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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder on the Cusp of Reaching the NBA Finals
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5 Jun 2012 01:36 PM EST

-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Kevin Durant rises up over the Spurs defense in Game 5. (Image Source: Getty Images)

Less than a week ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were down two games to none to the San Antonio Spurs, who were riding a 20-game winning streak. The Spurs were headed to the NBA Finals, while the baby Thunder were a year away.

That was last week’s narrative. Fast forward to today and it’s OKC that is in control of the series and one win away from taking the Western Conference Finals after winning their third straight game with a 108-103 victory at the AT&T Center in San Antonio on Monday night.

It appears that the Thunder’s time is now, while the window is closing on the suddenly aging Spurs.

That’s not to say this series is over. If James Harden doesn’t hit a dagger three with the shot clock winding down and 28 seconds remaining in the game to put the Thunder up 106-101, we could be telling a completely different story today.

“I had to make a play,” Harden said of his clutch shot. “I think Kawhi [Leonard] was playing very good defense on me, and I just had to make a shot. I just went back to my mechanics and shot the ball with confidence, and it went in.”

After a three-point play by Harden gave OKC a 13-point lead with 5:16 remaining, the game appeared to be over, but San Antonio reeled off 11 straight points to cut the lead to 101-99.

Lead guard Russell Westbrook hit a clutch jump shot from 17-feet out to stop the bleeding, but the point guard turned the ball over twice [double dribble and offensive foul], as the Thunder went scoreless for 3:40 seconds while the Spurs went on their run.

“Man, I’m going to continue to play aggressive, whatever is going on,” Westbrook said. “I might turn over the ball. It’s definitely a learning process for me, a learning stage for myself. You know, that’s part of the job, and Kevin [Durant], James [Harden] and those guys picked me up even when things were going downhill, and they did that tonight.”

The Thunder continue to be among the best shooting teams in the final two minutes of playoff games in recent memory, making 13-of-23 such attempts in the 2012 postseason.

Durant, who scored a team-high 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field, took just one shot in the final six minutes of the contest. Westbrook scored 23 points, but needed 24 shots to do so [making nine], while also dishing out a game-high 12 assists. Harden [6-of-11] added 20 off the bench, as no other OKC player reached double figures.

Even so, the role players/bench came up big. OKC’s big three combined for 70 points, while San Antonio’s big three of Tony Parker [20 points], Tim Duncan [18 points] and Manu Ginobili [34 points] scored 72 points between them. Which means that the Thunder’s role players outplayed the Spurs’ ballyhooed bunch. Remember, besides experience/age vs. youth/athleticism, this series was supposed to be about the star power of Oklahoma City against the depth of San Antonio.

How about little-used guard Daequan Cook scoring eight points in the span of 1:24 in the second quarter?

Nevertheless, it always comes back to Durant, who scored 22 points after intermission, prompting San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich to call Durant “arguably the best player on the planet.”

That’s debatable, but he is the best player in the Western Conference Finals.

The Game 5 loss puts the Spurs on the brink of elimination, as they will now have to win on the road in order to keep the series alive and bring it back to San Antonio.

“Championship teams win on the road, and Oklahoma City just did that,” Popovich said after the game. “If we can’t do that Wednesday, then we’re not championship caliber.”

But how did the Spurs let it get to this point…after winning 20 straight and taking a 2-0 lead to start the series?

They’ve been a different team and columnist Buck Harvey writes that, “The Spurs were unrecognizable from the team that won 20 in a row.”

Duncan, who hasn’t played well for most of the series, and Parker have aged before our eyes and key contributors from the youth movement, such as Danny Green [benched for Game 5, played four minutes] and Gary Neal [0-for-6] were non-factors. Only veteran Stephen Jackson gave Ginobili, Parker and Duncan any support from the supporting cast.

The only question that remains for the Spurs, is can they rediscover the magic they had from April 12 until May 31? If not, their season will end Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.

Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of American. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.

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