SAN ANTONIO -- When historians document the eureka moment in the ascension of the Oklahoma City Thunder, they will not focus on the good fortune that turned out to be Kevin Durant. Nor will they cite the brilliant drafting of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, or even the shrewd trades that brought in Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha.
Personnel will obviously be important. But there is a moment when a team with tantalizing potential figures out what it takes to win at the highest level. There is a moment when a team with championship aspirations becomes a team that demonstrates it can win a title.
For the Thunder, that moment was Monday night.
In defeating the San Antonio Spurs 108-103 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Thunder put themselves in position to do something this group of players has not yet accomplished -- win a series without home-court advantage.
The Thunder are in the playoffs for the third consecutive year. They are in their seventh playoff series. They have won four of those series, including two this year. As good as they have been with Durant, the three-time scoring champion, and the electrifying guard duo of Westbrook and Harden, they remained a team of the future.
But that changed with a victory on the Spurs' home court -- a victory that had them build leads, survive runs, overcome deficits and withstand a determined challenge that would have gotten the better of a lesser team.
With 5:17 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder led 101-88 and the Spurs looked confused and lifeless. But with Tim Duncan scoring six points, the Spurs rattled off 11 straight to get within two points with slightly less than two minutes left.
But the young guys refused to fold. Westbrook (23 years old) hit a 17-foot laser. Harden (22) nailed a three-pointer. And Durant (23) finished the job, hitting two free throws with less than a second left to give the Thunder a 3-2 advantage in the series, which moves back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 on Wednesday.
In outlining the challenge for his team, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich paid tribute to what the Thunder have become. The Spurs had little success in two previous games, losing by an average of 13 points in Oklahoma City.
"Championship teams win on the road and Oklahoma City just did that," Popovich said. "So they've proven they're a championship-caliber team. We have to go do that. If we can't win Wednesday, we're not a championship-caliber team. It's as simple as that. You look at anybody who's won championships, and they've won on the road."
Look at any team that won a championship, however, and it is unlikely it will have all key players 23 and under. There might be a Magic Johnson or a Kobe Bryant, but such a team also has an older Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O'Neal.
But apparently the collective experience of the group is paying dividends. Durant has been with the team five years. Westbrook has been his teammate for four of those. Harden arrived three years ago. They've grown up together and have developed confidence in each other and in their teammates.
"Can we win a championship?" Thunder coach Scott Brooks asked rhetorically. "Absolutely. We feel like we're an elite basketball team and we've never looked at our age. I don't give them the excuse and say, 'It's OK, you're only 20. It's OK. Three years from now you'll be 23.' We've never done that."
Said Durant: "We never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn."
The Thunder had the second-best record in the West behind San Antonio in the regular season. And even though Oklahoma City swept defending champion Dallas in the first round and eliminated the Lakers in five games in the second round, it entered this series as the underdog. San Antonio not only swept its first two series against the Jazz and Clippers, but it also won the first two games of the conference finals. Those victories gave the Spurs a 20-game winning streak, which included 11 games at home and nine on the road.
Suddenly, however, the Spurs have gone from invincible to in trouble. They seemed to be in such a good position to win their fifth title since 1999. But now, forget winning two games -- simply winning on the Thunder's home floor seems almost impossible.
If the Spurs are somehow to regain their edge, they will have to play a complete game and drastically reduce their errors. They had 21 turnovers Monday. During the regular season, they had the fifth fewest turnovers in the league, averaging 13.2 a game. They had eight in the first quarter and that led to a deficit that eventually reached 14 points in the second period.
"I was disappointed in the lack of competitiveness overall in the first half," Popovich said. "I was proud of them that they came back and dug down deep and competed in the second half. But we've been competing for three quarters in the last two games and tonight we competed for two quarters. If we don't get that straight, it will be over Wednesday."
The Spurs have been effective at times against the Thunder's big three, but Durant scored 27 points, Westbrook finished with 23 and Harden had 20 on Monday as Oklahoma City shot 50 percent from the field. Popovich moved Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup to get more offense and the veteran guard was again terrific with 34 points, though he missed a potential game-tying three-pointer with less than five seconds left.
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti has done a magnificent job of building the team. He was lucky Portland took Greg Oden with the first pick in the 2007 draft. That left him the easy choice of choosing Durant. But selecting Westbrook fourth in 2008 and Harden third in 2009 were inspired picks. And Presti did well later in the first round, getting shot-blocker Ibaka with the 24th pick in 2008. That nucleus gives the Thunder a future that is unrivaled in the league.
"Three years from now, Kevin's only 26," Brooks said. "We feel like we have enough [to win right now], but with that being said, our window's not going to close after this season."
That's true. Oklahoma City should be good for many years to come. But it is obvious that no one is looking ahead. For the Thunder, the future is now.