By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES – Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti waited outside his team’s locker room after Thursday’s 104-98 series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Folded arms. Straight face. Business as usual.
Still a few birthdays shy of turning 40, Presti started cutting his teeth in the San Antonio Spurs’ front office more than a decade ago. Come Monday night in San Antonio, Presti’s hand-crafted Thunder will take on the Spurs for a second time in three seasons for the right to advance to the NBA Finals.
For anyone who believes it is impossible to recreate the successful, machine-like precision of the small-market Spurs in this demanding age of instant results and quick hooks, the Thunder deserve a much deeper look. Starting with the fortuitousness to be able to draft a once-in-a-generation superstar who lacks elitist sensibilities, both franchises are rooted in front office and coaching stability, fiscal responsibility, shrewd drafting and, beyond all else, an overarching foundation of trust and sense of family.
The Thunder, of course, hope to begin their own ring collection.
“We’ve been together so long, we’ve grown a lot,” said the once-in-a-generation superstar and first-time MVP Kevin Durant, who persevered through a 1-for-7 start to then go 11-for-16 and finish with a game-high 39 points and 16 rebounds, two shy of his career best. “Guys have matured through every type of situation and every type of game.”
All of it shined through during difficult moments of a seven-game, first-round slog against Memphis and in this wild, momentum-shifting semifinals series against L.A.’s talented point guard Chris Paul, its rising star Blake Griffin and rock of a coach Doc Rivers. All were thrust into the unfair position of shouldering an untold emotional toll beyond the realm of the hardwood, heaped upon them by a disgraced owner now banished from his team and league for the remainder of his life.
It’s impossible to gauge just how much cumulative damage the ongoing Donald Sterling saga wreaked on the Clippers, but it was always there.
“I know I’m tired, I can tell you that,” Rivers said. “That’s what I was really trying to do throughout this, is try to bridge; I felt like I had to try to protect our guys. The playoffs are hard enough without any of this stuff.”
Afterward, the Clippers’ locker room fell eerily silent and seemed to be in a state of sedation as players dressed and cleared out. Silence through bloodshot eyes suggested this one cut deeper than other postseason-ending defeats.
“Disappointed,” Griffin said, his fingers pressed against his forehead. “I feel like it could have been a different series with just a couple small things. But, you know, proud of how the guys handled themselves throughout the season and also the playoffs.
“Faced a lot of clutter,” he said. “I thought we handled it well.”
Rivers said he has no plans of leaving the team regardless of the league’s fight ahead to remove Sterling as owner. On the same day Sterling vowed not to pay the $2.5 million fine levied by commissioner Adam Silver, Rivers said he is “prepared for somewhat of a messy summer, mentally at least. I just think it’s going that way.”
But as Rivers would also concede, the Thunder won the series “fair and square.”
They did it as a team, again executing — just one aspect of OKC’s game so many harshly critique — to the end better than the Clippers. Russell Westbrook shook off a two-point, bucket-less first half and finished with 19 points and 12 assists. He was again relentless with bursts to the rack and overall played a brilliant series against Paul, averaging 27.8 ppg on a remarkably efficient 49.1 percent shooting, and 8.8 apg.
Earlier in the day, ESPN tweeted this mind-blowing fact that puts Westbrook’s powerful postseason into perspective: Only Oscar Robertson has averaged at least 27 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a postseason. After the second round, Westbrook is averaging 26.6 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.0 rpg.
The victory should help to erode the silly-yet-pervasive perception that OKC will only go as far as the athleticism of its two stars, and that Brooks, the league’s longest tenured coach (along with Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and Miami’s Erick Spoelstra, who all trail the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich), couldn’t hold Pop’s clipboard.
For all of the praise rightfully heaped on Popovich and the Spurs organization for developing ordinary players and meshing them seamlessly into their system, Brooks gets nothing similar from those outside OKC. Yet, he’s led a franchise that won 20 games in Durant’s rookie season in Seattle and 23 that first season in Oklahoma City to three West finals in four seasons. The core of the team — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka (his status is uncertain after leaving Game 6 with a left calf injury) were all Thunder draft picks and are all just 25 years old.
Thunder center Kendrick Perkins is often a target of ridicule himself for what he doesn’t do. Perkins, though, is credited within the organization for helping push Durant to his MVP level by encouraging KD to lead instead of serve his team. The big man knows the value of Brooks all too well.
“My grandpa used to tell me, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ ” Perkins said. “We know what Scotty brings to the table. Until you’re in his shoes, we’d like to see anybody else come and try to coach the two superstars that we got. I think Scotty has done a hell of a job, and we’re going to ride with him until the wheels fall off.”
The trade of James Harden before the 2012-13 season didn’t make the wheels come off. Instead, other Draft picks — like Reggie Jackson and rookie Steven Adams — have become significant contributors. Nick Collison, the only player besides Durant left over from the Seattle days, didn’t play in the first half, and drained a huge corner 3-pointer, just his fifth all season, in the Thunder’s decisive fourth quarter.
When the Spurs and Thunder tip-off the Western Conference finals Monday night, it will be billed as the team-oriented precision of the Spurs and their mastermind coach against two athletically gifted stars and their coach whose considerable skins on the wall go inexplicably unrecognized.
“We don’t get down on what people say about us,” Brooks said. “We’re focused. We know that we’re not a perfect team. We don’t claim to be. We don’t tell the world, ‘Look at us.’ We just play basketball. We play it as hard as we can. We try to play with very limited mistakes. What we try to do is play with effort every time.
“We’ve built this organization doing that every day. “