By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — The new guard came ripping through in 2012 like a whipsaw, razor sharp and bristling with youthful exuberance, striking size and superstar talent.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, unbridled and unstoppable, tapped out the last-gasp San Antonio Spurs, and set to unleash an era of mouthwatering East-West Finals fury with the Miami Heat not seen in 30 years since Magic Johnson‘s L.A. Lakers and Larry Bird‘s Boston Celtics.
Two years later and LeBron James — holding his end of the bargain with not one, not two, not three, but a fourth straight Finals berth after navigating the least competitive road to a conference title in recent memory — is still waiting for his Thunder contemporaries to join him.
Instead James will again see the San Antonio Spurs and their immortal Big Three, a group who raised their first of three Larry O’Brien trophies the year James was showing his percolating potential as a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
Durant chased down LeBron as this season’s league MVP, but the championship remains on hold. He had a chance to give the Thunder a four-point lead in overtime, but his straightaway 3 — contested by Kawhi Leonard but still a good look — caromed off the back rim with 1:45 to go in overtime. Then down by three, the game’s most lethal closer got off a clean 3 off the inbounds, but it, too, wouldn’t go down.
The killer, though, was a no-show third quarter. Tony Parker never returned from halftime because of a sore ankle and San Antonio answered with perhaps its finest period of the season, a 37-20 whipping that erased the Thunder’s seven-point lead and set the stage for their NBA Finals-clinching 112-107 Game 6 victory.
It was perhaps Durant’s worst period of the season — five points, five turnovers and one awful foul of Danny Green on a made 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds on the clock. The four-point play culminated a 7-0 run and put the Spurs up 79-69.
“They’re a great team, they made a run, but that shows the character we have on this team to force that overtime and not give up,” said Durant, who ended his seventh season with 31 points, 14 rebounds and seven costly turnovers. “It’s easy to give up, but you can say that about any run throughout our game. They could have put us away to start the fourth quarter, but they didn’t.”
When it was all over, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (headed to his sixth Finals with the ageless and still magnificent Tim Duncan), hugged Durant and then Westbrook and looked each in the eye.
“We know we played one hell of a team, and we take great satisfaction in that because they are so special,” Popovich said. “They’ll certainly be back doing great things without any doubt.”
The alternative story line will be floated, that the window is closing on this core. Durant has two more seasons on his contract, and he could singlehandedly sink the franchise if he decides to uproot. But, just as he stated that “the grass is not always greener on the other side” during his impassioned MVP speech, Durant answered questions with pride for his team and optimism toward the future.
He sat at the podium, not speaking in the mumbled tones as he had at times during this roller-coaster postseason, but rather expressing praise for his team’s spirit to the end. He also showed admiration for his partner’s fight through multiple knee surgeries that sidelined him for nearly half the season.
“I’m not so sure I would have stayed positive through two knee surgeries and playing so well and then having to sit out for two months and coming back, and minutes restrictions,” Durant said of Westbrook. “But he stayed positive and level-headed and came out and had a great postseason for us.”
Arguably the best on the team, including Durant. What should come out of this latest setback is that this athletic, young core of Durant, 25, Westbrook, 25, and the iron-willed Serge Ibaka, 24, needs more help. What appeared to be a deep club as the season wore on, was stripped to its nuts and bolts by the Spurs.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who will undoubtedly take on grief for this ending. Some will speculate about his job security, despite Westbrook’s knee surgeries, Ibaka absence for Games 1 and 2 of the series and Reggie Jackson playing on a tender right ankle the final three games, lost faith in starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha and all reserves not named Derek Fisher.
In the 29 minutes of the second half and overtime, Brooks played the 39-year-old Fisher, who likely played the final game of his career, 27 minutes. Rookie Steven Adams logged four minutes and veteran Nick Collison, who started the first two games in place of Ibaka, got two. From the fourth quarter on, Brooks made no substitutions until the final six seconds to allow the crowd to give Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Jackson one final salute.
“Coach has done a good job all year. I think he felt like that was the best group. In an elimination game he’s going to ride the best group he’s got,” Collison said.
That group will have to be better next season in a West that shows no signs of letting up. General manager Sam Presti will have to somehow unearth shooters off the bench for OKC, which may be a challenge. The Thunder have limited funds to add quality help via free agency, but they do have assets in young players and Draft picks that could spur a trade. Owner Clay Bennett, who somberly shuffled through the concourse afterward, is staunch about remaining a non-luxury-tax payer. That stance will have to be closely evaluated with a team so close to NBA glory.
“Without a doubt we’ve grown, from top to bottom, everybody,” Durant said. “Around here, our goal is to win the big thing and go out on top. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen for us this year, but we still improved. Just grateful to play with such great teammates in such a great building and for a great city like this. We’ve all got to keep our heads up and keep improving.”
That latter part now rests with the front office.