You can pick a few different highlights from the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 5 win over the San Antonio Spurs as your metaphor for what's happened in the Western Conference Finals so far.
- There was Kevin Durant gliding down the court, botching an alley-oop, then calmly gathering the rebound, stepping back, and burying a jumper from the baseline.
- Durant poking the ball out of Tony Parker's hands, right to James Harden, who threw an outlet back to Durant who then threw it up to Russell Westbrook for a screaming alley oop.
- Durant on the baseline, sandwiched between a Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson double-team, getting off a jumper that made absolutely no sense and (of course) hitting all net.
- Harden in the final minute, one-on-one with the shot clock running down, nailing a fatal stepback three that left us all shaking our heads.
"They're a hell of a basketball team," Gregg Popovich said afterward. "I don't know what else to tell ya." There's not much to say. If you love basketball, you have to love what's happening here. And if you've watched much of this series, how can you not love basketball?
Even with OKC hitting on all cylinders in Game 5, San Antonio made it a thriller. It fought back after an awful first half gave the Thunder a double-digit lead, they fought back after OKC came back to another double-digit lead in the fourth, and even after Harden's three put the Thunder up five with 30 seconds left, the Spurs still found themselves with a chance to tie on the final possession.
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All series long it's been like this. Tit for tat, back and forth, two unstoppable machines one-upping each other. First the Thunder set the pace in Game 1, then San Antonio came back from double digits to steal that game, take Game 2, and head to OKC with a 2-0 lead. Then in OKC, it was the the Thunder exploding back to tie it -- first with a blowout on Thursday night, then with Durant going into Superhero Mode in the fourth quarter, setting up a Game 5 that could tip the scales once and for all. Then Monday night, with the Thunder taking the Spurs best shot over and over and over again. They were just always a little better.
Both teams are phenomenal, though, and as crucial as Game 5 seemed Monday afternoon, the series has been too insane to hand things to Oklahoma City after Monday night. The Spurs are too proud and way too good to go out quietly later this week.
So for now, only two things are certain:
1. This is pretty much the best basketball you'll ever see from the NBA. You won't see two better teams going head-to-head for seven games, you won't see more gutsy shots from EVERYONE, and you won't see many other series that you sincerely wish could go forever. Really, if these teams played for the next three weeks, nothing would change. Neither side is going to crack--when one side gets hit, they just reload and come back stronger and harder. This is why you can't count out the Spurs.
On the other hand ...
2. The future is the present is a gift. As OKC exploded onto the scene, it's come with equal parts beauty and terror. Beauty because they make basketball breathtaking when it all comes together. Terror because they're still nowhere near perfect -- from Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant to Scott Brooks -- but they just keep winning in the meantime. It's kinda impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it all. The Thunder aren't the Spurs. They may be every bit as unstoppable, but they're nowhere near as precise and that's part of the charm. Every Thunder game is a new adventure with different heroes doing ridiculous things, and we're along for the ride.
But the past week Durant's been the linchpin to all this, so we should probably end with him. He personifies what's happened to the Thunder here. He's led the league in scoring three years straight, but I think this week is when we've finally moved past the point where everyone points to his numbers and his age to explain why he's so amazing. Where people list his stats and punctuate it with, "AND he's only 23 years old."
Over the past month Durant's hit multiple game-winners, he's shredded the past two NBA champions, and over the past five days, he's driven a stake through the Spurs' heart in three straight games. He's still not perfect, he's still growing, but every time his team has needed a basket he's delivered, usually with a flurry of two or three dead-eye jumpers in a row. Yeah, he's doing all this and he's only 23 years old, but that's not the story anymore. For the first time in Kevin Durant's career, it's not "Wow, imagine how great he'll be when ..."
"He's arguably the best player on the planet," Gregg Popovich said Monday.
That's him and his team. Still getting better, maybe already the best.