SAN ANTONIO -- When historians document the eureka moment in the ascension of the Oklahoma City Thunder, they will not focus on the good fortune that turned out to be Kevin Durant. Nor will they cite the brilliant drafting of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, or even the shrewd trades that brought in Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha.
The Spurs play host to the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday (9 p.m. ET, TNT). The series is tied at 2-2 after both teams won twice on their home floor. How did we get here and what's in store for the rest of the series? Five SI.com NBA writers take stock of a matchup that is living up to its billing.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant stood on the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena and let the noise wash over him, noise like you don't hear anywhere else in pro sports, unique because of the volume but also because of the tone. It is less of a full-throated bellow than a high-pitched shriek, the sound of families with children who are hopped up on candy way past their bedtimes, at the state's most delightful circus. Durant built this big top, with his youth and his bounce, his long arms and feathery jumpers. Fans around town wear T-shirts with his name in place of the Thunder logo. That's about right. He and the franchise are interchangeable. They came to Oklahoma City together and they will likely win championships together. The only question is when.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It took 50 days, 20 games and 10 different opponents. It took the highest scorer in the NBA, the loudest crowd and the best sixth man. It took a poised point guard, a proven defensive stopper and an inspired front line. But the Oklahoma City Thunder did what no one has been able to do since Tax Day. They beat the San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder didn't just snap the streak, they sawed it in pieces, treating San Antonio the way the Spurs have been treating everybody else for the past two months.
I'm not going to claim that what's going on with the San Antonio Spurs isn't surprising. With 20 straight wins heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City on Thursday, they are playing, after all, at a level reached by few teams in NBA history. Even with their consistently outstanding season, you didn't see this coming.
SAN ANTONIO -- To their credit, the Thunder have not yet offered to negotiate terms of surrender. No white flags have been spotted near the bench. No one has screamed "no mas!" Scott Brooks has not ordered his troops to retreat.
Maybe Kenyon Martin's pride was doing the talking, or maybe the Clippers' forward and 12-year veteran was reserving judgment until the end of the playoffs.
SAN ANTONIO -- The future seemed to arrive with all the subtlety of a lightning bolt Sunday evening. Impressive winning streaks and home-court advantage bothered the Oklahoma City Thunder less than a 7-footer standing in front of the basket.
At a time when the Eastern Conference finalists, Boston and Miami, are dealing with age or injury issues, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are peaking, collectively winning 16 of 17 games in the opening rounds. The Thunder faced the past two NBA champions -- confident, veteran teams with renowned closers in Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers -- and broke their spirit with youthful energy and talent enriched by crunch-time poise and grit. The Spurs are merely the hottest team ever to enter a conference finals, having won 18 straight and 29 of 31, including dismantling four-game sweeps of the Jazz and Clippers in which their average margin of victory was 13.75 points.
LeBron James is cocky. Kobe Bryant is a ball hog. Kevin Garnett is a thug. Dwight Howard got his coach fired. And Metta World Peace? Ugh, Metta World Peace.
LOS ANGELES -- Clippers general manager Neil Olshey still had a smile on his face, which tells anyone who was at Staples Center on Saturday afternoon that it was still early.
The usual guidelines no longer appear to be relevant. The NBA postseason has become unusually unpredictable. What comes next may no longer be based on what happened before.
SAN ANTONIO -- Before he reached the modest age of 20, Tony Parker had played in 87 NBA regular-season and playoff games and considered it nothing more than normal. Everything in his life seemed to happen fast -- from a playing career that began professionally in France when he was 17, to the way he approached the game, which was roughly equivalent to the way Usain Bolt approaches a run in the park.
Everything is hard for the Clippers. They slogged through an injury-filled regular season. They struggled to score in their half-court offense all year. They lost to teams they should have beaten. They endured a grueling seven-game first-round series with the Grizzlies.
No team handled the shortened season better than the Spurs. After receiving an infusion of athleticism and outside shooting, coach Gregg Popovich played Scrooge with minutes, not allowing anyone to play more than 32.8 a game and letting the team's Big Three -- Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- skip selected games in order to keep rested. But unlike many veteran contenders, the Spurs didn't suffer a decline in playoff seeding for the gains of better health. In the process, Popovich developed a roster that doesn't have merely one Sixth Man Award candidate, but an entire lineup of them. That depth was on display in a first-round sweep of Utah, as San Antonio's bench often extended leads.
