A Changing of the Guard

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s run through the 2012 NBA Playoffs has been nothing short of miraculous.  Gregg Popovich alluded to it in his post-game interview, following the Thunder’s thrilling game six come from behind victory which advanced them to the NBA Finals.  To get there, OKC had to get through the Dallas Mavericks, defending NBA champs; the Los Angeles Lakers, winners of five out of the last 13 NBA titles; and the San Antonio Spurs, winners of four out of the last 13 NBA titles. What’s more, is that whether they face the Celtics or the Heat in the NBA Finals, they will have played 11 out of the last thirteen NBA champions during their playoff run.  Could it be destiny for the Thunder?

Taking the League by Storm

The Thunder are one of the most talented teams in the league, that much is certain.  Talent is only part of the equation, however.  Experience, savvy, heart, teamwork and desire make up the rest and it was unclear whether the Thunder had what it took to make it to the Finals.  Winning an opening round game is easy when you have talent.  Winning in the second round takes experience and savvy.  Winning in the conference finals takes heart, teamwork and desire; and it was these three qualities that manifested themselves in this Thunder team.

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The True Character Test

The Spurs looked like they were unstoppable, winners of 20 in a row, including dominating performances in San Antonio to kick off the Western Conference Finals and take a 2-0 lead.  Most teams would lie down and die, maybe put up enough of a fight to win 1 and stave off elimination for one more day – not the Thunder.  They came roaring back, a near perfect personification of their team name and took care of business at home.  When you’re the lower seed, like the Thunder, championships aren’t won strictly at home.  It is essential that your team win on the road, and game 5 was the pivotal point in the series.  The Thunder’s mettle was tested early on, but their heart, teamwork and desire took over, producing a win on the road and an unthinkable 3-2 advantage in the series.  All that was left was to close it out at home.

Overcoming Adversity

Despite their recent dominance, the Thunder knew that they couldn’t take the Spurs lightly.  Sure they had the Spurs facing elimination for the first time during the 2012 playoffs, but San Antonio had been there before – a closeout game with the NBA Finals on the line was uncharted territory for OKC.  It became immediately clear that the Spurs were not going to make it easy for the Thunder to close out the series in front of their home crowd. At one point, San Antonio held an 18 point lead over Oklahoma City in the first half, thanks to hot shooting and solid defense.  The Spurs had an answer for every Thunder run – until the second half.  It was do or die for the Thunder, despite holding an advantage in the series, they knew that if they were faced with a game 7 in San Antonio, it would be an insanely tough test.  So they got back to their roots and played some defense.  They held San Antonio in check, while their leader and 2012 NBA scoring champion started heating up.  By early in the fourth quarter, the one-time 18 point lead by the Spurs had turned into a 1 point advantage for the Thunder.  And from then it was over. San Antonio went into desperation mode, forcing shots and rushing their game plan.  The comeback was capped off by an assist from Durant to Perkins that blew the lid off the arena, right in front of a raging Gregg Popovich who was about three steps onto the court losing his mind.

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Let’s Hug it Out

And then there were the hugs.  Perhaps Durant thought that time had expired.  Perhaps he knew that the game was in hand.  Perhaps he did it as a slap in the face to the Spurs (unlikely). But with 14 seconds in the game and a 5 point lead for the Thunder, Durant sought out the woman that he always looks for after the game, win or lose.  His momma.  Just as he does after every game, Durant greeted his mom with a hug and a kiss, but this time it meant more. This time the clock hadn’t even hit triple zeros, but everyone in the arena knew it was over.  And just like that, the Spurs reluctantly handed over their crown as king of the Western Conference to the Thunder – just like the Mavericks did in round 1 and just like the Lakers did in round 2.

Nobody is going to hand this Thunder team a championship, despite a general consensus that they are the favorite regardless of who they face in the NBA Finals; but that’s how they like it.  All playoffs long, the Thunder have been toppling regimes, and taking what they feel is rightfully theirs.  Nobody handed them anything.  They took it from Nowitzki, one of the best forwards to ever play the game.  They took it from Kobe, the greatest player since Michael Jordan. They took it from the Spurs, perhaps the greatest team of this millennium. And now the title just sits there, ready for the taking, in front of the team with perhaps the stickiest hands in all the league.