The Rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder: Talent Trumps Everything

Jeff SpiegelContributor IIJune 8, 2012

It's amazing what 10 days can do to change things.

As of May 29, the Oklahoma City Thunder trailed the San Antonio Spurs 2—0 in the Western Conference Finals and all hope seemed lost. Sure, they were returning home for Games 3 and 4, but with the Spurs having won 20 games in a row (and scoring 100+ points in 18 of them), little was expected to change in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder was a young team that plays recklessly, had a heavily criticized coach and just hadn't "matured" yet.

The Spurs, on the other hand, were the exact opposite. They were old, incredibly coached and played what basketball purists were calling "perfect basketball."

It was like talk-show hosts had an insatiable desire to talk about ball movement, role players and open shots. If you watched ESPN for two straight days you probably would have gone home, emptied your savings account and taken it all to Vegas to bet on the Spurs. This team was perfect.

They couldn't lose. They had the best coach in the game. They had three of the better players in the NBA. And their ball movement, wow!

Unfortunately for analysts everywhere, they forgot about one tiny thing: talent trumps everything.

They forgot that Kevin Durant was either the best or second-best player in the league, and the impact that he was capable of making on this series. They forgot that Russell Westbrook and James Harden were probably the third and fourth best players in the series (behind Tony Parker).

LeBron James showed the Celtics in game six why the Heat are the favorites to win game seven.
LeBron James showed the Celtics in game six why the Heat are the favorites to win game seven.

Ultimately, they forgot that when a team has three of the four best players in a series, that team is probably going to win. In fairness though, euphoric ball movement can make you forget these things.

So after a nine-point victory for the Spurs in Game 1 (after the Thunder played five tough games against the Lakers while the Spurs cruised past the Clippers), Game 2 brought the series much closer to what people were expecting.

After taking a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter, however, the Thunder suffered an epic collapse, as they were outscored by 12 in the fourth in a narrow three-point loss.

Game 3, as you remember, wasn't even close. The Thunder reminded everyone what they were capable of with a 20-point drubbing of the Spurs.

Needing Game 4 almost as badly, the Thunder took a 12-point lead into halftime, but saw it evaporate to just four points entering the fourth.

Gut check time.

In arguably the most important 12 minutes of the series, Kevin Durant manned up. Up six with seven minutes left, Durant scored the Thunder's next 16 points and extended the lead to nine points. In those 5 1/2 minutes, Durant took all but one shot for the Thunder.

The Thunder went on to win by six (after a last-second three from the Spurs), and went back to Texas all tied up.

While everyone was excited to see an interesting series materialize, nobody saw what was coming next.

Needing to regain momentum in Game 5, the Spurs came out flat as the Thunder outscored them in the first three quarters, taking a nine-point lead into the fourth. While the lead grew as high as 12, two Manu Ginobili free throws with two minutes left cut the lead to just two.

Having not scored in over three minutes, the Thunder got a big bucket from Westbrook that was eventually matched by Duncan. So with 30 seconds left and the Thunder clinging to a two-point lead, James Harden drilled the biggest shot of his career with a cool three that extended the lead to five.

So with a narrow escape in game five, the pundits still seemed to be leaning towards a Spurs miracle. Their ball movement is so perfect, though.

Game 6 played out far differently than the previous three, however, as the Spurs jumped out to a 14-point first quarter lead that lasted almost through halftime.

Having taken their opponent's best punch, Durant and the Thunder responded with a 32-18 drubbing in the third quarter that gave them the lead heading into the fourth.

With a lead that never grew higher than six until there were 14 seconds left, Oklahoma City relied on a couple big shots from Derek Fisher and a stellar performance from the free throw line (11/13 in the fourth) to earn their first trip to the NBA Finals.

In the 48 hours since Game 6, as experts everywhere have digested what exactly took place and how such perfect coaching and excellent ball movement could have been defeated, the explanations were numerous.

This team matured. They came of age. Scott Brooks finally out-coached Popovich.

What they didn't say, however, was simple: the Thunder won because most of the time, talent trumps coaching, teamwork, ball movement, chemistry and anything else the Spurs had.

Over the course of a seven game series, the team with the best players will win more than they will lose. It's the same reason the Heat won Game 6 so decisively.

On paper, that series shouldn't be close. In Game 6, it wasn't.

In a series with two teams that are evenly matched, coaching and teamwork can swing a series. So if we see the Thunder play the Heat in the finals, things will get interesting.

Until then however, forget it all. I'm putting my money on talent.