OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Now that Kevin Durant is back, the Thunder have returned to a familiar place.
Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in six games to advance to the Western Conference finals for the fourth time in six years — and the fourth time in the past five seasons that Durant has been healthy.
San Antonio was expected to advance, especially after going 40-1 at home during the regular season to claim the No. 2 seed in the West. But the third-seeded Thunder won twice in San Antonio during the series, boosting their confidence heading into Game 1 against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Monday night in Oakland.
Durant is still chasing his first NBA title, so he was able to put the Spurs series in its proper perspective.
“This wasn’t our championship,” Durant said after Thursday night’s clincher. “We were confident coming in here. We’re just happy that we’re moving forward and have an opportunity to play again, and we’re excited about it.”
Durant is especially excited, considering where he was a year ago at this time. He followed his 2013-14 MVP season by missing most of last season with broken bone in his right foot. The Thunder missed the playoffs, and Durant watched as Golden State’s Stephen Curry won the MVP award and an NBA title.
This season, Curry won the scoring title and another MVP award, while Durant bounced back to finish fifth in the MVP balloting.
If anyone can handle a shootout with Curry, it’s Durant. The four-time scoring champion struggled with his shot in the first-round series against Dallas but looked like himself against San Antonio. He averaged 28.5 points on 50 percent shooting in the series against the Spurs, scoring 41 points in Game 4 and 37 in Game 6.
The Warriors won a record 73 games in the regular season, but Durant made it clear the Thunder like where they stand after beating the Spurs, who posted one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. The Thunder lost Game 1 at San Antonio 124-92, but rallied to win four of the next five games.
“We weren’t in this position for nothing,” Durant said. “I think throughout the season, we stood by who we were as a team. We were mixing different lineups, so that helped out as well. Guys got experience out there during the regular season.”
The grind of the San Antonio series could serve the Thunder well against Golden State. Though the Thunder won the series 4-2, four of the games were battles.
“Obviously, in a perfect world we would love to be up 25 or 30 points every game, but teams are too good, especially at this time of year,” Durant said. “I think if you have to grind things out, it builds character. In a perfect world we would love to be up by that many points, but when we are in a grind-out game, it gets us more prepared for that type of play, especially since those type of games are more frequent than blowout games postseason.”
Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook was dynamic in the series against the Spurs, too. He scored 28 points in Game 6 on 10-for-21 shooting, and had 12 assists. For the series, he averaged 25.2 points and 10.5 assists. He struggled with his shot early in the series, but he put pressure on the defense and found his teammates often, then eventually found his shooting rhythm.
Thunder players other than Durant and Westbrook have been effective during the playoffs, making the Thunder potentially more dangerous than they were in the regular season. The other Oklahoma City players combined to shoot 47.6 percent from the field in the series against San Antonio. Against Dallas, the other players shot 54.5 percent.
Steven Adams has made the biggest leap. The 7-foot center, not known as a scorer in the regular season, averaged 11 points and made 26 of 37 shots (70.3 percent) against the Spurs.
The Thunder will need more of the same from the role players since they are going from playing one great team to another.
“We are playing two teams that have played at a historically high level,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I know at the end of the regular season, if you look at the Spurs and Golden State, both of them, what they have done in terms of numbers has been incredible. Golden State is a great team. It will be a great challenge.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .