Updated: Jun 7, 2012, 6:28 PM

1. Final Destination: Thunder's Time Is Now

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant walked down the hallway, away from the postgame interview room, toward the closest members of his circle, stepping into an immediate future that will put him on basketball's greatest stage.

I couldn't help but think back to the last time I saw him walk away from the Western Conference finals, a year ago, when he trudged through the American Airlines Center in Dallas after the Mavericks had eliminated his Oklahoma City Thunder. That night I told Durant that the Thunder were too young, that their time would come, but he fought back against both premises, saying it was no excuse and their time was supposed to be right now.

Kevin Durant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesForget the knapsack. Kevin Durant has some new accessories.

A year later his mood had changed, and so had the accessories. Instead of a backpack slung over his shoulder there was an NBA Finals cap perched atop his head. And, with 12 months of perspective, he had an appreciation of the NBA's natural order of things.

"I understand it's a process," Durant said. "We had to wait our turn."

This was the series when the Thunder stopped acquiring merely knowledge and began applying it with striking results. They accelerated the learning curve, while simultaneously slamming the brakes on the San Antonio Spurs. Not only did they halt the Spurs' 20-game winning streak, the Thunder sent them spinning in reverse and out of the playoffs with four consecutive losses. The Spurs lost as many times in seven days as they had in the previous 12 weeks.

And just as the Thunder stormed back to take the series after losing the first two games (becoming only the 15th team in NBA history to do so), they rebounded from an 18-point deficit in the first half of Game 6 to win 107-99 in front of a delirious crowd.

"We had a great first half, we got control of the game, and they continued to fight," the Spurs' Tim Duncan said. "They continued to get back into it. Their talent's just overwhelming. It was impressive."

How can anyone, even the members of the losing team, not be impressed by the Thunder?

They are the worthiest of conference representatives, running a historical gantlet of kings. In three playoff rounds they have defeated the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs, gotten past Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Duncan, the three teams and star players who had accounted for every Western Conference championship since 1999 and won the NBA Finals a collective 10 times.

The young Thunder, who feature four players who don't meet the 25-years age minimum required to rent a car, even manage to astonish the older heads in their own locker room.

"The poise and the way they understand just how hard they need to work and the way they adjust to any situation, it's amazing to see young superstars like that just go out and get it and at such an early age," said Thunder reserve center Nazr Mohammed, a 14-year NBA veteran who was on the Spurs' 2005 championship team.

It helps that the Thunder can absorb the wise words of those who have been there. Kendrick Perkins, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics, and Derek Fisher, a five-time champion with the Lakers, have guided them throughout the playoffs and offered more encouragement and advice when they addressed the team in the locker room afterward.

"Let's get four more of these [wins]!" Perkins exhorted.

Fisher, ever practical, told them "The recipe that we have works" and they need to continue with it in the Finals, whether the opponent is the Celtics or the Miami Heat.

He might have sent a subtle, silent message in the postgame celebration, when he was the very last player to don the caps and T-shirts given to the team; cheap souvenirs compared to true reward, the collection of rings he amassed with the Lakers.

You can forgive the rest if they couldn't wait to wear their new attire. After leaving Seattle in 2008 the franchise started its inaugural season in Oklahoma City by losing 29 of its first 32 games. They made the playoffs the next year, only to draw the defending champion Lakers, who put them out in a sixth game in which the Thunder lost because they forgot a fundamental of basketball: boxing out. With the Thunder leading by a point, Kobe Bryant missed a jumper, but the young Thunder were caught watching the flight of the ball, while Pau Gasol slipped in to grab the rebound and put it back in at the buzzer.

"That was our first year" in the playoffs, James Harden said. "So that was our excuse."

The fans gave them a standing ovation for their effort, sticking around the arena until the last player had left the court.

The front office looked at the roster and decided it needed to get bigger in order to beat the Lakers, so the Thunder shipped out Jeff Green as the central part of a trade that brought Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics.

Last year they ran into the Mavericks, who proved impossible for anyone to put away. The Thunder's litany of blown fourth-quarter leads, including watching a 14-point advantage slip away in the last four minutes of Game 4, taught them that they needed to finish games.

After exacting revenge this year by sweeping the Mavericks and putting out the Lakers in...

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