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Fran Blinebury

Lionel Hollins, Kevin Durant
Grizzlies' coach Lionel Hollins congratulates Kevin Durant on his 39 points in Game 7.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

For the young Thunder, the future is now


Posted May 16 2011 7:21AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The future was supposed to come soaring in with robots and jet packs and extraterrestrials.

Instead it arrived on the wings of 3-pointers and slam dunks and a pair of other-worldly 22-year-olds.

The future was supposed to be out there somewhere, around a distant corner, over the next mountain, occupying a still-fuzzy corner of our imaginations.

But here it was, right now, like a ray gun blast in our face.

Kevin Durant lifted off the surface of the planet as if on an un-tethered space walk and Russell Westbrook fired a meteor pass that he plucked somewhere out of the ionosphere and, in that instant, anything became possible -- flying cars, world peace, time travel.

Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.

Westbrook-to-Durant for an outer space alley-oop dunk with 6:39 left in the third quarter was just one play, one bucket, two points. But it was the moment when the Thunder took a bruising, present-day, seven-game playoff series with the rugged Grizzlies more than a few pages ahead on the calendar.

The NBA's team of the future is waiting on no one as the Thunder have, well, flashed like lightning into a final-four meeting with the Mavericks maybe sooner than everyone expected.

"It's another good step for our organization," said coach Scott Brooks. "Our goal, just like all the other 29 teams, is to win a championship. We are no different. We know the process is long and hard and you can't skip steps and you don't get there quickly."

But, in fact, the only way the Thunder could have come so far much faster would have been by taking the transporter on Capt. Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise.

Just 29 months ago, on Dec. 29, 2008, the Thunder were 3-29 and going nowhere except, perhaps, toward the ignominy of the NBA record book for the worst season ever. Durant was a gangly second-year phenom on a wobbly colt's legs, Westbrook was a rookie playing point guard full-time for the first time in his career and Brooks was a first-year coach wearing the "interim" tag.

Just 12 months ago, it was considered a splendid achievement for the Thunder to have won a pair of home games, played competitively and lost a first-round playoff series to the eventual champion Lakers.

Just four weeks ago, the Thunder had never won a playoff series since relocating to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Now they are four wins away from reaching The Finals.

"I was coming from college where I did not lose that many games," Westbrook said. "It was tough, but I could see that we were growing."

"It was definitely tough, especially with two similar seasons like that back-to-back," said Durant. "I made sure I worked hard during that time and Russell did the same thing when he got here...We have been patient. Now we are here."

They are here because Durant shook off the misery of shooting 3-for-14 and looking utterly lost and clueless in the Game 6 loss on Friday night to being the sweet-shooting machine who has led the league in scoring for two straight seasons, hitting 13 of 25 -- including four 3-pointers -- for 39 points.

"I guess I can say it now -- he stunk last game," said a grinning Brooks. "He knows that. We talked about it... He doesn't take any of it for granted. So I knew that he would come back and have a fantastic game."

They are here because Westbrook is strong-willed enough to block out all of the mindless yammering about how he plays the game and merely played an historic one when his team needed it most. Westbrook's 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds were only the fifth triple-double ever in a Game 7 and that put him on a short list with names such as West, Bird, Worthy and Pippen.

"He gets picked on a little bit, but Russell keeps playing," Brooks said. "He keeps improving. He keeps getting better. Tonight he controlled the game. He didn't shoot the ball very well, but he controlled the basketball game. He controlled us on offense. He controlled us on defense. He had us in sets. He had us in the right schemes defensively."

They are here because the other futurist, 21-year-old James Harden, came off the bench again like a comet, leaving a trail of fire as he jumped passing lanes to make steals and hurtled toward the basket.

They are here because Nick Collison, the longest-tenured member of the team and practically a relic from deep space at 30, rebounded and defended and hustled like there was no tomorrow and suggested maybe that was because of the not-too-distant past.

"It does seem like a long time ago," Collison said. "I think the thing that happens when you go through seasons like that is maybe you don't have that fear of failure as much anymore. You've been embarrassed. It's very embarrassing to be 3-29 and be the worst team in the league. Once you go through that, maybe you don't have that fear."

With Durant soaring above the crowd, Westbrook hovering over entire games and a franchise as giddy as if in zero gravity, you can see the future from Oklahoma City.

And nobody's waiting on jet packs to fly.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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