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Fran Blinebury

James Harden
James Harden nailed a 3-pointer with 28.8 seconds left to help secure the win.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Thunder's growth, maturation evident in Game 5 win

Posted Jun 5 2012 7:16PM

SAN ANTONIO -- It's the thing you don't notice when they're sitting at the kitchen table every day, swallowing milk by the gallon, bread by the loaf and snatching the last piece of meatloaf right out from under your nose.

Then one morning they pull on last year's jacket and you find that those sleeves barely come down past the elbows.

Maybe it was James Harden's bloodless 3-pointer with 28.8 seconds left to play. Or that intense, disciplined, scrambling defense that resulted in a desperate, off-balance 25-footer by Manu Ginobili at the other end. Or one of the three charges taken by Nick Collison. Or any of Kevin Durant's ribbon of silk jumpers.


Seeing the Thunder in the crucible of Game 5 was like watching a cactus flower bloom in time-lapse photography. Suddenly nobody even noticed the thorns.

"Well, we never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn," Durant said. "We always wanted to go out and just take everything."

But the truth is that it is a process and the Thunder had to climb the ladder, shimmy up the rope, find their way through the maze.

A year ago they had been here in the Western Conference finals against the Mavericks and wilted. Now that experience was like the pencil mark drawn on the wall that barely comes up to their shoulders today.

"Last year in that Dallas series it seemed like every one of those games got away from us," said Collison. "I don't know the stats, but I know we had leads in a lot of those games. That's where when things started going bad, we started losing it a little bit and made it worse. We've been able to kind of snap out of it and play better."

They've grown.

It has shown in a series where Oklahoma City fell behind 0-2, but didn't fall down, where the Thunder blew a nine-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter in losing Game 1 and then found themselves clinging to the scraps of what was left of a nine-point fourth quarter lead in Game 5.

"During the timeout, guys came together and said we're not going to let this happen again," said Russell Westbrook. "You know, we all came together and became closer...and kind of willed us to a win."

At Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard takes place with pomp and circumstance and fancy red uniforms at precisely appointed hours. In the NBA, the change comes when one side is ready to simply reach out and grab the opportunity and the opponent by the throat.

There is still at least one more game to play, but this appeared to be a seminal moment as the four-championship-pedigree Spurs blinked first when coach Gregg Popovich yanked Danny Green and inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup.

Did beloved Coach Pop suddenly become Coach Flop with his move that came with a whiff of panic? It changed the playing rotation of what had been the NBA's deepest and most effective roster and weakened San Antonio's second unit. It also seemed to deliver the message that the Spurs' usual plan -- which had rung up the best record in the league and recently ran off 20 straight wins -- was just not good enough.

How quickly does the guard change in the white-hot cauldron of the playoffs? Consider that a week ago San Antonio had not lost a single game in 50 days and now any baby born in the past seven has not known a Spurs team able to keep up and play with the Thunder in his/her lifetime.

For most of the game, the Spurs were a step slower or a step out of position on every shot. For much of the night, it seemed that their only hope of pulling out the win on their home floor was for Ginobili to be a one-man wrecking crew and do everything short of jump through the roof.

Any time the Spurs cracked it open, the Thunder closed the door. There was Daequan Cook coming off the bench to play just four minutes of the second quarter, but hitting three jumpers and scoring eight points in that span.

Any time the Spurs raised a question, the Thunder had an answer. Just when the outside world was about to bring down its wrath again on lightning rod point guard Westbrook for kicking things around in the fourth quarter, he stepped up and buried a nervy 17-foot wing jumper with 1:36 to play and, oh by the way, finished with 12 assists to go with his 23 points.

"Russell is making huge steps game after game," said Thabo Sefolosha. "Don't forget that. He's growing and it's a part of what we've become and where we are."

In meteorological terms, the Thunder are at that point where the tropical storm winds buffet up to hurricane force and are threatening to do real damage. Durant and Westbrook are only 23 years old, Harden just 22 and there's no reason to think they can't knock down power lines and rip the shingles off roofs for years.

Veteran Derek Fisher made landfall with the Lakers' gale that would eventually win a handful of championships and he knows the feeling when a team moves from believing to doing.

"We hope that's what's happening," he said. "We're still trying to write that story and not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves. But we have expectations of ourselves.

"I think when you have a really good team you're always of the belief. What makes all of the emotion at the end of it, when you do figure out a way to win it, so overwhelming is you realize the struggles, the ups and downs and the games you almost lost.

"We're learning. We're making progress. We're taking another step closer. If we get there, it's nights like this that show the growth."

As clear as any pencil mark on the wall.

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

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