- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Champion boxers can age in a hurry, with no perceptible warning signs. They can show great vim and vigor as the bout approaches and maintain that energy through the early rounds. But then they can lose it, suddenly, in the middle of the fight, looking old, tired and worn out compared to the young, spry and energetic contender.

That’s what we’re seeing in the Western Conference finals with the seasoned San Antonio Spurs and the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Spurs very well might rebound from their first three-game losing streak this season and advance to the NBA finals. But the dynamics in this series have shifted, swift enough to cause whiplash and quicker than a Thunder fast break. San Antonio, which appeared to fluctuate between invincible and perfection in winning the first two games, now appears overwhelmed and outmatched against reinvigorated OKC.

The transformation has been startling. Commentators were musing about the Spurs going undefeated in the playoffs after ending the regular season with 10 consecutive victories. San Antonio had won 20 straight after going up 2-0 on the Thunder, with no evidence of trouble looming once the series shifted to OKC.

Experience helped the Spurs rally in Game 1, when they outscored the Thunder 39-27 in the last quarter for a three-point victory. Game 2 was a wire-to-wire affair, with San Antonio enjoying a 22-point lead late in the third quarter and never letting OKC get closer than six points after that.

The Spurs seemed too savvy and too poised to lose the series against these green, albeit talented, upstarts.

But OKC has refused to play along and follow the script, which calls for budding, would-be champions to suffer for a couple or three postseasons before finally raising a banner. The Thunder don’t want to hear about how things worked back in the day. They intend to accelerate the process, making this the right time and their “next” right now.

“We never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn,” Kevin Durant said Monday after his team-high 27 points helped OKC move to one victory of the NBA finals. “We always wanted to go and take everything. Coach always emphasizes that every opportunity we step out on that floor is a great opportunity to get better and grow and fight towards our dreams, and we all knew that. We’ve been together for so long, and we just had to keep pressing.”

Been together for so long? The Spurs‘ Gatorade coolers have been around longer.

Durant is in his fifth season with the franchise — longer than any teammate except Nick Collison — and has played with Russell Westbrook and James Harden for three seasons. Conversely, San Antonio’s big three — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — have been together three times as long (10 seasons).

When the Thunder reached the playoffs in 2010 and lost in the first round, they snapped four consecutive seasons of being in the draft lottery. Durant’s lament about OKC’s long toil is just another example of impatient youthfulness … which has pushed San Antonio to the brink of elimination.

Finding the Spurs in this position was unthinkable five days ago, but coach Gregg Popovich has a simple explanation for the Thunder’s success.

“Because they’re in the Western Conference finals and they’re a hell of a basketball team,” he said after Monday’s 108-103 loss. “I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s not like we’re playing the Sisters of the Poor. These guys are hard to guard, talented, hungry, athletic, and the bottom line is you can look at whatever you want, but you can’t turn it over 21 times for 28 points against a team like that. They’re too good.”

San Antonio is very good, too, especially when the role players contribute like they’ve done most of the season.

But the Spurs‘ youngsters haven’t provided sufficient support for their elders, who suddenly look a lot older than they did when the series began.