The crowd hit its crescendo, the clock hit zero and the Chesapeake Energy Arena buzzer sounded as a Western Conference Finals for the history books was over. Box scores and records won’t show much more than a competitive six game series between the league’s two presumptive title favorites, but this was obviously better and bigger than that. And this story’s two central characters – Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant – embodied such as the gamesmanship and antagonism was finally over, a real changing of the guard if there ever was one having just taken place as the Thunder advanced to the NBA Finals past the stalwart Spurs.
Duncan, 36, the game’s Lion and one of its truest champions, found Durant, 23, his most rightful and likeminded heir, and they shared an embrace. Demonstrations of respect and affection are commonplace as playoff series finally come to an end, and both partook in more as they walked opposite directions across the floor. But this one, clearly, was special. It meant more. And the best part is that they knew it, exchanging hushed words and a few extra enveloped seconds to do this moment its proper justice.
If Oklahoma City goes on to win the 2012 NBA title (and they’ll be fair favorites over both Boston and Miami), this will be one of those iconic snapshots that defines the road of every champion. But watching it in real time and recognizing the common sensibilities but uncommon ages in Duncan and Durant, one couldn’t help but think it might be even more than that. This could very well be the end for the Spurs as much as it is a beginning for the Thunder, despite the youth of the former’s ancillary parts and the notoriously fickle nature of the NBA overall.
San Antonio is one of the league’s rare true dynasties, almost a decade of seasons between Duncan and Popovich’s first title in 1999 and their most recent one in 2007. They sandwiched two more in between of course, in 2003 and 2005, winning four titles in nine seasons. Are the Thunder on course for similar sustained success? Duncan seems to think so, and Durant, ever-confident, no doubt believes the same.
So as the camera showed Duncan, stoic and stone-faced as ever, leaning into Durant’s ear and whispering imperceptibly, we knew what he was saying even if we couldn’t make it out and his real words indicated different. “Way to go, kid. Go get One for the West. It’s your time now.” And while Duncan and the Spurs will be back next year ready to challenge the new Western Conference Kings, that doesn’t matter now; what does is that frozen moment in time when the torch was passed from one generation the next.
I’ll remember it forever, and if the Thunder make good on succeeding the Spurs, you will too.