But Thunder management did by trading Harden. I'd sooner have believed the OU Sooners would give up football. Durant/Westbrook/Harden would be too much for the Spurs. Now, these Spurs are fully capable of outthinking and out-executing a hot-handed Harden coupled with a low-savvy Dwight Howard -- of posing an unsolvable N.Y. Times crossword, even if it takes a Game 7 in San Antonio.
Then, either the Spurs will decipher the Thunder or the Thunder will beat themselves. Two superstars with cracks in their psyches will find a way to lose a Game 7 in San Antonio.
Durant, the runaway MVP, still battles an identity crisis: He says he's trying to prove nice guys can finish first, yet he finished third in the NBA in technical fouls with 15. Without Westbrook last year, Durant flamed out late in four straight playoff losses to Memphis. He has much to prove in these playoffs, maybe too much.
Westbrook, who often plays with unguardable rage, still has one rock rattling around in his head and remains highly capable of the kind of eight-turnover, 4-for-23 night that drives Durant to technicals. And, of course, to paraphrase Hamlet, the knee or not the knee, that is the question. Westbrook had three surgeries in nine months on the knee injured in the first round of last year's playoffs and the Thunder have continued resting him in the first or second games of back-to-backs. Will the knee hold up through seven-game battles against, say, the L.A. Clippers and Spurs?
Advantage, San Antonio?
Remember, in five of the eight losses to Houston/OKC, the Spurs were not at full strength and six of the losses came in November/December/January, when the Spurs clearly were saving themselves for a February/March/April playoff push. Since the All-Star break, the Spurs are an NBA-best 24-5.
The Spurs led the NBA in assists and 3-point shooting and finished sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency -- a 62-win combination. But here's the stellar stat: The Spurs don't have a single star in the top 20 of player efficiency rating (led of course by Durant). Yet the Spurs have five in the top 50 (in order, Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Patty Mills). That's three more than the Clippers and two more than the Heat.
Duncan is still very much Duncan. Ginobili is playing five years younger than he looked in last year's playoffs, when he became such an overmatched liability in Games 6 and 7 in Miami that his career seemed over. Leonard has quietly grown into the Spurs' most valuable all-around player as a defender, rebounder, shooter and (shhh!) spectacular dunker. Parker drained himself by leading France to the EuroBasket championship too soon after a seven-game NBA Finals, but the offense actually has become harder to defend without Parker going dribble-dribble solo quite so often.
Which brings us to the two new X factors ...
If the NBA gave a Seventh Man of the Year award, Patty Mills would win it. Through injury-riddled stretches, he was the team MVP, especially in fourth quarters. From "Fatty" Mills last season, he morphed into a sleek, fearless Aussie shot-maker who surely has earned a key spot in Popovich's postseason rotation. Patty came flying off the bench with 32 at Charlotte, 29 at Portland, 25 at the Clippers, 21 at OKC ...
And Marco Belinelli, who won the NBA's 3-point contest, brings from Chicago the clutch sniping he demonstrated in last year's playoffs against Brooklyn and Miami.