn, but it is Oklahoma City's first game as the new NBA king. The Thunder haven't been in this position before. They've been close, making the Western Conference finals last season and again this year, but never until now had Oklahoma City been the team to beat.
No other way to see it now. The Spurs might have won 20 in a row, but now they have lost three straight, putting the Thunder in position, with just a single home win, to make the Finals, something that might have been talked about but not expected until Monday's road win.
And perhaps, unlike the rest of the teams that have taken their turn at the front, the Thunder may be uniquely equipped to handle the pressure of the position.
Here are two reasons why:
Reason No. 1: No givens
Take a step back, and not that far back. In 2008, when Durant had just a year of experience and Russell Westbrook was a rookie, the two teamed to lose their first two games of the season before winning one, then lost 14 in a row. That team went on to a 3-29 start, fired its coach and named Scott Brooks as the interim coach.
That experience means winning and winning big isn't something that has been granted to the two stars. They know what it's like to be on the business end. Unlike the Heat or the Spurs, the Thunder are new to the being at the top and treat it as a privilege.
On Monday, Durant explained that being in the Western Conference finals was just another opportunity to improve. To get better. Not exactly the kind of thing a spoiled kid would say.
Brooks constantly reminds anyone who will listen that his team is about defense first. Brooks says Durant is great, but still works to get better.
Reason No. 2: Lots of contributors
For the Thunder, the playoffs have been about different people on different nights. It's been about cutting down on turnovers after leading the league in turnovers.
Durant scored 16 in a row in a Game 4 win. In the closing quarter of Game 5 he watched James Harden make the clutch plays. In Games 3 and 4, Westbrook struggled offensively, but Serge Ibaka didn't miss in Game 4 and Kendrick Perkins dominated, but Harden struggled. Then in Game 5, Westbrook rebounded with 23 points and 12 assists.
Lots of options. Lots of opportunity. Yes, Durant has proven to be the best bet. He's a three-time scoring champ and hit game-winners against Dallas twice and the Lakers during this run. He beat the Spurs by himself with a heroic performance in Game 4. But it was Harden who saved the game Monday. It was Thabo Sefolosha who slowed Tony Parker in Game 3.
This isn't a cafeteria. Just because they're the next up doesn't mean they're ready to sit down. These Thunder sure seem to be different from the rest.