In case you had forgotten, this is the kind of rush the Thunder are capable of instilling. Like old times, their definitive, series-clinching win over the Spurs in Game 6 started on defense. Maybe it’s a distant memory now with all the horribly timed injuries to key players over the years, but the Thunder had a top-five defense for two consecutive years leading up to last season. Maddeningly inconsistent in the regular season, Billy Donovan garnered well-deserved praise for shortening his rotation and trusting in youth against the trudging Spurs. That meant giving more time to players like Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters, two of the worst defensive players on the team. The gamble paid off — Waiters was incredible for stretches on Kawhi Leonard; Kanter, simply by being active and moving his feet in the paint, was enough to deter a Spurs frontline completely out of their element without a steady source of shot creation. Through effort and trust, the Thunder were supercharged by the same players who had torpedoed their team all year.
Oklahoma City is governed by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and success will always live and die with their partnership. But the Thunder appear superhuman when their role players momentarily bypass their limitations and play as freely as their leaders do. Back in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, Thabo Sefolosha entered a strange flow state in Game 2 against the Clippers when he logged a 3, a dunk, and two steals in the span of a minute. Andre Roberson, a lesser version of the already limited Sefolosha, had his zone last all 33 minutes he was on the floor last night. He dove for a loose ball against Leonard and managed to score off the play; he shot five 3-pointers and made three, something he’s never done at any other point in his NBA career. And then there was his defense on Leonard, who was held to 39 percent shooting.
Durant and Westbrook combined for 65 points, but Roberson and Steven Adams, who battled a migraine before the game, were the spiritual leaders. They set the tone in a game that was decided — largely in the first half — off of effort alone. Between the two of them, Adams and Roberson had 13 different opportunities to grab an offensive rebound, and they managed to secure eight.
The ball finds energy, we’re told. It’s a mystical notion that supposes the ball, not the player, is doing the manipulating. The doctrine, popularized by Mike D’Antoni, was a way to force a binary on role players upon a catch: You are either immediately shooting the ball or passing it. Last night, the Thunder forged a different interpretation. Somehow, they defied a core belief about the modern NBA by turning to a classic sports cliché: The victory goes to the team that wants it more.
This piece originally appeared in the May 13, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.