SAN ANTONIO – Kevin Durant was finding ways to score and Russell Westbrook was throwing himself all over the court with unbridled energy and Thabo Sefolosha and his defensive-minded big men were keeping the Spurs at bay.
Through three quarters, the Thunder looked all grown up. Looked capable of knocking off the Spurs, who hadn't lost in 46 days. Looked capable of making the NBA Finals.
Then suddenly, the Thunder looked scared. Dazed. Confused. Young. Awfully young.
Most playoff games are won or lost in the fourth quarter, and Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals most certainly was Sunday night. Won by the team that's been down this road in many a May. Lost by the team that's still a big-stage novice, despite its rapid ascension.
San Antonio beat the Thunder 101-98 at the AT&T Center, going from a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to a 10-point lead with 1:57 left. Only a 3-point barrage in the final seconds made it close for OKC.
And now the Thunder has an off day to ponder its mission. Grow up, and grow up fast, if it wants to challenge the Spurs.
The Thunder lost its way on offense and defense. Grew stagnant with the ball. Grew sloppy in defending the Spurs.
The Thunder went seven straight possessions without scoring, and don't let anyone in blue tell you the Boomers were just missing shots. Wasn't so.
James Harden, then Derek Fisher, and finally Kendrick Perkins all testified. The Thunder stopped moving the ball.
During their fourth-quarter drought, the Thunder got no good shots. The Thunder stayed in the game by resorting to attacks, and the referees complied, giving OKC repeated trips to the foul line.
But Stephen Jackson's 3-pointer with 3:02 left gave the Spurs a 91-84 lead and effectively ended this one.
“It was perseverance more than anything,” said the Spurs' ancient Tim Duncan, who won the first of his four NBA titles in 1999, when Durant and Westbrook were 10 years old. “They were playing well in that third quarter and we stuck with it.”
The Thunder did not. On offense, the Thunder grew frustrated. Too much one-on-one. Too much isolation. Harden was called for two offensive fouls and Durant one in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. Westbrook took a couple of wild shots.
Then the defense collapsed. The Spurs scored on eight straight possessions and 10 of 11 possessions.
They scored on the pick-and-the-roll and on an inbounds play and on a 3-pointer and mostly on Manu Ginobili's aggression.
“We did a great job defensively 3 1/2 quarters,” Westbrook said. “And then it kind of got out of hand.”
Truth is, the Spurs smelled victory and grew fangs. When the Thunder smelled victory, it wilted.
Write it off as growing pains. Truth is, this was not a bad night in the maturation of the Thunder.
“They're a very good basketball team,” Scotty Brooks said of the Spurs. “They're playing the best basketball in the league. And we were right there.”
Against lesser foes, the Thunder has stood tall in the fourth quarter. But this is San Antonio. This is different.
If the Thunder doesn't mature quickly, it will have little hope of beating the Spurs.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.