Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Greenhorns No More

On Saturday night (Sunday morning IST), a few minutes after the Oklahoma City Thunder had beaten the San Antonio Spurs for the second straight game to level the Western Conference Finals at 2-2, the ‘Inside the NBA’ crew sat down inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena to dissect Game 4 in their own inimitable style.

With basketball stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith looking on, Ernie Johnson, the show’s avuncular anchor, directed his latest query to the always straight-talking, shooting-from-the-hip Charles Barkley:

“Charles, here’s a question - It’s down to a best-of-three series now. San Antonio has home-court [advantage]. Are they [San Antonio] in trouble?” asked Johnson.

“No, the pressure is always on the road team,” said Barkely.

“You think San Antonio is ok?” interjected a puzzled Johnson.

“Well they got some issues, but the pressure is always on the road team. San Antonio do not have to win here. OKC has to win in San Antonio. Now it just comes down to guys making plays,” answered Barkley with the usual chutzpah that his made him such a popular TV analyst in his post-playing days.

All the same, Barkley couldn’t have been more correct because not only did the OKC Thunder hold their nerve to beat San Antonio, 108-103, on the road in Game 5, but their players came up with some big shots to take a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series. As Jan Hubbard of sportsillustrated.cnn.com wrote, it was a victory, “that had them [OKC Thunder] build leads, survive runs, overcome deficits and withstand a determined challenge that would have gotten the better of a lesser team.”

Yet, the significance of this win is much larger than the immediate opportunity it offers the Thunder to close out the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City. As Hubbard pointed out, OKC are yet to win a series without home-court advantage in the last three years that they have made it to the NBA’s postseason. In 2010, the eighth-seeded Thunder lost to the No.1 ranked Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. In 2011, the fourth ranked Thunder were eliminated in five games by the third-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Now, having finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference in 2012, OKC enjoyed home-court advantage all through their first two rounds against Dallas and Los Angeles.

More importantly, with the disappointment of the past two seasons forming an essential part of their learning curve, this OKC team has finally learned to win no matter how tight the contest. In eight playoff games this postseason, which have been settled by six points or less, OKC has come out on top on six occasions. One of those losses came against the Spurs in Game 1 of this series when the team was ahead by nine points going into the fourth quarter, but ended up on the losing side in a 98-101 loss. Proof of their maturity was on display in Game 5 as well when even though the Thunder saw a 13-point fourth-quarter lead turn to two points with just less than two minutes to go, OKC was able to hang on when James Harden hit a 3-pointer over Kawhi Leonard for a 106-101 lead with 28 seconds to go. It was as OKC head coach, Scott Brooks, said, “We had a couple of bad stretches, but we didn’t break. We battled through that.”

Another area of improvement one has witnessed in the Thunder this postseason is the way they have taken care of the ball. At the end of the shortened regular season, OKC ranked first in turnovers-per-game (16.35) in the league with San Antonio averaging the third fewest at 13.56 a game. NBA.com’s David Aldridge even mentioned this as an area of concern for OKC if they were to establish themselves as legit title contenders at the start of the second half of the regular season.

As of now, though, OKC appeared to have flipped a new leaf. They have turned the ball over the second fewest times (11.21 a game) of the 16 teams that made it to the 2012 playoffs. San Antonio, on the other hand, rank seventh at 14.46 turnovers a game. In the Western Conference Finals alone, the Spurs have turned the ball over a whopping 81 times (16.2 a game) compared to the Thunder’s 58 times (11.6). If that alone isn’t a measure of progress for the Thunder, I don’t know what is.

And yet, despite all their heroics, the Thunder’s superstars are remaining remarkably grounded in their latest hour of triumph. “We don’t want to get too high for this win. We still have a tough road ahead. We came here, we wanted to get a win on their home floor… We just got to keep pressing,” said OKC’s three-time all-star, Kevin Durant, following the Game 5 win.

All-star point guard for the Thunder, Russell Westbrook, echoed a similar sentiment:

“Like Kevin said, it’s just one game – Game 5. Now you have to get ready for Game 6. Just one step closer, but at the same time this team [San Antonio] is not about to lay down – nothing like that. They are going to come in and try to win. We got to be ready to play.”

The ultimate compliment for the Thunder’s toughness, nevertheless, came from the normally reticent San Antonio head coach, Gregg Popovich, who said, “Championship teams win on the road. Oklahoma City just did that. They’ve proven that they are a championship caliber team. We have to go do that. If we can’t win on Wednesday, we’re not a championship caliber team. It’s as simple as that. You look at anybody who’s won championships and they’ve won on the road as the process goes along. It’s what you do and they just did it.”

And if you’re wondering what Charles Barkely has to say now, he’s calling Game 6 a wrap.

“OKC going to the finals.”

All stats are after games played on June 5, 2012 (IST)