In the end, everyone was right. Everyone may have gone through various stages of rightness and wrongness, changing their opinions as the evidence on the court mutated over the months of the season – but now we’ve reached the Finals, those first impressions have been vindicated. Youth has beaten experience, legs have trumped brains, the students have outplayed the janitors. Oklahoma City are the champions of the West, San Antonio may well have missed their last chance for another title, and non-process oriented pundits are delighted with their prognosticatory prowess.
It is of course a disservice to both teams to reduce this encounter to a simple triumph of athleticism, though that is the major strand in the maturation of the Thunder. The tactical changes implemented by Scott Brooks after San Antonio savvied their way to a 2-0 series lead took advantage of more than just arthritic reaction times, and allowed his team’s superior running to become the decisive factor. By pushing the Thunder to defend more actively at the top of the key, Brooks was able to turn the sloppy passing that San Antonio had evidenced in their two wins into killer turnovers, as well as forcing the Spurs to work harder and harder to get those eerily easy shots that are the rigid underwiring of their game plan brassiere. That harder work, those extra trips back to their own goal to repair the turnover damage – it all started to sap the life from San Antonio’s legs. You could see the effort telling on the Spurs’ faces – Tim Duncan in particular glowering at any ball he had to pick up off the floor as if to say ‘Why to you have to be all the way down there?’
Game Six is where it all culminated. The Spurs worked hard like an army of distant fathers from a Disney movie during the first half – moving the ball, hitting shots, setting and re-setting screens, wondering if Stephen Jackson’s flawless shooting meant he had woken up thinking it was 2003 – expending an incredible effort to go in 15 points ahead at the half. Unfortunately for San Antonio, this was unsustainable. The Thunder began to reel them in over the third quarter, and once they got ahead early in the fourth, it was painfully clear that the Spurs had enough energy to attack or defend, but not both. Sensing this, Brooks kept sending Westbrook and Harden to the rim, where they scored at will, bounding past a shattered array of black-jerseys on their way. San Antonio were still getting their jump shots in, but without the ability to stop the Thunder, they were kept at arm’s length until the buzzer. The last meaningful play of the game saw Jackson and Parker throw up the least-Popovichian shots of the season – desperation threes that clanged out and finally fell into Kevin Durant’s hands, who then launched an outlet pass to a wide-open Kendrick Perkins. No Spur made more than a token effort to get back and stop Perkins from scoring – instead they shrugged and gave up, practically walking off the court even with 25 seconds left to make up only six points. The wise heads recognised a lost cause.
So Oklahoma City have at last arrived. Years of youthful promise, undermined by equally youthful flaws, have bloomed into a team with one hand on the Larry O’Brien trophy. Russell Westbrook has managed to convert 90% of his frustratingly ill-advised shots into canny extra passes. Scott Brooks has learned how to make incisive strategic adjustments, rather than simply relying on Kevin Durant to be seven feet of implacable scoring (which, in fairness, isn’t actually a terrible tactic). James Harden has added extra beard to a chin that many had assumed had reached total beard saturation. They have become a hard working team of self-aware role players built around a Big Three that are easily the rival of Miami’s headline act in terms of talent – but it’s a Big Three that have grown up together rather than forcing themselves into the same team, inviting the highest levels of scrutiny, pressure and enmity possible. The Thunder are likable, talented and enjoy the support of every neutral outside of Washington State. They are the team to beat for years to come, and if anyone wants to stop them, they better have started building their franchise five years ago. The NBA guard has officially changed.