Champions are forged in the fires of failures, hardened by defeats, educated by their conquerors. It has traveled the rockiest of roads, Oklahoma City: One last, lackluster season in Seattle in 2007-08, a disastrous 3-29 start in a new home a year later, a first-round loss to the Lakers in 2010 and a five-game beating by the Mavericks last season. The Thunder battled and they lost, but they learned and got better. They are not a finished product, not with a team full of NBA toddlers who seem to be developing in real time. But after Wednesday night's 107-99 series-clinching win over San Antonio, they are officially the best in the West, and in a couple of weeks they could prove that they are already better than everyone else.
This was no club team Oklahoma City systematically dismantled over four straight games. This was the Spurs, the West's best in the regular season, a team with a future Hall of Fame coach (Gregg Popovich) and player (Tim Duncan) with potentially two more (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) who line up right behind him. San Antonio looked comfortably in control after building an 18-point second-quarter lead and taking a 15-point advantage into halftime on Wednesday. Then the Thunder went into the locker room, flipped a switch and it was over. No major changes, no significant adjustments. Just a resolve to play better, to flex their considerable talent against an opponent they knew they could beat.
"It had nothing to do with stats," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It had everything to do with who we are as men. Who we are as a team with the type of spirit that we want to show every time down the court. It was all about body language, about being a family. Our guys did that the first possession of the second half and they did not look back."
Granted, it's easy to talk about body language when the top scorer in the game is playing for you. Kevin Durant has been the best scorer in the NBA three years running, every year finding new ways to squeeze more offense out of that gangly, 6-foot-9 frame. He had the three-point shot going in the third quarter, knocking down two of his three attempts as the Thunder quickly erased that halftime deficit.
Durant is not as complete a player as reigning MVP LeBron James, not yet anyway. But he has the cold-blooded, killer instinct in his DNA that LeBron lacks, and may never develop. Durant relentlessly attacked the rim in the fourth quarter, never coming out of the game, getting to the free throw line eight times (making six) to help close the show. He finished with 34 points and 14 rebounds.
Durant personifies Oklahoma City's rise. He was a stringy 19-year-old that last season in Seattle, the de facto captain of a sinking ship. Believers were few and far between back then, just Durant and his mother, Wanda, who, said Durant, "has been believing in us since Day 1." The lessons learned from the losses stick with Durant, like they stick with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the rest of this homegrown group. Losing wasn't really losing, Brooks told them in those days. It was learning how to win.
"You can look at [the losing] as a negative," Westbrook said. "But I think as a group and as an organization, we saw some light and we saw that one day we would be at this moment and one day we would have an opportunity to win a championship."
That day is here, and suddenly this Thunder team looks like a very scary bunch. Miami assembled basketball's Voltron thinking it could storm to multiple titles, but even a healthy Heat team may be no match for OKC. The Thunder have their star power locked into long-term contracts in Durant and Westbrook and a third option in playmaking guard Harden who is as clutch (10 points in the fourth) as he is talented. They have a beefy front line with Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and a defensive stopper in Thabo Sefolosha. They have a general manager in Sam Presti who has a knack for finding value deep in drafts and a coach whose stock is rising as fast as his players'.
"They have so much talent, they are so athletic and they have got a great front office," admitted Ginobili. "They have got a very bright future."
Indeed, there is a potential dynasty forming in Oklahoma City, and these next two weeks could just be the first step. Whether it's Boston or Miami that comes out of the Eastern Conference, the Thunder will be the favorites. They will have home-court advantage and the swagger that comes with beating up on the best. The Thunder walked through the last three Western Conference champs during this run, eliminating the only teams that have represented the conference since 1999 and teams who own 10 of the last 13 NBA championships.
"You really have to think it's almost like a Hollywood script for OKC in a sense," Popovich said. "They went through Dallas, they went through the Lakers and they went through us. I don't know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through the playoffs playing those kind of teams. It's just incredible."
Incredible is yet to come. As Durant and Westbrook finished with the press late Wednesday night, there was no excessive laughing or patting on the back. Just a steely resolve from two players who know what it is like to lose, and now want to win. They won't talk about winning championships, Durant and Westbrook. They will just go out and win them.