OKLAHOMA CITY – Swept up in a sea of blue, back among friends, the Oklahoma City Thunder returned home, nestled warmly between all those "One OKC" shirts and "Team Is One" billboards. It's forever Pleasantville here for these Thunder, like one long "Family Circus" strip. It comes off a little hokey to the outsiders, but that's OK. It works for the Thunder. The locals bake cookies for the players (who doesn't like cookies?), criticism is rare (it just wouldn't be polite) and the stands are always full.
Even Lil Wayne can't get a front-row seat, and, really, is that all bad?
Somewhere among the din of Thursday night, the Thunder rediscovered their identity. They fed off the roar of their fans, played to the emotion of the moment and smothered those mighty San Antonio Spurs in a thicket of long arms and legs. They ran relentlessly and defended for four quarters, emerging with a 102-82 victory that gave the Spurs their first loss in 50 days and 21 games. The Thunder cut their deficit in these Western Conference finals to 2-1 and, in doing so, learned something else about themselves:
They're good enough to win this series.
"We never thought these guys had an advantage over us, even though we lost a few," Kevin Durant said with the type of confidence that can swell a locker room.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks worked on his players from the time they trudged off the court late Tuesday in San Antonio to when they walked into their own raucous arena Thursday evening. Across those 45 hours, his message never deviated. We can dig ourselves out of this hole. Look at this as an opportunity. They protected their court, we can protect ours. We're capable of doing this.
Brooks has always been able to get the Thunder to play hard. It's a strength of his, and it shouldn't be dismissed. Effort goes a long way in the grind of an NBA season, and it's helped deliver the Thunder from a 23-win season to consecutive trips to the West finals. So when Durant says, "Coach just said we need to play harder, and that's what guys did tonight," he believes it.
Yet Brooks did more than motivate over those two days, and that's why the Thunder aren't down 3-0. He and his staff watched film and made a few changes. The Spurs' point guard, Tony Parker, had carved up the Thunder in Game 2, so Brooks assigned 6-foot-7 Thabo Sefolosha to defend him. Manu Ginobili, too, had broken down Oklahoma City with his penetration in the first two games, so Brooks had the Thunder switch on pick-and-rolls. Brooks also ignored calls to sit his starting center, Kendrick Perkins, instead coaxing a better performance from him, urging Perkins to meet the Spurs' guards earlier.
"They used their length," Tim Duncan said, "and it really affected what we were doing."
One possession summed up the evening: Ginobili tried to launch a 3-pointer only to have it thrown back by Perkins, who was some 25 feet from the basket. When Ginobili corralled the rebound and tried to drive, Perkins helped strip the ball from him. Everywhere the Spurs' ball-handlers went, they had bodies bumping them, hands clawing at them. By the end of the night, the Thunder had forced 21 turnovers, a deadly total for the Spurs.
"That's who we are," Brooks said, "and that's how we win."
Win or lose this series, the Thunder will leave with a bright future ahead of them. Durant and Russell Westbrook, All-Stars both, are each 23. The Thunder also will have at least one more season with their brilliant 22-year-old sixth man, James Harden. The Thunder can preach patience as their young talent continues to develop.
Brooks doesn't have that luxury. He must grow at a faster pace. His contract ends after this season, and Thunder ownership and management want to know: Can he go the distance with these young stars? Can he guide them to a championship? Their confidence in the answer will help dictate the length of their offer to Brooks.
Playoff series can become chess matches, even if coaches like to downplay the impact of their adjustments. Players still win games, but coaches put them in positions to succeed. In the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, Brooks is matched against the game's best. And what Brooks did Thursday was help give the Thunder reason to keep believing.
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One game, one quarter, one shot can change the complexion of a series. Derek Fisher knows this. The Spurs had won 17 consecutive games after taking a 2-0 lead against Fisher's Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 West semifinals. The Lakers won the next two games at home then returned to San Antonio, where Fisher threw in his famous .4 shot to steal Game 5. Two days later, the Lakers closed out the Spurs. Seventeen straight victories followed by four straight losses and the Spurs' season was over.
Spurs officials never saw this as a series to sweep. Survival has always been the goal. These Thunder are too talented, too long, too deep. Durant, Westbrook and Harden can carry a game by themselves, but they didn't need to on Thursday. The Thunder clung to something Dwyane Wade said after the Miami Heat's thrilling overtime victory over the Boston Celtics a night earlier: Trust your teammates.
"We took notes on that," Perkins said.
The Thunder can't match the experience of the Spurs' championship core, but no longer are they using age as an excuse. Durant, Westbrook, Brooks – all of them – are trying to push forward the clock, and this goes back to something Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle noticed after the Thunder swept the defending champions in the first round.
"They have a certain look in their eye right now," Carlisle said. "Not just that they belong, but that this could be their time."
Back at home, riding that familiar wave of blue, the Thunder let the roar of their fans wash over them late Thursday. They had finally stopped the Spurs, and they saw no reason to celebrate. Their fight wasn't over. They walked off the court as poised as ever, their eyes carrying they same glint they flashed a month ago.
It wasn't fear.
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