The better team won.
That’s a hard truth to swallow, especially for a Thunder team that could say otherwise, at least in the Western Conference, for almost three years. But now we know, that in 2013-14, the Spurs were superior.
Not a lot better, at least not Saturday night, when the Spurs beat the Thunder 112-107 in overtime to win the Western Conference Finals. But better.
The Spurs exposed holes in the Thunder. When the Thunder solved one major problem, another popped up. The Thunder played great defense on the Spurs in Game 6 but didn’t rebound worth beans. The Thunder found scoring help for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook but didn’t take care of the ball.
And even the injury curse reversed. Serge Ibaka played 48 1/2 minutes; San Antonio point guard Tony Parker didn’t play after halftime. But the Spurs persevered, even excelled, without their leader.
The Thunder was good. Maybe even great. But the Spurs were better.
“This victory is really sweet, because we know we played one hell of a team, and we take great satisfaction in that, because they are so special,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “They’ll certainly be back doing great things, without a doubt.”
Maybe so. But the Spurs did more great things Saturday night. When their offense stagnated, San Antonio responded by fiercely going after their own missed shots. The Spurs ended up with 22 points off offensive rebounds. When the Thunder shut down Manu Ginobili (four of 14 shooting), the Spurs found bounty in backup Boris Diaw (26 points). When Popovich felt compelled to again put his best defender, Kawhi Leonard, on Westbrook, the move paid off even more when Danny Green found success bothering Durant, who had seven turnovers.
That’s the mark of a resilient team. Find a way to win.
Not that the Thunder wasn’t resilient itself. The Boomers were all but beat, down 12 early in the fourth quarter, down nine with six minutes left in regulation and down six with 2:15 left. And the Thunder fought back to force overtime and led as late as the final 90 seconds of its season.
“They have so much talent, so much athleticism, so much future, too,” said Ginobili. “They were very close. They are a tough team. I’m so proud of our team to have beaten them here. It’s very hard to do in a playoff game with the talent they have and the crowd. I think they are fantastic.”
But the Spurs are smart and wise and skilled. They’ve got young guns themselves, in Leonard and Green, plus ageless veterans in Tim Duncan and Ginobili. The Thunder thought it had caught the Spurs two years ago, with that West championship, but the Spurs are better now than they were then.
If nothing else, this San Antonio team is a great lesson for the Thunder. The general ascension/decline of teams, based on age and experience, is not absolute. The Thunder doesn’t automatically get better just because its stars are young. The Spurs didn’t automatically get worse just because their stars were old.
“We’ve worked every day since July to be in this position, to climb to the top, and we came up six games short,” said Scotty Brooks. “We have to keep our heads up and move on.”
Said Westbrook, “We’re definitely not going to give up. Come back next year and be better and be stronger, be wiser.”
The Thunder was plenty wise enough. The Spurs just made more plays in Game 6, the only tight game of the series.
The biggest play was Ginobili’s 3-pointer that gave the Spurs a 100-99 lead with 27.1 seconds left in regulation, courtesy of an illegal screen by Duncan. But those things even out. Ibaka’s block of a Ginobili layup a possession earlier looked very much like goaltending.
Then in overtime, the Spurs countered the Thunder’s moves, taking advantage of OKC’s small lineup to free Duncan for seven points.
Turns out, the Spurs were just better. Now they get to play Miami again to find out if they’re best.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . 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.