|Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant -- two key pieces to the Thunder's run for this year's NBA title. (AP)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to win an NBA title. That's not a guarantee or a prediction or anything silly like, but it is a fact. The Thunder are ready.
They're in the NBA Finals because they've done two of the hardest things in this sport, and they've done them in back-to-back games in the most strenuous of circumstances. First, Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, when they went into San Antonio and beat a championship team on its home court.
The second thing came Wednesday night, Game 6, when they rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Spurs 107-99, finishing off what had been the league's best and hottest team to advance to the NBA Finals.
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No guarantees about this particular NBA Finals, but we can take one potential excuse off the books should the Thunder fall short against Miami or Boston: They weren't ready. They were too young, too inexperienced, too poorly coached, too whatever.
Don't even think of going there, two weeks from now, if the Thunder don't get their ring. Find another reason, because it won't be that. In fact, if I had to put money on a team -- either the Thunder, or whoever wins the East -- I'd put it on the Thunder. This is their year. That is their title. They are ready to go win it.
You don't do what the Thunder did the last two games -- hell, the last four games -- unless you're ready to do even more. Four games ago, the Spurs had what looked to be a commanding 2-0 lead. The Spurs had won only at home, but they had won 20 consecutive games, including all 10 in the postseason. They had momentum, confidence, experience. And the home-court edge.
But the Thunder had greatness. And in a seven-game series, greatness beats all else.
Game 5 was a revelation, a road win in a brutal environment. By virtue of their superior regular-season record against Boston and Miami, the Thunder will have the home-court advantage against whoever comes out of the East -- but that win in Game 5 shows the Thunder won't be crippled if they can't win all four at home in the Finals.
Having said that, I don't expect the Thunder to lose at home in the Finals. The Thunder's home, Chesapeake Energy Arena, is the loudest arena I've heard in the NBA. I've not been to all of them, but I've been to Boston when the Celtics won the title in 2008, and I was in Miami for last year's NBA Finals. Also been to the homes of the Lakers, Mavericks, Bulls, Pistons, Jazz and more. Nothing compares. Not in the NBA, anyway.
Noise doesn't equate to victory, but it sure does make it tough on the visiting team. And the Spurs -- the veteran, experienced Spurs -- came unglued in the second half under a tsunami of sound. After a near-perfect first half in which they shot 54.5 percent from the floor and had five times as many assists (15) as turnovers (three), the Spurs shot 32.5 percent in the second half with almost twice as many turnovers (nine) as assists (five).
It was a team-wide meltdown because the savviest, most proven Spurs became puddles. Tim Duncan couldn't hit a jumper in the second half, then stopped shooting them as the shrieking reached ear-ache levels. He finished with stellar numbers, 25 points and 14 rebounds, but his inability to hit an open jumper -- and then his refusal to shoot them at all -- rendered the pick-and-pop offense useless in the second half, when the Spurs scored just 36 points.
Left to do it alone, Parker and Manu Ginobili cracked. They were a combined 6 of 20 from the floor (30 percent) with four turnovers and two assists.
"In the second half we kind of stopped," Ginobili said. "We couldn't find anything -- anything easy, really."
Meanwhile, riding the wave of momentum that first crested when Durant hit a 3-pointer in the final second of the first half -- cutting the Spurs' lead to 15 and giving both teams something to think about entering the break -- the Thunder began finding whatever they looked for.
Kendrick Perkins wanted a dunk? Durant found him slipping unattended to the rim. Durant wanted a dunk? Russell Westbrook found him with a gutsy pass, just past a defender's ear. Durant or Westbrook or Harden wanted a jumper? They found them whenever they wanted. They are 22 or 23 years old, all three of them, and this has been a grueling series, and the Spurs couldn't keep up.
"We can't have their legs, their energy," Ginobili said. "We're never going to jump as high or run as fast."
The Thunder have the best of both worlds, really. They are young and athletic, not just their three perimeter stars but also post player Serge Ibaka, who is 22. That's their best four players, and their youngest four players, and that's not to be underestimated in a compressed season when the league squeezed 66 regular-season games into a calendar fit for about 50, and compressed the playoffs as well. Teams are beaten up, fading. The Spurs in particular. They won 20 games, then hit this Thunderous wall.
That's one reason why the Thunder have crossed these two enormous hurdles in these past two games -- their youth. Their skill is another. Durant and Westbrook? They're not LeBron and Wade, but they're close. Damn close. And while I've been tough on Westbrook this series, I'll be fair and say this: When he's playing like he played Wednesday night, efficiently scoring 25 points on 17 shots, with eight rebounds and five assists, Westbrook joins Durant for a combo that can hang with LeBron and Wade.
And the Thunder are more than Durant and Westbrook. After rallying behind Durant and Westbrook, they held off the Spurs at the end by getting 12 of their final 14 points from other players. Derek Fisher and Harden hit 3-pointers. Fisher faked Ginobili into the air and slid past him for a clever shot off the glass. Perkins dunked. Harden hit two free throws.
The Thunder closed Game 5 on the star power of Kevin Durant. They closed Game 6 on the depth of their roster.
This team is ready. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has seen four championship teams up close and personal -- his own, in San Antonio -- and he knows what he just saw. He just saw a team that's ready to win. Perhaps even a team that's destined to win.
"As sad and disappointed as we are, you really have to think it's almost like a Hollywood script for OKC," Popovich said. "They went through Dallas, last year's NBA champion [in the first round], then they went through the Lakers, then they went through us. Those three teams represent 10 of the last 13 championships, and now they're going to the Finals to play either Boston or Miami, and [either way] that'll be 11 of the last 13 championships.
"I don't know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through a playoff playing those kinds of teams."
Somebody has now. Somebody ready to win one more series, and then be fitted for rings.