SAN ANTONIO – For the longest time, the San Antonio Spurs seemed so full of precision, so superior, so . . . invincible.
Fifty days. That’s how long the Spurs went without losing a game. Before them, only three teams in NBA history had winning streaks of 20 or more games. They became the fourth.
Included in that streak was eight straight in the playoffs. That number stretched to 10 when the Spurs handled the Thunder without significant problems in the first two games of the Western Conference finals. Manu Ginobili was brilliant in one, Tony Parker controlled the other and the Spurs went to Oklahoma City with visions of a sweep.
Well, their fans had such a vision. And some in the media foolishly had the same vision.
With three fantastic players and one shotblocker extraordinaire all 23 or under, the Thunder has for the last two years been the exciting team of the future.
And the young have proven to be restless. It would be an overstatement to suggest the Thunder shocked the Spurs with two victories in Oklahoma City, but it would accurately portray what happened Monday night when San Antonio’s losing streak shockingly reached three games — on their home floor, no less.
The Thunder survived a frenetic rally in the last six minutes of the game and defeated the Spurs 108-103, ending an 11-game home winning streak. Oklahoma City has a 3-2 lead in the series and will play Game 6 at home on Wednesday.
With many of the Heat and Celtics players hobbling in the Eastern finals, and with the superiority that the West has demonstrated throughout the season, the Thunder not only is in position to make its first NBA Finals since moving to Oklahoma City four years ago, but also suddenly is the favorite to win the title. And it is evident that they are interested in being the team of the present – not the future. Who knew?
“We never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn,” Kevin Durant said. “We always wanted to go and take everything. Coach always emphasizes that every opportunity we step out on that floor is a great opportunity to get better and grow and fight towards our dreams.”
Although they have the impatience of youth, the Thunder also have steadily gained experience. They are participating in their seventh playoff series over the last three years, and the core of Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka have been in each of those series.
Perhaps the pain the Thunder players have felt after playoff losses has not been as acute as pain felt by veteran players. But it is clear Oklahoma City has learned from it.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Thunder’s excellence is their confidence. They do not seem to get rattled, and that trait served them well again on Monday.
After a poor first half, the Spurs got a spark from Ginobili, who was inserted as a starter by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Ginobili had 13 of his game-high 34 points in the third quarter and helped the Spurs build a six-point lead, which was their largest of the second half.
But Durant, as he has several times in the series, responded with brilliance of his own. He also had 13 points in the quarter, and in the last 5:40 of the period, the Thunder outscored the Spurs 20-5 to take a nine-point lead into the last quarter.
The Spurs tried to mount an attack but each time they made an effective play, the Thunder answered with one of their own. With 5:17 left in the game, Oklahoma City had a lead at 101-88 and seemed on the way to an easy victory.
But Tim Duncan led one final charge that included 11 consecutive points by the Spurs and ultimately was a 13-2 run. With 50.9 seconds left, a Duncan turnaround 7-foot bank shot – the last of his 11 points in the quarter – got the Spurs within two at 103-101.
The Thunder again did not wilt. Harden calmly tossed in a 3-point shot with 28.8 second left, and the Spurs would score only one more basket.
“We stuck together,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “We had a couple of bad stretches, but we didn’t break.”
The Spurs couldn’t say the same.
“I was disappointed in the lack of competitiveness overall in the first half,” Popovich said. “I was proud of them that they came back and dug down deep and competed in the second half. But we’ve been competing for three quarters in the last and tonight we competed for two quarters. If we don’t get that straight, it will be over Wednesday.”
The Thunder are 7-0 in the playoffs before their rollicking home crowd, and they will be playing for their dream Wednesday night.
For some people, their graduation to the elite level of the NBA came a little early. Apparently for the Thunder players, they are right on schedule.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints with Newsday, The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.