Posted Jun 3 2012 11:52PM
SAN ANTONIO -- This must be what it feels like to live in one of those tiny villages on the side of a dormant volcano.
You know the power and the force that is always in there. Occasionally you feel a rumble beneath your feet. Sometimes you look up and see a wisp of smoke in the sky.
Then one day your world changes. The Spurs aren't yet buried like the citizens of Pompeii, but the rivers of fiery lava are pouring down toward their huts and it's only a matter of time for them and the rest of the NBA.
Will it be next season or next week when the roar of the Thunder that's been booming beyond the horizon begins covering the league in ash for, oh, the next decade? That's the only question that needs answering.
So the challenge suddenly facing the Spurs is not to stop the inevitable, just delay it for another few pages on the calendar in order to sneak in and squeeze out their fifth championship before Kevin Durant and his buddies crash the house party and make themselves right at home dancing on the furniture.
As the critical Game 5 approaches in the Western Conference finals, you can't blame the Spurs for feeling like snowmen standing out on the lawn in the afternoon sun, melting.
The aura of San Antonio invincibility that came with the 20-game win streak has evaporated in back-to-back losses where the Swiss watch precision offense was bludgeoned to pieces, the penetrating game of Tony Parker was choked off and the gaps in the defense were exploited by Thabo Sefolosh and Serge Ibaka until Durant dropped the big hammer in the fourth quarter on Saturday night.
"They want it. They want to be here. They want to win," said the Spurs' Stephen Jackson with an admiring nod of his head. "I love the passion of those young guys over there in that locker room. I love how much they want it.
"You can't get younger, but you got to have that fire and that energy from the beginning of the game like they have. They're ready to play. It takes us a quarter or second quarter or even the third quarter for us to get going and play physical and hit first."
Jackson and his San Antonio teammates and anyone else who has ever played at the highest level can recognize what is happening. It's a circle of life thing, a natural progression that has been undefeated since the dawn of time.
Don't make the casual mistake to call the Spurs creaky and ancient. They have 20-year-old Kawhi Leonard and 24-year-old Danny Green in their starting lineup and the overall average age of the team is 26.4 years. However, the core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker is looking wrinkly like your toes when you stay in the pool too long at a time when the Thunder are no longer just full of themselves and asking for the keys, but have actually learned how to drive the car.
While LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are in the Eastern Conference finals still trying to figure it all out in the great Miami mash-up, OKC has clearly learned and moved forward steadily forward. Last spring when the Mavericks hit them in the WCF, the Thunder folded up like origami swans. A year later, they've become more resilient, tougher and smarter.
The growth is evident in Russell Westbrook, the lightning rod point guard, who shot just 7-for-25 in Games 3 and 4 and yet was effective and important in his restraint and willingness to defer, dealing almost as many assists (14) as he scored points (17). The growth was on display in Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, who could step into the gaps provided when the defense focused on Durant, Westbrook and Harden and hit the shots. And, of course, the growth exploded like the top off the mountain when Durant rained down 16 consecutive points after biding his time all night long.
This was the Spurs' worst fear entering the series, that it would all come together for Durant now, and here he is going all Dirk Nowitzki right before their eyes. He's a tall, rangy, nearly-7-footer who not only possesses all the scoring skills, but can dish eight assists and has stepped out from behind that nerdy post-game wardrobe he wears to the podium each night to look like one of the Avengers on an unstoppable quest for a championship.
The series is far from over and the Spurs do return to the AT&T Center, where they are 6-0 in the playoffs and have home-court advantage in the final three games. But the ride is getting bumpier and the task more daunting each day as the circle of life turns.
How do you hold off youth and energy and the inexorable of Durant?
"We've got to hope he misses," said Gary Neal.
To delay a future that the Spurs can feel rumbling beneath their feet.
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