Originally Published: June 5, 2012

1. Thunder Avert Fold, Gain Edge On Spurs

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Four team fouls in the game's first two minutes. Long stretches when Kevin Durant inexplicably never sniffed the ball. Two double-digit leads blown, more crunch-time brain cramps than you could count … and the latest in a series of fashion crimes at the postgame podium from Russell Westbrook after the most forgettable of Westbrook fourth quarters.

Thunder
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It was a lot to overcome.

It was never pretty.

"It never is with us," Thunder forward Nick Collison said with a smile.

Yet here's where it gets truly wild with the fast learners who just saddled the mighty San Antonio Spurs with their first three-game skid of the season: The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't care less about style points. Not anymore. If you're trying to pinpoint precisely where and how much the Thunder have truly evolved since their last taste of the Western Conference finals, that's where you start.

How they're digging deep, game after game against what we thought was the closest thing to a juggernaut in today's NBA, to keep playing no matter what happens.

This keeps up and the young, uber-athletic Thunder will have to be rebranded … as Team Find A Way.

"We're more resilient," Collison said late Monday night, after the Thunder moved to within one home win of the NBA Finals by surviving the squandering of a 13-point lead with more than five minutes to go, seizing a 3-2 series lead over the franchise that provided their blueprint.

"That's the difference."

Collison continued: "We don't have as much experience as San Antonio, and there's teams with more experience, but the experience we do have is valuable. We've been through enough [playoff] adversity now that we realize that we just have to keep going."

Said Thunder coach Scotty Brooks: "You learn. We're not too proud to learn."

It shows. The sting of losing in this same round to the Dallas Mavericks in five games last spring -- "Just seemed like every one of those games got away from us," Collison recalls -- and then blowing a nine-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter of Game 1 in this series has somehow had a bonding effect. All those aforementioned Thunder woes in this seminal 108-103 road triumph make it easy to forget how they've disrupted San Antonio's vaunted pick-and-roll better than anyone thought they could. How they've hounded Tony Parker out of the zone of his life with Westbrook playing his part and getting little credit for it. How they've forced San Antonio to scramble from behind for most of the series and prodded Gregg Popovich into his go-to adjustment heading into this Game 5: Manu Ginobili moving into the starting lineup in place of the back-to-his-Cleveland-self Danny Green.

Yet there were so many chances to splinter along the way. So many disappointments after OKC blew all of a 14-point lead, built it all the way back up to 13 in the fourth with the wheezing hosts spent by their comeback and then watched Westbrook (who still happened to muster 23 points and 12 assists) commit dreadful turnovers on three straight possessions late, indefensibly forgetting the over-and-back rules on the third of those TOs. The Thunder also gave Ginobili the gift of a potential game-tying 3 in the game's final seconds when Durant, with a timeout available, allowed himself to get trapped in the corner on the sort of inbounds play on which that should never happen, leading to another potentially crushing turnover.

Amazingly they survived it all. Fortune obviously plays a part after that many gaffes, but it's also clear that the Thunder have learned how to rebound and cope and grow on the fly -- after coming home with a 2-0 deficit -- as well as any on-the-rise crew has ever done it. Adversity, to use Collison's word, no longer leads to automatic panic like it once did. So hungry and emboldened by all they've achieved in this playoff run, having lost only one game in eliminating the Mavericks and Lakers, Durant's Thunder hang in now when things go wrong. Even against the very best.

"Eventually," Collison says, "we calmed down."

The Thunder thus bubble with as much confidence now as San Antonio had when it sported a 10-0 record in the playoffs and an unbeaten streak of 50 days, having inflicted three L's on the Spurs in the space of just five days. Durant (22 of his 27 points after halftime) happens to be dominating proceedings as much as he ever has without taking every shot. It also doesn't hurt when OKC forces 21 more turnovers out of the league's recognized execution masters. Or when Daequan Cook supplies a crucial eight points in a four-minute span of the second quarter after sitting out all of Game 4. Or when James Harden (12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter) can follow up a four-point play halfway through the fourth (courtesy of a Ginobili foul on a 3) with a step-back backbreaker from deep with less than 30 seconds remaining.

"We never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn," Durant said, openly rejecting the NBA's long-spewed conventional wisdom about teams as young as OKC's.

"We always wanted to go and take everything."

Said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: "Championship teams win on the road and Oklahoma City just did that. So they've proven that they're 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."

That's where we are, unfathomably, after another Game 5 in San Antonio that Derek Fisher's grandkids won't believe when he tries to tell them the story.

You can't quite put it up there with Fisher's signature Game 5 here with the Lakers in 2004 and his famous Point Four buzzer-beater. But OKC's sage off the bench isn't throwing this one back.

"This was fun with all the back and forth," Fisher said. "This was fine."


Dimes past: May 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 31 | June 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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