Originally Published: May 31, 2014

1. Spurs Earn Shot At NBA Finals Redemption

By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- How do we know that this year is different -- that if San Antonio Spurs get to another Game 6 with a chance to win the series, it will have a better outcome for them? Because they just had a Game 6, and this time they won it.

An NBA Finals rematch with the Miami Heat sat there for the Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night, a chance to write a happy epilogue to that heartbreaking Finals Game 6 that slipped from their grasp last year. The Spurs had a 3-2 lead in this series and a six-point lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder when the same old problems resurfaced from that unforgettable night of June 18, 2013.

Manu Ginobili turnovers. Missed free throws. Gregg Popovich tempting fate by holding Tim Duncan out of a critical defensive possession. Even Duncan moving a television-camera cord out of the way so he'd have room on the sideline to inbound a pass, reminiscent of players tiptoeing around the yellow rope that surrounded the court in American Airlines Arena last year when the Spurs were so close to holding an on-court championship celebration.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTim Duncan and Manu Ginobili embrace the chance to return to the NBA Finals and face the Heat.

And then, overtime.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant did what they've done throughout these playoffs, erasing last-minute deficits to force an extra period for the fifth time. The Spurs went into overtime without Tony Parker, who didn't return for the second half because of what the team called left-ankle soreness. Duncan had already logged an above-average 34 minutes.

But Duncan, on those 38-year-old legs of his, stood tallest in overtime, personally outscoring the Thunder 7-6, ensuring that there would be no Game 7 in this series and signaling that there will be none of the same story in the NBA Finals.

Announcing it will be a different outcome, actually.

"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," Duncan told TNT's David Aldridge in an on-court interview. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time. We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."

It was an uncharacteristically bold proclamation by Duncan, but you have to realize that the Spurs aren't the same cast of characters as in the past.

It's hard to fathom a franchise as accomplished as the Spurs having a breakthrough, but Saturday represented one. It was their first-ever playoff victory in Oklahoma City, and their first victory of any kind here in 10 tries. And it also represented the team's first back-to-back trip to the NBA Finals.

So, yes, these Spurs are not the same old Spurs. They long ago stopped relying on Duncan all the time, and now they've even shown they're not dependent on Parker, their most important player the past few seasons. They won't have the best player on the court in the Finals -- that distinction belongs to LeBron James -- but they got a dry run in beating the league's MVP in Durant.

Among the many "what-ifs" running through their minds the past year had been the hypothetical of finishing the 2013 NBA Finals with a healthier Parker. With his hamstring acting up, he shot only 26 percent in the past two games.

The Spurs were 11-3 in games Parker didn't play this regular season. They picked up this 112-107 victory Saturday night even though he played only 19 minutes and scored eight points. And with Popovich saying, "I don't know what the deal is" with Parker's ankle, it's possible the Spurs could still be confronting this issue when the NBA Finals start on Thursday.

Popovich said Parker's ankle was sprained in Game 4 of this series, aggravated in Game 5 and bothering him before Game 6 started, to the point that Popovich told Ginobili to be ready to play more point guard than usual.

"He couldn't cut," Popovich said of Parker. "He was limping on it. He couldn't cut sideways or forward, really.

"He showed a lot of guts to be out there and do what he did. But at halftime I talked to him. He stiffened up a little bit, and I just made the call. He wanted to go, and I said, 'You're not.'"

Just before the Spurs left the locker room at halftime, Popovich told Cory Joseph he would be starting the third quarter. What transpired next: the Spurs' best quarter of the series, in which they outscored the Thunder 37-20 to take control of the game.

Popovich was mixing and matching, going small if he had to, using some "funky lineups," as Matt Bonner put it.

How do they do it, succeeding no matter what five-man combinations they sent on the court?

"Playing hard, playing smart and just trying to compete every possession," Joseph said.

It's the way the Spurs have been doing things for so long. Only now there are added elements: pain and motivation.

Take Boris Diaw, who played 36 minutes in Game 6 because he emerged as the Spurs' best threat against the interior defensive presence of the Thunder's Serge Ibaka and wound up scoring a team-high 26 points. Diaw could hit 3-pointers (he made 3 of 6 Saturday) or dribble at Ibaka and then find an open teammate.

"I was really disappointed last year in the Finals when we lost," Diaw said. "I really felt that I could have...

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