Thunder Enter Series vs. Spurs with Pressure to Win NBA Title at All-Time High

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2016

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and guard Russell Westbrook (0) watch a free throw during the first half in Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks Thursday, April 21, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

It is a good thing the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled out a 118-104 Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks to put a bow on their first-round series.

Losing wouldn't have pinned them against the ropes. Every game of this set, even blowouts, felt like a slog. But the series was never really in doubt. As Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman pointed out afterward: 

Dropping Game 5 would have, however, bilked the Thunder of rest before their second-round bout with the San Antonio Spurs, which tips off Saturday. And they need rest—additional time to prepare for the NBA's second-best team and a high-stakes matchup that will have a lasting impact on the franchise's future.

These Thunder, you see, have never been under more pressure to win a title than they are now. And that, admittedly, is not ideal.

The Association's title race has time after time been diluted down to a two-team pursuit—a three-squad chase at most. The Golden State Warriors just wrapped up the best regular season in league history; the Spurs paced all teams in net rating during that same campaign; and the Cleveland Cavaliers, despite being clearly inferior to the Western Conference's topmost powerhouses, are heavy favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference, drumming up their championship value by default.

That has left the Thunder, along with a select few other hopefuls, on the outskirts of the title bubble. Their candidacy has been deemed artificial. The idea that they could usurp both Golden State and San Antonio, two of the best teams ever, was too impractical, too impossible, to genuinely envision.

And yet, residing among the NBA's almosts isn't good enough for the Thunder, not even when bowing down to the Warriors and Spurs is expected and, subsequently, acceptable.

Durant's impending free agency has increased the anxiety surrounding Oklahoma City's latest postseason push.
Durant's impending free agency has increased the anxiety surrounding Oklahoma City's latest postseason push.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Oklahoma City has two of the world's top 10 talents in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka completes a Big Three that is second to one or two other trios but no more. Dion Waiters has established himself as a viable catch-and-shoot weapon. Steven Adams has struck the perfect balance between pesky and erratic. Enes Kanter is the real Sixth Man of the Year among volume scorers.

Sprinkle in Durant's impending free agency, and this is the Thunder's last opportunity to vindicate their nucleus from doubt.

Winning a title removes the guesswork from Durant's open-market exploration. It turns the free agencies of Ibaka and Westbrook for 2017 into presumed formalities. It makes paying Adams (extension eligible) and Waiters (restricted free agent) this summer that much easier. It makes Kanter's contract from last year look that much better.

This is, without question, a tough burden to bear. But it's a fitting one, too. The Thunder have employed this championship core for the better part of a decade. They have used up their grace period, one they shortened with an ahead-of-schedule NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

Plus, while the harrowing task of surviving San Antonio and then (most likely) Golden State remains, Oklahoma City's championship chances have actually never been better.

A healthy Durant and Westbrook has helped create a renewed sense of urgency in Oklahoma City.
A healthy Durant and Westbrook has helped create a renewed sense of urgency in Oklahoma City.Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

Durant and Westbrook are at the peak of their careers—especially Westbrook.

He has has emerged as an MVP contender over the last two years and is now the first player since Magic Johnson in 1991 to collect 130 points, 36 rebounds and 56 assists through the first five games of the postseason. Include his eight steals during the first round, and he is the only player (since at least 1983) to amass those totals. 

"I didn't see it or hear, but I'll tell you this: I'm really, really happy he's on my team," Thunder coach Billy Donovan responded when asked about Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying Westbrook wasn't a superstar, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody."

Some would dare call Westbrook Oklahoma City's most valuable player at this point. And even if you're prepared to dismiss the notion as a farce, it speaks to the Thunder's star power that there is a basis, however slight, for such a discussion.

This is also the first time that Oklahoma City's Big Three is postseason-ready since that Finals run.

A torn meniscus limited Westbrook to two playoff tilts in 2013; Ibaka missed two games with an injured calf in 2014 and just wasn't the same when he returned against the Spurs during the Western Conference Finals; and the Thunder missed the postseason entirely in 2015 because both Durant and Ibaka couldn't stay on the floor.

All of this matters. San Antonio is a terrifying matchup for any opponent, but Oklahoma City has more than held its own over the years, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann:

Indeed, the Spurs of this season are different. Scarier. The best version of themselves ever. And they will push Oklahoma City in ways Dallas never could, as SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:

Kawhi Leonard, the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is as good a physical match (and as exhausting a technical opponent) for Durant as you’ll find. Danny Green can at least recover and contest against Westbrook with more room for error than any Maverick could, even if his cross-matched coverage is an imperfect solution.

What matters most is taking away the express options of Durant and Westbrook shooting over the top of the defense or blowing by a defender without the aid of a screen. San Antonio won’t be as vulnerable in those ways, forcing OKC’s stars to earn every clean look they get.

But the Thunder have stood their ground against these Spurs as well, again per Schuhmann:

It's difficult not to feel optimistic about Oklahoma City's chances knowing it's at full strength. It becomes even harder when you realize the Spurs may end up being the only real obstacle standing between the Thunder and an NBA Finals berth.

Stephen Curry suffered a sprained right MCL during the Warriors' Game 4 win over the Houston Rockets and, according to a team announcement, won't be available for at least two weeks. The prognosis comes as relatively good news, but it's nevertheless utterly ambiguous.

General manager Bob Myers admitted as much, per the Mercury News' Tim Kawakami:

Soldiering on without Curry is not of any immediate concern. The Warriors are up 3-1 on the Rockets and will advance to the second round. Nothing is guaranteed beyond that, as ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss explained:

Though Curry's timetable would put him back in action before the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors have to get there first, almost entirely without him.

If they do, Curry isn't a lock to be 100 percent—or even play. And a Curry-less Warriors team wouldn't be favored over the Thunder. 

Neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor Portland Trail Blazers, should they get past Golden State, would be favored in a seven-game set with Oklahoma City either. Portland is overachieving by being in the playoffs at all, and Los Angeles' postseason trajectory is in jeopardy (shambles?) after Chris Paul suffered a fracture in his right hand and Blake Griffin re-injured his left quad, per Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner.

So it is possible, if not absolutely certain, that the Thunder will become the Western Conference favorite should they make it past San Antonio. And from there, not a single team in the East, including the Cavaliers, is noticeably better than them.

San Antonio may end up posing the last real threat to Oklahoma City's pursuit of a Finals berth.
San Antonio may end up posing the last real threat to Oklahoma City's pursuit of a Finals berth.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Those are the stakes for Oklahoma City as it prepares for San Antonio, a squad that feels beatable as long as Durant is healthy and Westbrook continues flirting with triple-doubles while notching career-best numbers from beyond the arc.

These Thunder have never been better built to win an NBA championship, iffy crunch-time shot selection, decision-making and all. And that's fitting.

Because they've never needed that elusive title more than they do now.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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