OKLAHOMA CITY After a Game 5 win, Thunder forward Kevin Durant said he and his team never felt like they had to wait their turn in the NBA's version of Game of Thrones.
Maybe Durant's right. There's no hierarchy in the Association, at least since Michael Jordan retired and left the many kingdoms of the league to muddle over the aristocracy.
Heading into this season, Dallas was the defending champ but the 2012 talk was all about LeBron and the Heat. Later in the season, 20 wins in a row shifted the conversation toward the Spurs.
Not any more.
After a road win Monday, the Thunder are set to play their next biggest game, this one even bigger the last. They are a win away from an NBA Finals appearance against the guys who are always seemingly in the way for the past decade plus.
Game 6 against San Antonio will be in arguably the best environment in the league, ripe with a collegiate feel from a crowd at any other time divided between red (Oklahoma) and orange (Oklahoma State). Wednesday, it will be united in Thunder blue and they'll see something they haven't seen all season.
Oklahoma City is the favorite to win the whole thing.
It might not be the Thunder's turn, but it is Oklahoma City's first game as the new NBA king. The Thunder haven't been in this position before. They've been close, making the Western Conference finals last season and again this year, but never, at least until right now, has Oklahoma City become the team to beat.
No other way to see it now. The Spurs might have won 20 in a row, but now they have lost three straight putting the Thunder in position, with just a single home win, to make the Finals, something that might have been talked about, but not expected until Monday's road win.
And perhaps, unlike the rest of the teams who have taken their turn at the front, the Thunder may be uniquely situated to be handle the pressure of the position.
Here's two reasons why.
Reason No. 1: No givens
Take a step back, and not that far back. In 2008 when Durant had just a year of experience and Russell Westbrook was a rookie the two teamed up to lose their first two games of the season, before winning one, then lose 14 in a row. That team went on to a 3-29 start, fired its coach and named Scott Brooks as the interim boss.
That experience means winning and winning big isn't something that has been granted to the two stars. They know what it's like to be on the business end. Unlike the Heat or the Spurs, the Thunder are new to the being at the top and treat it as a privilege.
Remember, Monday, Durant explained being in the Western Conference finals was just another opportunity to improve. To get better. Not exactly the kind of thing the spoiled kid says.
Brooks constantly reminds anyone who will listen his team is about defense first. Says Durant is great, but still works to get better.
Greg Popovich speaks only when forced. Eric Spoelstra doesn't seem to coach the Heat, he seems to be more in charge of managing personalities.
Reason No. 2: Lots of options
Think about it, when it comes to close games, all we hear about is whether LeBron James should have shot. Whether Dwyane Wade should have passed. Whether Tim Duncan should have just driven to the basket in the closing seconds of the Game 5 loss.
The Thunder are different. Durant scored 16 in a row in a Game 4 win. He was largely ignored in Game 5 in the closing quarter and saw James Harden go clutch. In Games 1 and 2, Oklahoma City couldn't slow down Tony Parker. In Games 3 and 4, Westbrook struggled offensively. Yet, Serge Ibaka didn't miss in Game 4, Kendrick Perkins dominated. But Harden struggled. Then in Game 5 Westbrook rebounded with 23 points and 12 assists, despite nearly playing the Thunder out of it with some sloppy play.
And that's the point. Lots of options. Lots of opportunity. The Thunder aren't limited to Paul Pierce taking a late jumper, and unlike with LeBron, the Thunder don't have their hands tied to one choice.
The playoffs have been about different people on different nights. It's been about cutting down on turnovers after leading the league in turnovers. It's also been about beating the
Yes, Durant has proven to be the best bet. He's a three-time scoring champ and hit game-winners against Dallas twice and the Lakers already this playoff season. He beat the Spurs by himself with a hero performance in Game 4. But it was Harden who saved the game Monday. It was Thabo Sefolosha who slowed down Parker in Game 3.
This isn't a cafeteria, just because they're the next up, doesn't mean they're ready to sit down. But the Thunder sure seem to be different than the rest.