These are the stats that should make San Antonio's future playoff opponents quiver after the Spurs closed out their four-game sweep of Utah Monday night with an 87-81 win at EnergySolutions Arena: None of San Antonio's starters shot better than 40 percent from the field in Game 4. None scored more than 11 points, and the starting frontcourt combined to shoot just 5-of-18 from the field. And yet the Spurs dominated most of the game. They led for the final 36 minutes. They were up as much as 21 points on the road against a team desperate to avoid elimination. And they did it with nine players seeing 20 or more minutes of action, with a bench that became their most productive unit. Now, as the Spurs move further in the playoffs, whoever they end up facing may look at Monday's game and question how any team can keep pace with such a lethal wave of weapons.
Heavy lied the crown last season as the top-seeded Spurs suffered one of the worst first-round upsets in playoff history. This year, they're the ones dishing out the embarrassment in their opening matchup. The Spurs cruised past the Jazz 114-83 in Game 2 on Wednesday in San Antonio to take a 2-0 lead, leaving little doubt as to how this series should end.
Two weeks ago, this would have felt like a San Antonio walkover. The Spurs have destroyed the league of late, outscoring opponents by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions -- an unthinkable number -- over their last 20 games and generally peaking at the right time. The Jazz have been a nice story, but they are the worst defensive team among all playoff clubs, precisely the kind of slow-footed group the Spurs slice apart with fast-moving pick-and-rolls, quick passes and gobs of three-pointers. The Spurs scored well and rained threes in taking three of four from the Jazz, and their only loss came in a late-season game in which Gregg Popovich rested Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- By Tony Parker's calculations, this shouldn't be happening.
BOSTON -- They're not old. They're not dull. They're not done.
LOS ANGELES -- As the elevator doors opened and Chris Paul walked toward the sunlight in the Staples Center tunnel on Saturday afternoon, the counter-intuitive occurred.
This NBA draft may have been short on All-Star talent, but it could be strong in leadership. Many of the lottery picks earned their way to high first-round salaries because they were able to overcome deficiencies in athleticism or size -- which says a lot for their character as basketball players.
MEMPHIS -- Explain it, O.J. Mayo. Please, try.
The Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs with Friday's 99-91 loss in Game 6 to the Grizzlies, becoming the second No. 1 seed to lose a best-of-seven first-round series to a No. 8 seed. Four SI.com NBA writers analyze what went wrong and examine what the future holds for San Antonio, which has won four titles in the Tim Duncan era but has also lost in the first or second round three consecutive years.
The San Antonio Spurs will live to fight at least one more game, thanks in large part to an undrafted rookie. Gary Neal made a game-tying three-pointer at the regulation buzzer, providing the Western Conference's No. 1 seed five more minutes to put away the Memphis Grizzlies 110-103 in Game 5 on Wednesday in San Antonio.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The chant started in the rafters and quickly spread into the lower bowl.
With Manu Ginobili back after missing Game 1 with a shoulder injury, the top-seeded Spurs avoided the nightmare of going to Memphis down 0-2, pulling even with the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Ginobili led the Spurs with 17 points and chipped in seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and a block, while George Hill iced the game for San Antonio with free throws down the stretch.
On Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies accomplished what their underdog brethren in Indiana and Philadelphia could not: translate a competitive two-way effort into an actual Game 1 victory. A pair of Matt Bonner three-pointers nearly denied the Grizzlies' their first playoff win in franchise history, but timely buckets from Marc Gasol, O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier, along with some strong defense, allowed Memphis to preserve its game-clinching lead in the final minutes.
These teams approached the playoffs with different aims: The Spurs (61-21) earned the No. 1 seed with the ultimate goal of winning a fifth championship around Tim Duncan. The Grizzlies (46-36), who have never won a game in postseason, simply wanted to make the tournament -- especially after losing star forward Rudy Gay to a season-ending injury in February. The Spurs now look to recover the health of Manu Ginobili, who suffered a hyperextended right elbow in the regular-season finale, and advance strongly toward a potential conference finals against the No. 2 Lakers.
The Celtics and Spurs have led their conferences for much of this year, but with the playoffs within reach they've been losing their grip.
How many big games does this make for Tim Duncan? On Friday his Spurs will visit Dallas to play the rival Mavericks. San Antonio's hold on the overall No. 1 seed isn't in danger -- its lead is 5 1/2 games over the Nos. 2 Celtics and Bulls, and 6 1/2 over the Mavs -- but the Spurs arrive with recent losses to the Bulls, Lakers and Heat by a combined 56 points. That trend must be stopped.
It's taken 10 years but the NBA's new era has achieved its peak. Before 2001, teams were obsessed with crowding the paint defensively and isolating the best offensive players, which resulted in little movement of the ball. The rules changed in 2001 to open up the game offensively, and a decade later the transformation is complete: Offensive skills have been blended into the game so thoroughly that there is no longer a single championship contender that can be branded as an all-out defensive team.
