Posted Jun 6 2012 9:17AM
The only thing more improbable than the sudden rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder, from teenage band of lottery picks and long shots to a team of roaring twentysomething superstars within a sniff of making The Finals, is their journey to this point.
Two games into the Western Conference finals the ride appeared to be over. The four-time champion San Antonio Spurs had just finished schooling them in the art of finishing the deal for the second straight games.
It was no longer a matter of whether or not the young Thunder could hang with the Spurs, it became a question of how long could they stay with them. After all, they were in this space a year ago, on the receiving end of some critical lessons being taught by Dirk Nowitzki and the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in a five-game Western Conference finals.
Then the series shifted back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder regrouped while nestled in the lap of their raucous home crowd and the intangible force that is Chesapeake Energy Arena, a place they haven't lost in the postseason since that series against the Mavericks last year.
Three straight wins later, the last one coming in an all-grown up performance in Game 5 in San Antonio, brings us right back to the Thunder's comfort zone at home, which is where the future goes head-to-head with the past once again in Wednesday's season-defining Game 6.
The Thunder, riding the wave of one of the great rebounds in playoff history, have a chance to finish off the Spurs and clinch a trip to The Finals, if they can get a fourth straight win over a team that looked like an unbeatable juggernaut before getting smacked between the eyes three games ago.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook refused to do anything but lock in on Game 6 after their gutsy Game 5 win. They might be young, but they clearly have an understanding of the magnitude of the moment that is beyond their years.
Only 14 teams have come back to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 2-0. The last time it was done these same Spurs rebounded to knock off the New Orleans Hornets in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. The last time it was done this late in a season was in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back from an 0-2 hole to demolish the Detroit Pistons in six games.
But you'd be hard pressed to find a team that has overcome the odds the way this Thunder crew has, so far.
This is a Spurs team that had the best record (tied with Chicago) in the league, was the second-highest scoring, best shooting and one of the most unselfish groups in the game during the regular season. They turned it up another notch in the playoffs, destroying everything in their way, stretching their winning streak to 20 games (dating back to April 11) and exuding every drop of confidence one would expect from a core group that won four championships during their time together.
We're talking about a team with two (Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili) and perhaps three (Tony Parker) future Hall of Famers on the payroll being guided by a Hall of Fame coach and the league's reigning Coach of the Year in Gregg Popovich.
And they were on an absolute roll after winning the first two games of this series, beating back the explosive Thunder for the 19th and 20th wins in their mercurial streak.
But they have run into a Thunder team that has met every challenge the Spurs have presented with a counter move to escape that pressure, a team up to the task of taking on the best the Western Conference has to offer on their way to claiming what they believe to be theirs ...
"They're a hell of a basketball team," Popovich said after the Thunder's impressive Game 5 win, admitting the obvious as only he can. "I don't know what else to tell you. It's not like we're playing the Sisters of the Poor. These guys are hard to guard, talented, hungry, athletic."
That's similar to what Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had to say about the Thunder after they swept the reigning champs in the first round and how Lakers coach Mike Brown described them after the Thunder took down the Lakers in five games in the conference semifinals.
As impressive as they have been during this three-game stretch, the work they have done and will have done if they can finish off the Spurs without going back to San Antonio for a Game 7, might be even more impressive.
These three teams comprise the power structure of the Western Conference over the past 13 seasons, having combined to win every single conference crown since the Utah Jazz represented the West in The Finals in back-to-back (1997 and 1998) years.
Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, members of the Thunder's young core four, were in elementary school the last time someone other than the Spurs, Lakers or Mavericks carried the Western Conference flag into The Finals.
Granted, there is still work to be done for the Thunder. Game 6 is not a given. It'll take 48 more minutes, at least, of the guts, guile and drive the Thunder have shown so far. If they get caught up in anything other than the right here and now, even for a just second, the Spurs are capable of making them pay for a transgression of that sort.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks knows his crew wouldn't disrespect the game that way. He knows because he's helped instill the attitude that has brought this team, this far in such short fashion.
Their cosmic comeback story, however, doesn't work without the right ending.
"Game 6 is all that matters to us," Brooks said.
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