The conventional wisdom coming into this series was that the younger, less experienced Thunder might well not stand up to the level of play the battle tested Spurs were at.
But the Thunder have plenty of experience, too. We thought all season they were the team to beat in the West, that didn’t change until San Antonio got hot. The Thunder have been together for years, they have grown through the playoffs each year. They’ve become battle tested. They have added guys like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher who have have rings. Even in these playoffs we have seen them evolve.
The Thunder are ready. They showed it Monday night in Game 5.
San Antonio played the game of a desperate team — they altered the starting lineup that had so recently won 10 straight playoff games, they played with spurts of incredible tenacity. San Antonio wanted this.
Oklahoma City withstood the storms, made their plays, came back and went on to win 108-103 (Stephen Jackson’s last shot three was waived off) and take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals. OKC can close it out Wednesday night at home and advance to the NBA finals.
There comes a time in every series where the coach who realizes it is really slipping away from him starts making desperate moves with his lineup. When he’s willing to try anything to find a combination that works, to change the pace. It almost never works.
For Game 5 Gregg Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup. He early on tried small lineups. It worked for a minute and the Spurs were up 8 quickly.
But the Thunder are experienced, they do not rattle easily, even on the road. They responded with a 9-0 run of their own and took the lead back before the end of the first quarter. As it had the last couple games, the athleticism of the Thunder disrupted the Spurs offense. The Spurs were out of synch. Their decisions were slow, the ball movement not crisp. Do that and the long, athletic Thunder can recover and contest shots. San Antonio shot just 39.5 percent in the first half with 11 turnovers. Yet they were only down 8, 52-44 at the break.
The start of the second half was like the start of the first, Ginobili was knocking down everything — he finished with 34 points on 21 shots. Tony Paker was defending Russell Westbrook the length of the court and the Spurs were hot, and 18-4 run. They took the lead, they looked like the old Spurs.
And the Thunder weathered the storm. Like a veteran team. They retook the lead, just like they did in the first half. Their defense was good enough, their offense was too much for the Spurs to stop. Kevin Durant had 27 points, Westbrook 23, Harden 20 on just 11 shots (including the dagger four point play). As a team, the Thunder shot 50 percent.
They were flat out better.
Call it a passing of the torch if you want, but we knew all season OKC was the team to beat. And it’s not like the Spurs passed the torch — OKC has ripped it out of their hands. They cranked up the defensive pressure, their offensive ball movement has taken a leap forward, they have been stellar.
They have been what we expect of contenders. And now they are one win away from the finals. Which they earned.