The first half of the season flew by for everyone (except for the teams negotiating the stalemate of Carmelo Anthony's future). What will the next three months bring? Here are some stories to watch:
Three days after San Antonio's Dec. 23 loss to Orlando, an ugly 22-point pasting that ended with the Magic scoring 123 points and shooting a blistering 59.5 percent from the floor, Gregg Popovich called his team in for a meeting. He directed their attention to the white board, where the defensive numbers of Boston, Miami and the Lakers were neatly written. Below them were the stats of the stingy San Antonio title teams. And at the bottom, the Spurs numbers for this season.
While the rest of us are contriving our unlikely resolutions for the New Year, the league's players, coaches and teams are already two months into their season. Therefore, we can applaud those who have begun to fulfill their own noble intentions since last season ...
SAN ANTONIO -- Sometimes Gary Neal forgets he is in the NBA, and assumes he is still in Turkey or Italy or Spain, trying to raise a family an ocean away. Then he sees out of the corner of his eye the Spurs' highlights on television, a figure in black and silver who looks an awful lot like himself, and he recognizes that his whole improbable journey is real.
Is Wayne Rooney done? -- Tim Delaney, San Antonio
Once again I've empaneled a half-dozen NBA advance and personnel scouts to predict the standings and champion for the 2010-11 season. These are the same league experts who have broken down all 30 teams in exhaustive detail for our annual scouting reports in this week's magazine, with their full reports to be posted on SI.com Friday.
Every year around this time, for as much as we are reminded that legendary careers are validated with a championship, we also are reminded that greatness isn't solely defined by success in the Finals. Players such as Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley, whose statistics and playoff appearances and All-Star votes leave little doubt as to their places in history, are often remembered in June for the honor they didn't achieve, as if their careers are not complete without the hardware that places a stamp on their greatness.
The Phoenix Suns have a chance to win one of the most remarkable championships in NBA history. Their star point guard, Steve Nash, is 36 and playing with a broken nose and black eye. Their leading scorer, Amar'e Stoudemire, has been available to the right bidder for so long that the Suns replaced his locker room stall with a FedEx box. Starting forward Grant Hill is on his second career.
SAN ANTONIO -- As he climbed the dais and settled into a metal chair to face reporters after Sunday night's conference semifinals-clinching loss to Phoenix, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wore the look of a man who's endured a difficult season.
While the Cavaliers and the Celtics take turns grinding on each other's muscles and nerves in their deadlocked second-round series, the Magic are methodically dismantling their playoff foes. Stan Van Gundy's crew won ugly against Charlotte in the first round, with Vince Carter mostly AWOL and Dwight Howard benching himself with heedless fouls. Now Orlando is winning pretty against Atlanta, making more than half its shots in the first three games while holding the Hawks to an average of 81 points.
February sure seems like a long time ago. Three months after nearly being dismantled at the trade deadline, the Suns are eight wins away from an NBA championship, courtesy of a gritty 107-101 win over San Antonio that advanced Phoenix to the Western Conference finals
SAN ANTONIO -- The Spurs prepared for a lot of things coming into this series. Goran Dragic dropping 23 points in the fourth quarter wasn't one of them. Behind a head-shaking performance from the 24-year old Dragic, the Suns blew past the Spurs 110-96 to seize a commanding 3-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
Almost two games deep into all the conference semifinal series and a number of stories have already become headliners. Of course, the most notable has been LeBron James' elbow injury. Who else made the list of top 10 second-round newsmakers? Take a look ...
After a practice last month, the Spurs' rookies sang happy birthday to DeJuan Blair. "I sang it to myself too,'' said Blair. In San Antonio, the rookies are expected to sing on teammates' birthdays, and for much of this season Blair has been the only Spurs rookie at practice -- thus their only singer.
In 1997, after winning 16 of their final 21 games, including a winner-take-all clash with the Cavaliers on the last day of the season, the Washington Bullets advanced to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, where they faced the defending champion Bulls.
Remember February, when the Suns were thisclose to breaking up their roster? Well, neither do they. "Los Suns," as they were known on Wednesday, moved one step closer to their first conference finals appearance since 2006, beating San Antonio 110-102 on Wednesday to seize a 2-0 series lead.
Round 1 of what is expected to be a competitive second-round series between Phoenix and San Antonio went to the home team, with the hot-shooting Suns knocking down 51.9 percent of their jump shots en route to a 111-102 victory.
