The Oklahoma City Thunder are heading to the 2012 NBA Finals—and it won't be the last time.
For all the talk surrounding the hastily constructed Miami Heat or the declining San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers, no team has a better chance of dominating the next decade than the one Kevin Durant is taking to what may be its first title.
As we should all know by now, the Thunder are the real deal.
The Thunder may have just one trip to the finals soon under their belt, but this was no ordinary postseason for Scott Brooks' young and already dominant squad.
Nor was this season a fluke by any stretch of the imagination—the Thunder were close last year, too. This is the culmination of a franchise rebuilding, with a few draft picks that turned out pretty well: Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008 and James Harden in 2009.
How good were those draft decisions?
Good enough that OKC was able to make short work of the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers, and good enough to overcome an 0-2 hole against the San Antonio Spurs to deny Tim Duncan a shot at his fifth ring.
There's been no shortage of epic symbolism along the way.
The upstart Thunder beat a lineup of teams that epitomize what it means to contend in the Western Conference. The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs account for 10 NBA championships since 1999.
It's about time someone else has some of the fun.
In a sequence that seemed scripted at every turn, the Thunder made the reigning champion Mavericks look old, while the Lakers were simply outgunned in the second round. As for the Spurs, it just seemed like OKC wanted it more.
Sometimes, that's all it takes.
In the process, a torch has also been passed to Kevin Durant—the lanky shooter who was drafted after Greg Oden in a draft that singularly spited the Pacific Northwest.
Durant did the same things Kobe Bryant has done for the last 16 years—only this time, he did them to Kobe Bryant. He deferred when it was time for Harden or Westbrook to shine, and he took games over when it was his turn.
He also took a note from Dirk Nowitzki's playbook, becoming a pure shooter who's just too tall to stop.
And he surely shares a resemblance to Tim Duncan but not because of any on-court similarities. Durant is, quite simply, the NBA's new Nice Guy—the humble, small-market superstar on a collision course with the Dark Side that is LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The symmetry doesn't stop there, as Michael Lee of the Washington Post notes:
It's crazy how a young 23-year-old Tim Duncan led SAS to a title in lockout year in 1999, now he passes torch to a 23-year-old Kevin Durant— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) June 7, 2012
Of course, it isn't just that the Thunder feel like the next team in line to be a dynastic force in the NBA, but they're built like one, too. And not just because they have arguably the league's best player in hand for six more years before he even turns 30.
General manager Sam Presti worked for the San Antonio Spurs front office before taking over a new, uncertain project. His role in this team's ascendance wasn't lost on ESPN.com insider Tom Haberstroh, who tweeted:
Sam Presti was 30 when he took this team over. 5 years later, the Finals.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 7, 2012
Presti hasn't done a bad job.
The Thunder have built a dangerous roster that's capable of winning for a long time to come. The interior defense is there, the quickness and athleticism are there, and the shooting is most certainly there. So, too, is the veteran presence of Derek Fisher and the defensive pressure of Thabo Sefolosha.
This is a team of superstars hitting their primes and role players who do their jobs—a combination for success that isn't changing anytime soon. Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe sums it up best:
Congrats to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the deserving Western Conference champions. What a great, young, growing team.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_SI) June 6, 2012
It's also a team that can beat you in so many ways.
Yes, they have the kind of individual talent that can excel in transition, isolation or the post, but they also have the ability to share the ball in half-court sets and grind out slower games. Few teams are so versatile.
Even fewer are so exciting.
After watching the Miami Heat share a relationship with their home crowd that can only be described as awkward, the Thunder live and breathe their fans' energy. James Harden may have been named Sixth Man of the Year, but this team's real sixth man is watching from the stands.
Fear the beard all you like, but teams coming into Chesapeake Energy Arena fear the fans even more.
They might get even more fearsome as this hot young team quickly becomes the league's very best—and stays there for a while.