NBA

West final comes down to superstar power vs. Finals pedigree

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Associated Press
5/25/2012 6:27:20 PM
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SAN ANTONIO -- They're small markets with once-in-a-generation forwards, All-Star point guards, left-handed sparkplugs off the bench and closely linked front offices. In the entire NBA, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are about as similar as it gets.

Except the championships that came quickly for the Spurs, and the Thunder are still chasing their first one.

"I know that what happened to me isn't something that happens often," said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose 2003 rookie season ended with a title.

The Spurs and Thunder begin the Western Conference finals Sunday in the first playoff series between two of the three winningest teams in the West the last three seasons. Second are the Lakers, who won their last title in 2010 behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. San Antonio's celebrated Big Three -- Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili -- have three championships in the last decade and the most regular-season wins in the NBA since 2009.

Then there's Oklahoma City.

Superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have led a stunning turnaround for a franchise just four years removed from having one of the worst records in the NBA. Even Bryant, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal waited at least four seasons before getting sized for their first championship rings.

"I don't think their timeline is behind anyone," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said of the Thunder.

Instead, it's the Spurs who are the anomaly.

Duncan won a title in only his second season in 1999, as did Parker four years later. Now both now stand in the way of Durant and Westbrook.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Friday credited the Thunder for speeding through a maturation process that has left the franchise ready to compete for a championship after feeling the "bumps and bruises."

Duncan said the Spurs didn't win their titles unscathed, either -- despite theirs coming much quicker.

"I was lucky enough to get one really early in my career, along with other guys," Duncan said. "But we all had to work very hard for them and we all had to go through different situations, scenarios to get there. Our road luckily ended with a lot more titles than people usually do. But we're fighting the same way."

Durant, the NBA's scoring leader the last three seasons, doesn't begrudge the Spurs their comparatively instant success.

"We admire them because they're a group that we looked up to when we were growing up, losing 15 games in a row," Durant said. "You look at the Spurs and say, 'We want to get there one day."'

They're almost there after beating defending NBA champion Dallas and then the Lakers.

The Spurs haven't won it all since 2007. Trying to get back these last five years has given Ginobili an appreciation that he didn't feel as a rookie while walking onto a championship-ready roster.

"I realize that when I won the first one, I really didn't know what was going on. I didn't know how difficult how hard it was to make it," Ginobili said. "But it is what it is. Only one team is going to make it. The fact that they haven't -- they're young. Durant and Westbrook are 23. I was 25 my rookie season."

Ginobili is among the pieces that make Oklahoma City and San Antonio so similar on the surface. Like the Thunder's James Harden, Ginobili is a left-handed former Sixth Man of the Year winner who provides the spark off the bench. Both were picked by a front office with the same roots, with Thunder general manager Sam Presti starting in San Antonio as an intern under Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.

Both are also candid about their good fortune: not every franchise gets to draft Durant and Duncan.

Buford said few NBA teams have ever been as lucky to add a player like Duncan to an already strong roster. When Durant joined the Thunder, the team needed a total makeover.

"They were 23-59, and three years later to be in the conference finals?" Buford said. "To me, that doesn't seem to be behind any curve."

Kevin Durant Tim Duncan (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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