Part II of my lengthy invterview with the Mavericks' owner:
The Phoenix Suns advanced to the second round of the playoffs by defeating the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden 99-90 on Thursday. While the Suns prepare for what is sure to be an emotional second-round series against a Spurs team that has defeated them four consecutive times in the postseason, the Blazers are left to mull over a season that brought pain from almost the beginning to the end, with key injuries a constant companion.
For the third time in four years the Mavericks were knocked out in the first round, this time at the expense of a volatile 97-87 Game 6 loss Thursday at San Antonio to the underdog Spurs.
Mark Cuban's back was hurting him last weekend as badly as the Spurs were punishing his Mavericks. A two-hour workout followed by a kickboxing class had left him in pain -- "like I got shot between my hip and my back" -- as he sat behind the Mavs' bench watching Dallas lose Games 3 and 4 at San Antonio.
Facing elimination, the Mavericks got excellent production from an unlikely source, shooting guard Caron Butler, whose 35 points helped drive them to a 103-81 victory over the Spurs. The Spurs still lead the series 3-2, meaning Dallas needs more games like Tuesday's to avoid a first-round upset.
SAN ANTONIO -- Guess who has emerged as the new favorite to win the West? It isn't the No. 2 Mavericks, who lost Game 4 here Sunday 92-89 to fall behind 3-1 in their first-round series.
SAN ANTONIO -- Their Big Three drove the Spurs to a bloodied 94-90 win Friday over Dallas to stake the No. 7 seed to a surprising 2-1 lead in the series.
DALLAS -- The Spurs claimed home-court advantage with an inspired 102-88 win in Game 2 Wednesday over the second-seeded Mavericks.
So like we were saying ... the top seeds are doing just fine, thank you.
Now that the six-month "preseason" is out of the way we can move on to the real games. Let's start with the five teams most likely to win the final game in June.
The Spurs-Mavericks series was expected to be one of the most hotly contested first-round matchups; and on Sunday, it didn't disappoint. Paced by a Herculean effort from Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas took Game 1, 100-94.
Before 16 teams prepare for the start of the postseason Saturday, nine teams have to figure out their seedings on the last day of the regular season. Here's what to watch for during Wednesday's key games. (All stats and records are through April 13; all times Eastern.)
Every coach preaches the vital importance of every game, whether it is played in the first week of the season or the last. And while players typically nod in collective assent, most fail to understand that a loss in November is just as costly as one a week before the playoffs.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, Tim Duncan's body language said enough to fill a novel. Sitting on a padded folding chair in the visitors' locker room at the Izod Center in New Jersey on Monday, legs splayed in front of him, eyes unfocused and staring at the blue painted wall on the other side of the room, Duncan silently wrestled with the reality that his team had fallen this far. Far, of course, being defined by a loss to the lowly Nets.
At first glance, Charlotte looks like a solid bet to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Bobcats are seventh in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of Toronto, three games clear of ninth-place Chicago and a half-game behind Miami with 12 to play. Eight of those games are at home, where Charlotte is 25-8. And four of them are against teams in the bottom six of the NBA -- Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
Displeased with the way he has fit into their system, the San Antonio Spurs are attempting to trade forward Richard Jefferson just days before the trade deadline, multiple league sources have confirmed.
The Spurs' standard of excellence the past decade is dissolving before our very eyes.
SI.com's NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Jan. 20.)
1. Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat from the Lakers for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick; July 14, 2004 Shaq wanted out of L.A. Kobe Bryant wanted him out, too. This trade lifted Miami from a 42-40 team that was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs to one that reached the conference finals in 2005 and won it all in 2006. It didn't turn out as badly for the Lakers as first thought. The immediate hit the Lakers took in '05, when they missed playoffs, provided them with the No. 10 pick in the draft, which brought center Andrew Bynum. If Bynum had not been injured, the Lakers might have won the title in 2008. They won it last season, with Odom playing a vital role. If they hadn't been suckered by Kwame Brown's eternal potential and traded Butler for him, they'd be even better, although Brown did serve a purpose in 2008 (see No. 3).
PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs The greatest power forward in NBA history, Duncan was the reason San Antonio became the only team to make the playoffs every year of the decade. He was the most valuable team player of his era, an active defender who chased pick-and-rolls out to the three-point line and yet hustled back to protect the rim and control the boards. Offensively, the Spurs played through him as a passer in the post, and his dependable mid-range jumper off the backboard will be part of his highlight reel when he checks into Springfield.
