OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant isn't one to celebrate early.
But with victory secured and a few seconds remaining in the sixth game of the Western Conference finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder star fell into an embrace with his mother near her courtside seat.
The Thunder would go to the 2012 NBA Finals. They would beat the San Antonio Spurs, one-time rulers of the Western Conference, 107-99. But first, a moment of shared elation with family.
"I never want to take those moments for granted," Durant said. "I know we're just one step closer to our dreams. But it felt good. We've just got to continue to keep believing."
The Thunder are indeed one step closer -- one step closer to claiming the NBA title that eluded the franchise for 28 years before it relocated from Seattle in 2008. One step closer than they were a year ago, when the Dallas Mavericks denied them in the conference finals. One step closer to their goal in choosing Durant with the second pick in the 2007 draft.
The 6-foot-9 forward, whose post-game television interview was interrupted by a deafening chorus of "MVP" chants, was willing to do anything to fulfil that goal -- even take a charge.
Early in a fourth quarter in which Oklahoma City wrested the lead for good, Durant encountered Manu Ginobili weaving into the lane, set his feet and drew the offensive foul, his first of the season.
That's what stood out to coach Scott Brooks about Durant's performance. Not his game-high 34 points. Not the third-quarter rally during which he scored 14. Not the team-high 14 rebounds. It was a charge, a single foul, that had Brooks grinning.
"I'm not so sure he took one in his first few years, but you know that was a big play," Brooks said. "It's amazing for him to play like this in this moment, in this setting."
Durant was the only man on the floor who played all 48 minutes. Teammate Russell Westbrook was the runner-up with 41 minutes. Westbrook scored 25, climbing his way out of a shooting slump that contributed to Oklahoma City's 2-0 series deficit.
In winning Games 3, 4, 5 and 6, the Thunder became the 15th team in league history to rally from 2-0 down to win a best-of-seven series.
When Oklahoma City fell behind in the series, critics pointed to the Spurs' superior experience. Ginobili (34 years old), Tim Duncan (36), and Tony Parker (30) have shared three titles together in San Antonio. All that talk fuelled the Thunder, whose three biggest contributors -- Durant, Westbrook and James Harden-- are 23, 23 and 22.
"I think the youth is kind of something that wills us," Westbrook said. "A lot of people around the league say we're young and we're not able to make clutch shots, perform under clutch moments. A lot of guys on our team have such great heart and want to do good, and it showed a great thing tonight."
Yet Oklahoma City seemed on the verge of returning to San Antonio for a Game 7 with its first-half showing. San Antonio had sprinted to an early lead behind Tony Parker's 17 points and five assists in the first quarter. He had a double-double by halftime (21 points, 10 assists) and finished with 29 and 12.
Durant led a third-quarter rally that helped Oklahoma City climb back from down 18 in the first half. He scored 14 points in the quarter, including a contested three in front of Stephen Jackson with more than 90 seconds left, to take the Thunder's first lead. His 20 second-half points helped Oklahoma City maintain a slim lead for the majority of the fourth quarter.
"This was the toughest game I've played since I've been here," Durant said. "We kept playing hard to inspire my teammates both ends of the floor. And I'm glad I got this for Oklahoma City... We didn't want to go back to San Antonio."
San Antonio's point total declined through the first three quarters after the Spurs scored 34 in the first behind 60.9 per cent shooting from the field. Their loss drops coach Gregg Popovich's record in games where the Spurs are facing elimination to 7-11. Popovich congratulated the Thunder organization and nodded to their ascension in the West.
"As sad and disappointed as we are... it's almost like a Hollywood script for OKC in a sense," he said. "You know they went through Dallas, last year's NBA champion, then they went through the Lakers, then they went through us."
Popovich pointed out that those franchises represent 10 of the last 13 NBA titles.
"I don't know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through a playoff playing those kinds of teams," he said. "It's just incredible."
A Hollywood story from a team led by "arguably the best player on the planet," as Popovich described Durant during the series.
Few are the men capable of drawing that kind of verbiage out of the surly Spurs coach, whose press conferences are measured in words, not minutes.
Yes, Kevin, you deserve a hug.
-- USA Today