The hug came as the clock struck zero and the roars and streamers inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena cascaded from the rafters. A week after they appeared invincible, time had run out on the San Antonio Spurs, and as Tim Duncan embraced Kevin Durant near midcourt, the Thunder’s future had officially begun.
Oklahoma City won the West with a 107-99 victory Wednesday night, dispatching San Antonio after spotting the Spurs a two-games-to-none lead in the conference finals. The Spurs were quick to acknowledge the pure talent and athleticism that floored them in four consecutive games.
“They just wanted it; they played more together as a team,” said the Spurs’ Stephen Jackson, who provided a lift with 23 points and made 6 for 7 3-point attempts after being moribund for most of the series. “I’m not going to make excuses. They beat us. They were the better team. We had our time. It’s just their time now.”
The Spurs looked as if they were fighting the inevitable even as they built 18-point leads in the first half and fended off several Thunder runs. After taking a 63-48 halftime lead, they scored only 36 points in the second half amid a torrent of up-tempo rushes by the Thunder that seemed to age the Spurs by the minute.
“Their talent was just impressive,” Duncan said. “I don’t think it was lack of effort on our part. I think we laid it out there and we gave all we could, but they were the better team.”
Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had appeared ageless as San Antonio rolled to 20 consecutive victories, 10 in a row to start these playoffs. They showed desperate flashes of precision Wednesday night as they tried to force a Game 7 — Parker led with 29 points and 12 assists, Duncan scored 25 points and had 14 rebounds and Ginobili could only muster 10 points — but could not author one last stand.
“We can talk about it all we want, but the bottom line is they outplayed us when it mattered,” Duncan said.
Down, 103-99, with one minute left, clinging to a puncher’s chance, the Spurs reached deep and found nothing there. Flailing away with three chances on one possession, they whiffed on every one. Duncan made a clutch spin move for a sure lay-in, but Kendrick Perkins flew across the lane and rejected him; Jackson misfired on a 3-pointer; and Parker clanked a 3-pointer. The Thunder grabbed the rebound and started a fast break that ended in an emphatic Perkins dunk.
“As sad and disappointed as we are, you really have to think about it’s almost like a Hollywood script for O.K.C.,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said, ticking off a roll call of the Thunder’s run through the playoffs as a rite of passage of sorts.
The Dallas Mavericks, the defending N.B.A. champions, were swept; the Los Angeles Lakers were ousted in five games; the Spurs vanquished in six. Those three franchises have represented the Western Conference in the last 13 N.B.A. finals and accounted for 10 titles.
“And now they’re going to go and play either Boston or Miami, and that’ll be 11 of the last 13 championships,” Popovich continued. “I don’t know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through a playoff playing those kinds of teams. It’s incredible.”
Ginobili and the Spurs admitted throughout the series that the Thunder’s youth essentially trumped San Antonio’s experience. “We can’t have their legs, their energy,” Ginobili said. “We’re never going to jump as high or run as fast.”
Still, the Spurs recognized a mirror image of themselves, albeit a much younger one, even as they tried to extend their dynasty to five league titles since 1999.
“It’s hard not to be optimistic about the future of their franchise,” Ginobili said. “They are great. They have so much talent, and they are so athletic, and they’ve got a great front office.
“We know Sam Presti,” he continued, referring to the Thunder general manager and a former Spurs executive. “He’s a sharp guy, and he pulled this basically out of nothing. They’ve got a very bright future.”
Asked where the Spurs might be headed in the wake of their defeat, Ginobili grinned and said, “Same place we’ve been going the last eight years.
“We are fine. We just faced a great, young team. We had a great run, we just couldn’t beat these guys.”