Asking a coach to name his favorite player is almost like asking a parent to name their favorite child. Even if they have one, they likely won't say it out of respect for the rest of their kids. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, however, has no problem singling out one player on a roster led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, as his favorite.
Other than commissioner David Stern, can you name anyone in the NBA who plays a more influential role than Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich? I didn't think so.
SI.com's Ian Thomsen, Chris Ballard, Chris Mannix, Jack McCallum and Arash Markazi forecast the 2009-10 season.
The Lakers and Spurs are on course for a titanic Western Conference finals matchup, with great coaches, deep rosters and superstar leadership. No fewer than four others -- Dallas, Portland, Denver and Utah -- are formidable second-tier contenders. At the other extreme is dysfunction in Memphis and Golden State, rookie point guards and lousy interior defense in Minnesota and Sacramento, and wishful thinking in Phoenix. And in the middle are the cursed Clippers, who would have been (still could be?) a playoff team with a healthy Blake Griffin.
Sports Illustrated's annual NBA predictions can be found in this week's magazine, and once again you can blame me for them. Here are my explanations for why I think ...
This article appears in the October 26, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated
Every NBA season is a novel, with multiple subplots and an endless parade of characters converging on June. It's a story guaranteed to bring unexpected drama and comedy, but some of the plot lines are just sitting there, waiting to play out.
You hear it so often you just assume it must be true: Point guard is the toughest position to learn in the NBA. Well, it certainly is the most cerebral position, with the most information to absorb and the most responsibility for setting the pace and tone of an offense.
Here are the most sophisticated predictions you're likely to find for the coming season, as once again I've polled a half-dozen NBA advance and personnel scouts for their thoughts on the upcoming conference races and the playoffs.
The story in the San Antonio Spurs' postgame dressing room -- President's Day, Feb. 21, 1994, at Target Center in Minneapolis -- was David Robinson, the 50 points he'd scored in a blowout victory over the Timberwolves and the way he capped the matinee performance, stepping back behind the three-point line and letting it fly with about a minute left, smiling broadly after his 18th field goal on his 32nd try in his 38th minute of play.
The Summer of Big Transactions brought a lot of help to a lot of teams, or so it is hoped. The names in many cases are as big as the expectations.
For anyone who marks time by the NBA calendar, this time of year is a little like opening the Christmas stocking, only filled with the complete NBA schedule, before tearing into the big-ticket gifts under the tree come late October. Here's a look at some highlights of the just-released 2009-2010 schedule:
Tracking changes in the NBA salary-cap and luxury-tax thresholds can start to feel as abstract as counting widgets for a Harvard business school case study, what with all those zeroes and commas and, where most folks would be thrilled to stick the dollar sign, a decimal point instead.
SI.com's NBA writers size up the first two weeks of free agency.
Hold off on burying the San Antonio Spurs.
SI.com NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week.
While the Bulls and Celtics choreograph a series that mauls on and on like a Rocky Balboa fight, the rest of the playoffs have played out in the shadows by rote.
A handful of playoff thoughts on a night in which few leads were safe ... unless they were of the 50-point variety.
Five NBA playoff observations from a night that featured a pair of unexpected blowouts and an escape act in Salt Lake City:
Observations and analysis as the NBA playoffs get under way ...
OVERVIEW: Neither team is what it was three years ago, when the Spurs and Mavs squared off in a conference semifinal series that went to seven games, plus five extra minutes, before visiting Dallas eliminated the defending champions en route to its own Finals trip. Manu Ginobili won't be around this time, Dallas swapped out Devin Harris for Jason Kidd and a lot of the principals are three years older. But the history and the passions run hot.
Steve Nash is multinational, multicultural and more of a participant than a spectator. Which is going to make it tough on him this spring to be on the outside looking in at the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2000.
SI.com NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All records are through Tuesday.)
(Editor's note: This story appeared in the March 9 issue of Sports Illustrated.)
Logic dictates that the Bucks should have faded away by now.
SI.com NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Monday's games.)
The secondary characters go on changing while the script is updated and revised. But the result remains the same as always: The San Antonio Spurs are going to be in contention for another championship -- potentially Tim Duncan's fifth -- this spring.
SI.com NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats are through Monday.)
There's been a compelling game of high-stakes poker going on this week at New York's Madison Square Garden. Kobe Bryant hung 61 points on Mike D'Antoni's squad Monday and then, two nights later, LeBron James rolled in for a see-your-61, raise-you-a-52-point-near-triple-double performance.
Every time Spurs rookie George Hill tells the story, someone runs over to Tim Duncan to confirm it. And Duncan winces. It happened again the other night in Minnesota: Tell, run, confirm, wince.