Thunder ready to be crowned kings of the West

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.

Oklahoma City is the favorite to win the whole thing.

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.