- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Champions don’t pass the torch when an up-and-comer nips at their heels, eager for a taste at the summit. Contenders must snatch the crown and pry it away from seasoned winners.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, once isn’t enough. The NBA’s most exciting young team just vanquished the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s only halfway through the Western Conference gauntlet of trophy-wielding legends.

It almost seems unfair that the Lakers, one of the league’s most decorated teams of all time, were merely a precursor to the San Antonio Spurs, one of the league’s most decorated teams of recent vintage. If Oklahoma City reaches the NBA finals, it will set a record for former champs in its wake.

The Lakers and Spurs have won nine of the past 13 NBA titles combined. And their respective longtime mainstays, 33-year-old Kobe Bryant and 36-year-old Tim Duncan, are very much alive and kicking.

Bryant scored 42 points Monday in almost willing the Lakers to another game before OKC pulled away for a series-clinching 106-90 victory. It marks the second consecutive season that the Lakers lost in the conference semifinals, but through no fault of Bryant.

“What can you do [to stop Kobe]?” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in the postgame session. “He made shots tonight that you can’t defend. He came out played a great game, had the eye of the tiger looking to attack and make his team have success.”

Duncan usually has the eyes of a puppy. But opponents aren’t fooled by his docile, unassuming expression. He averaged a tidy 21 points and nine rebounds as the Spurs swept the Los Angeles Clippers.

Before this year, the Spurs lost in the first round for three consecutive seasons, seemingly signaling the end of an era. Few observers expected a revival in this truncated campaign, which was expected to tax veterans such as Duncan, 30-year-old Tony Parker and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili.

With the electrifying Bryant, a pair of seven-footers and two of the past three NBA Finals trophies on their shelf, the Lakers were considered viable contenders. The Spurs were considered geezers. Coach Greg Popovich didn’t dissuade that thinking as he rested players throughout the season, listing Duncan in the boxscore as “DND [did not dress] — OLD” for one game.

But San Antonio surprisingly tied Chicago for the league’s best record (50-16) and swept the Utah Jazz before sweeping the Clippers, part of 18 wins in a row overall. They lead the playoffs in scoring, point differential, field goal percentage, 3-pointers and assists.

The Spurs haven’t won an NBA title since sweeping LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. The Thunder are the sexier, more glamorous candidate to represent the West, but these aren’t your father’s Spurs, now featuring key youngsters such as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.

Though San Antonio is favored to beat OKC and win its fifth NBA championship, Popovich isn’t sold on his Spurs.

“You never know what’s going happen with your team,” he said in his postgame session after Game 4. “We’ve never gone into the playoffs saying, ‘This is our year; we have the team to get it done.’ We go in with what we call appropriate fear. … We’ve never thought we’re the team that’s going to win the championship.”

They won’t have a chance if OKC has its way. Advancing would complete a one-two combo that couldn’t be more impressive. But even as the Thunder seek to knock off another team full of former champs, the last foe suggests that nothing has changed.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Bryant said after Game 5. “We’re not going anywhere. This isn’t one of those things like when the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappeared forever. … Come hell or high water, we’re going to be there again. There’s something about the Lakers organization. And the Spurs have done a phenomenal job of it as well.”

When it comes to a torch being passed in the West, the Thunder is looking for a pair.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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