Why a Spurs series rout could lead Kevin Durant to leave Thunder

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SAN ANTONIO – Twenty-four months ago, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka threatened everything here. Twenty-four months ago, they were too explosive, too athletic, too spectacular to stop. For years, the Oklahoma City Thunder marked the beginning of the end of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty. For years, it was a matter of time until the Thunder passed them in the left lane, leaving San Antonio in their wake.

This is the frightening part for the Thunder. Once, the Thunder were the heirs to the Western Conference throne. The San Antonio run was ending, and Oklahoma City promised to own the conference for a decade.

After Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in 2014 in which Durant and Westbrook had gone for 71 points and Ibaka had blocked everything, Manu Ginobili stood in the losing locker room and told me, “They're playing at a different speed, and it's like we are in slow motion. What we need to do is play a game of almost perfection.

“We've done it before. We've done it together and found a way to win – and we've lost, too. We are going to spend time talking. We are going to regroup. But this is not automatic. We've been up two and lost it before against them.

"All these things we need to do to have a chance to win, to just have a chance, and, still, they are so athletic.”

Here it is, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are no longer threatening the Spurs. Here it is, two years later and the Spurs are threatening to take this franchise apart. Now, they are threatening to beat the Thunder so badly, perhaps Durant no longer believes he can beat the Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference and maybe he’ll decide to join one of them in summer free agency.

What happened in this 124-92 Spurs victory on Saturday night in the AT&T Center was downright jarring to the Thunder, promising to test the foundation, the fabric, of this franchise. Oklahoma City had come to these Western Conference semifinals finally healthy and strong and believing the partnership of Durant and Westbrook could sustain itself in a long series against the Spurs.

Only the Thunder were an embarrassment. They let the Spurs take one open shot after another and lost them in transition and sometimes didn’t even run back on defense. They let the Spurs humiliate them and made more real the fear that the possibility of San Antonio taking them apart in this series could be the push that Durant needs to walk away for good, to believe everything has run its course here.

When the Spurs’ core was getting older, Durant watched them make two of the most important personnel moves of this decade: making a draft-day trade for Kawhi Leonard and signing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. Aldridge had 38 points in Game 1, unstoppable and uncovered on the perimeter. Leonard had 25 points and played his peerless defense on Westbrook. Golden State traded out Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr, who won NBA Coach of the Year.

Durant is left with a supporting cast that is good, but doesn’t match the greatness in San Antonio and Golden State. He’s left with a developing NBA head coach in Billy Donovan, who’ll someday be excellent in this league. For now, he’s learning on the job in the playoffs and that’s no match for Gregg Popovich.

This is a frightening proposition, the idea that the first steps of Durant’s free agency could begin with a humiliation at the hands of the Spurs. When it was over on Saturday night, Durant was calm, cool in the losing locker room. He’s a tremendous leader, and never runs on his responsibility. Together, Westbrook and Durant sent a message to Donovan, to the rest of these Thunder: This is one game, and we’ll come harder, surer and get ourselves back into this series.

For Durant and Westbrook, this was the perfect public reaction to this loss, and how stars keep calm when the uncertainty of a night like Game 1 could transform itself into panic. Deep down, they understand though: These Spurs won 67 regular-season games and are constructed to defend the Thunder in ways that they’ve never been able in the past. The Spurs can score everywhere on the floor and clog Durant and Westbrook with immense size at the rim, and it is beyond belief to think that the Spurs’ dynasty could’ve survived a Durant-Westbrook-James Harden era that could forever be remembered for what-ifs rather than titles.

Twenty-four months ago, the Spurs were 2-2 with the Thunder and everyone wondered: Could they get out of a series with them and win that fifth NBA title? They did. Four years ago, the Spurs had a 2-0 lead in the conference finals and watched those space-age Thunder rip off four straight to eliminate them. It felt like it was a matter of time until the Thunder would be largely responsible for taking apart the final days of the San Antonio Spurs.

Only, it never happened – and probably never will. Somehow, the Thunder are holding tight to a franchise that needs to convince Kevin Durant that he’s getting closer to a championship – not further away. This was a long, long night for those trying to make that sale to him, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have to hope that Game 1 was merely an aberration, that there isn’t such a gulf between them and the Spurs.

There are consequences for losing this series, and they could resonate forever in the franchise’s history. San Antonio and Golden State aren’t only trying to beat the Thunder, they’re threatening to end them forever. Durant is a free-agent play for the best two teams in the NBA, and Oklahoma City needs to make a stand and needs to make it now.