| The Thunder are on the verge of taking over the West. But they have to take it from the Spurs first. (Getty Images)|
Virtually any time the Thunder travel into a city to play a struggling franchise with a batch of young players, it's inevitable. The pregame articles almost always are centered around whatever team Oklahoma City is playing trying to follow the so-called "Thunder Model."
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Funny thing about the Thunder Model though -- they copied it from the Spurs.
The similarites between the franchises are striking. Both small market, one team cities. Both organizations pride themselves on internal development. Thunder general manager Sam Presti spent time in San Antonio as an assistant GM. Thunder owner Clay Bennett was once a minority owner of the Spurs. San Antonio drafted a humble star in Tim Duncan to build around. The Thunder have that with Kevin Durant. The Spurs have Tony Parker, a scoring-minded point guard that can take over games. OKC, Russell Westbrook. There's Manu Ginobili, a smooth lefty guard who is best off the bench. James Harden, essentially the same guy except with a beard.
Both organizations have built a model where players can interchange, but the core remains. It's a long term sustained success plan, and one that has obviously worked well in San Antonio. The Spurs have four championship rings and have established this 12-year run as one of the more dominant in NBA history.
The Thunder, they're just trying to get started. It's one thing to build a plan to mimic something like what the Spurs have. It's another to actually execute it.
Kind of fitting really that the Spurs stand in the way of the Thunder breaking through. The Spurs have played big brother to the Thunder the past three years. San Antonio's everything OKC wants to be, even down to the fact OKC built a mini River Walk years ago.
But the Spurs aren't just big bro because the Thunder not-so-secretly want to be like them. It's also because San Antonio has enjoyed almost all the success between the teams the past three seasons. Over the last three years, the Thunder are only 2-8 against the Spurs and have dropped those eight by an average of 9.6 points. All the big plays the Thunder are becoming known for, that's exactly the act the Spurs pull on OKC.
The Thunder have been seen as the model building franchise, right down to how their players play, the fans support the team and the organization runs day to day operations. All of that is nice, but there needs to be a payoff. You play for trophies, and the Thunder don't have any yet. If this plan, this process as Presti likes to call it, is to work, eventually the Thunder need to stand alone.
And if there was ever an appropriate way for the Thunder to take that next step, to move ahead, to reach The Finals with a shot at glory, it's almost too fitting that the road goes through San Antonio. Either this will signal a proper passing of the torch, or the old guard will stand tall for a little while longer.
This Thunder team has grown from the one that was eliminated by the Mavericks in five games during the last Western Conference Finals. It's essentially the same group, but a year older, a year wiser and about five years added in playoff battle scars. Oklahoma City was painfully close to advancing past the Mavs but endured two fourth quarter meltdowns that cost it a shot.
Clearly, the team has learned. Fourth quarter comebacks have become the Thunder's signature as they've evolved into a team to be feared in the last five minutes of a game. Problem is, this is pupil versus master stuff here. Nobody closes down games quite like the Spurs. The Mavs and Lakers might've blown late leads to OKC, but you can be sure the silver and black don't intend to do such a thing.
Unlucky for the Thunder they seem to have caught yet another destined team. Last season's Mavs appeared have it written in the stars that it was their time. They made the plays, hit the shots, got the breaks and completed the task. The Spurs, a team many finally expected to slip in this lockout condensed season, just plugged along. They've won 18 straight games, gone 8-0 in the playoffs and have evolved into almost a basketball machine. They don't possess anything all that intimidating except for their style of play. There's something special about them and unfortunately for OKC, the Thunder have to overcome what appears to be destiny again.
But that's the point. The Thunder aren't going to be handed the keys to the West. They're going to have to take them. If they want to rule the Western Conference, if they want to begin a reign of dominance, if they want to finally complete the plan, they're going to have to take it from the Spurs. And like Charlton Heston, you can be sure the Spurs are saying, "From my cold, dead hands."