Rising Thunder arrive in West finals


If you're trying to understand how Oklahoma City is in the Western Conference finals with its four best players aged 22 or younger, or how Kevin Durant shook off perhaps the worst game of his career 48 hours earlier to dominate Game 7, or how the Thunder's kids held together and stuck with the plan in the face of a furious, physical onslaught from the Memphis Grizzlies, that's where you need to start.


That was the Thunder's record in their first 32 games in this city in 2008-09, and their two All-Stars -- Durant and Russell Westbrook -- were there for all of it. Ask anyone with the Thunder organization, and they'll tell you the team has a maturity far beyond its years now precisely because the two key players began their careers getting their brains beat in every night.

Because of that growth, a Thunder team that seemed destined to be among the worst teams in history just two years ago is headed to the conference finals after beating Memphis 105-90 in Game 7 on Sunday.

"3-29 was tough to swallow at times," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, "but what gave me hope and gave our team hope is that every day we came to practice and we worked. Kevin, it didn't matter if we were 3-29, he gave me 29-3 effort. You usually don't take steps that quick, but our guys have never skipped steps."

This game was owned by Durant, who was the only player on the floor who could hit a shot in an ugly first half and never stopped, finishing with 39 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.

It was the first truly big game for this Oklahoma City group, playing as favorites in a closeout situation, and another failure by Durant would have left a giant monkey in his backpack.

Instead, he came out fired up over his meek effort two days earlier. Durant was far more active off the ball than he'd been in Game 6, attacked more off the dribble and benefited from an adjustment by Brooks to side pick-and-rolls that made it harder for the Grizzlies to double-team Durant.

"That wasn't me at all in Game 6," Durant said. "I was so upset with myself that I let my guys down by not playing my game. [It didn't] matter if I was shooting bad in Game 6, as long as I was aggressive, but I wasn't aggressive at all. Coming into this game I told myself to stay aggressive."

"I guess I can say it now," Brooks said. "He stunk last game. He knows that, we talked about it. There are so many things I'm proud of about Kevin, but the main thing is that he works every day to be a great player, so I knew he could come back and have a fantastic game.

"He came back with a purpose on offense to really set his man up and come of those screens better, and he was in attack mode."

"He showed the heart of a champion," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said.

That all goes back to 3-29. Despite their youth, the Thunder weren't about to panic after blowing a 13-point lead in Game 6. When Durant started Game 7 slowly, making just two of his first nine shots against the physical defense of Tony Allen, he just keep plugging away.

Similarly, Durant's two cohorts in the 3-29 start were nearly as impactful. Westbrook had the first Game 7 triple-double in nearly 20 years, and his assisting on 21 of Durant's points tied a playoff season-high.

Nick Collison, meanwhile, was a game-high plus-26 -- nothing unusual for one of the league's plus-minus kings -- by playing exemplary defense on Grizzlies post ace Zach Randolph and scoring three times on tip-ins.

"Maybe we don't have that fear of failure anymore," Collison said. "You've been embarrassed, and it's very embarrassing to be 3-29 and the worst team in the league. Maybe it gives us that ability to just go and play, see what happens and realize we've been through worse."

Ironically for a team that has made such a rapid ascent through the standings, this game was as much a victory of their slow-but-steady approach as anything else. This is a team and an organization that rarely gets too high or too low, and has openly talked about these playoffs in terms of what they'll learn and how they'll grow. One bad game wasn't about to jolt their approach.

"We didn't do anything different," said Durant of Saturday's practice following the Game 6 meltdown. "Our routine stayed the same."

Finally, this game marks another turning point of sorts. The Thunder are in the conference finals. Youth or not, they've arrived. So we can no longer discuss them as a team of the future -- this is now a team of the present. It doesn't matter if their four best players (Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka) are 22 or younger; they've proven they're as good as any team in the West.

"I think that age is kind of out the window now," Westbrook said. "Usually, you hear 'young franchise.' Now, we've grown up together and we're getting better."

Not only are they in the conference finals, but the expectation is that they'll be coming back here for a quite a while. Sure, they have nothing to lose against the veteran Dallas Mavericks in this round, but as heavy favorites in coming seasons they'll be facing a much different kind of pressure and adversity than they've dealt with so far.

But look where they've come from. For half a season these guys lost as much as any team in history, and it didn't break them. Whatever happens next, they can handle it.