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Original Issue

These Kids Are Alright

By battling back to beat the streaking Spurs, the young Thunder showed how much it has grown since last year's conference finals

During a midseason trip to Los Angeles, the Thunder held its morning shootaround at Santa Monica High, in a dilapidated gym that coach Scott Brooks found entirely appropriate. "Our guys are only two years removed from high school, anyway," he said. Brooks was exaggerating—barely. No one in Oklahoma City's core four is older than 23, hard to believe given that the team is in it second straight conference finals.

On that morning in Santa Monica, Brooks referenced some of the challenges that remained, specifically convincing young players to space the floor and move the ball. "They want to be around it all the time," he said. Indeed, the Thunder won 47 games this season while finishing last in the NBA in assists.

A coming-of-age occurred last week in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder facing a 2--0 deficit in the conference finals against the Spurs, who were riding a 20-game winning streak. The Thunder won twice, but more startling was the way in which it was accomplished: driving and kicking, catching and shooting, a team that had averaged 18.5 assists piling up 50 in two games.

OKC has taken much from the Spurs—most notably general manager Sam Presti—but mimicking their offensive precision and self-sacrifice would be the greatest coup. In Game 4 last Saturday, scoring champ Kevin Durant had only two field goals in the first half and point guard Russell Westbrook just two the entire night, but they repeatedly set up power forward Serge Ibaka (who was 11 for 11 from the floor) and center Kendrick Perkins. Durant was able to preserve stamina for the final seven minutes, when he scored 16 consecutive points, and Westbrook wisely stepped out of his way. "We've got to go to our first option," Westbrook said. "That's Kevin."

Even if Oklahoma City loses this series, it has taken another step forward. Last year the Thunder led the Mavericks by 15 points at home with five minutes to play in the fourth game of the conference finals, with a chance to even the series. Brooks's troops celebrated prematurely, blew the lead and were eliminated two days later. In an identical situation, against a similar opponent, they held firm and won. They are still young, but no longer too young.

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