Stephen Jackson

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

For all the points, rebounds and assists that filled Kevin Durant's impressive stat line, it was a defensive play he made that fired up his coach and teammates.

"That's his first charge of the year," Russell Westbrook interjected when Durant, who played for the Longhorn basketball team during his freshman year at UT, was asked about drawing an offensive foul against Manu Ginobili in the fourth quarter of Oklahoma City's 107-99 win in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night.

Indeed, it was.

The league's three-time scoring champion had 34 points and 14 rebounds while playing all of regulation for the first time all season, leading the Thunder into the NBA finals. But it was taking that charge that got his team pumped up.

Durant stepped in front of Ginobili's drive during a 3½-minute scoreless stretch by San Antonio that allowed Oklahoma City to take the lead for good.

"I just wanted to go out there and sacrifice my body for my team. I knew that would give us a little spark," Durant said.

"Manu's an unbelievable player at twisting his body and making crazy shots, so I just wanted to time it right. It felt good to get that for my team and I could tell they were excited that I got my first one when I looked at the bench."

Westbrook added 25 points for the Thunder, who trailed by 18 in the first half and erased a 15-point halftime deficit.

The Thunder took the lead for good early in the fourth quarter, getting nine of their first 13 points on free throws as the fouls started to pile up for San Antonio — six on the defensive end and three on the offensive end in the first 7 minutes.

That included Durant's stop just outside the restricted area under the basket.

"Down the stretch, it seemed like they got every whistle possible and that really changed the tide," San Antonio's Tim Duncan said. "We were playing tough defense and trying to get stops, but the whistle kept blowing and they went to the line."

Tony Parker finished with 29 points and 12 assists, but only eight of the points and two assists came after San Antonio took a 63-48 halftime lead. Duncan chipped in 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Stephen Jackson hit six 3-pointers and scored 23 points.

The Spurs had won 20 in a row, moving past the Thunder for home-court advantage in the West and then taking a 2-0 lead in the series, before losing four in a row.

"There's not much to complain about," Ginobili said. "We had a great run. We just couldn't beat these guys."

Durant grabbed the final rebound, dribbled the ball across half court and raised his right fist to celebrate with a sold-out crowd wearing free white T-shirts. The franchise will play for the NBA title for the first time since 1996, when it was in Seattle.

Game 1 of the NBA finals will be Tuesday night in Oklahoma City against either Boston or Miami. The Celtics lead that series 3-2 and can earn a trip to the finals with a win at home in Game 6 on Thursday night.

Durant celebrated even before the final buzzer, hugging his mother and brother seated courtside after a foul was called with 14 seconds remaining.

"I never want to take those moments for granted," Durant said. "I know it's just one step closer to our dreams, but it felt good."

Coach Scott Brooks said he was not going to take Durant out of the game, no matter how many times his All-Star gave him a fatigued look.

"Kevin's an amazing young man," Brooks said. "His stat line is not even close to who he is as a young man. He's respected by his teammates, by the staff, by the city. He's a great ambassador to this league and I'm proud to coach him. He wants to be coached.

"He's a great leader."

The Thunder, only three years removed from a 3-29 start that had them on pace for the worst record in NBA history, went through the only three West teams to reach the finals since 1998 — Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio — to earn their shot at the title.

Derek Fisher and James Harden hit 3-pointers in a three-possession span to increase the lead to 99-93 with 3:13 remaining. Jackson, who had made his previous six 3-pointers, and Parker both missed 3s that would have gotten the Spurs within 103-102 in the final minute.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich thought the game was lost in the third quarter, when the Spurs were "playing in mud."

The Spurs got quick offense in the first half and made 9 of 15 from 3-point range while shooting 55 percent overall.

Parker, who had been largely bottled up ever since the Thunder put 6-foot-7 defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha on him in Game 3, had a hand in the Spurs' first 12 baskets, making seven on his own and assisting on the other five.

Kawhi Leonard and Jackson followed his three-point play by nailing back-to-back 3-pointers for a 34-16 advantage in the final 2 minutes of the first quarter.

The youthful Thunder stormed back with an 11-2 run to start the third quarter and eventually pulled ahead after Durant's 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 79-77 with 1:41 left in the period.

"We can't have their legs, their energy. We are never going to jump as high or run as fast," Ginobili said. "But the first half we did a great job, we just moved the ball to find teammates, made shots. In the second half, they were very active and we couldn't find anything easy."

Daily Texan staff member Nick Hadjigeorge contributed to this report. 

Tim Duncan (21) high-fives center DeJuan Blair (45) in a recent game. The Spurs and the Thunder are in contention for the top playoff seed in the West.

Photo Credit: Austin Laymance | Daily Texan Staff

The San Antonio Spurs are the team to beat in the NBA’s Western Conference.

Sure, the Oklahoma City Thunder are loaded with young talent, the Dallas Mavericks are the defending champions and the Los Angeles Lakers have five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, but the Spurs have depth.

And Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s bunch is hungry after last season’s embarrassing exit in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

San Antonio has quietly jumped to the top of the Western Conference, fighting the Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which begin April 28.

“We love our position [in the West], obviously,” center Tim Duncan told reporters Tuesday. “We hope to hold on to it. We’re facing a tough schedule, but we’re feeling good and we’re staying healthy.”

Health is paramount for the Spurs, who could care less about seeding.

“We won [61] games last year. Remember we lost right away. One would think that maybe it doesn’t matter,” Popovich said when asked about the importance of getting the top seed.

The Spurs are a far different team than they were a season ago, because their bench is among the league’s best.

Rookie swingman Kawhi Leonard plays and defends multiple positions. Forwards Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair are each a force in the paint. Matt Bonner is a 3-point specialist with size. Gary Neal scores in bunches. Patrick Mills goes baseline to baseline in a flash.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Spurs got more help at the trade deadline.

Boris Diaw looks reborn after coming over from the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, and Stephen Jackson hasn’t skipped a beat in his return to the team he won an NBA Championship in 2003.

Jackson started the year with Milwaukee before being acquired March 15. He’s a proven champion with a repuatation for being a tough guy.

“He’s got an edge to him,” Popovich said. “I like his edge; I like his toughness, his grit, his willingness to play in big situations. All those sorts of things are what I like.”

The Spurs lacked Jackson’s toughness a year ago as the Grizzlies muscled San Antonio out of the playoffs. That won’t happen again with Jackson in the fold. He’s a fearless competitor notorious for his role in the infamous 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indianapolis Pacers.

“I’m all about my team,” Jackson said. “Whatever it takes to protect my teammates, to be with my teammates, I’m going to ride it to the end. That’s all I know.”

The Spurs don’t have the flash of the run-and-gun Thunder or the glamour of “Lob City” and the Los Angeles Clippers.

What they do have is a veteran corps led by four NBA champions, a seasoned coach and a deep bench full of rising stars and castaways with something left to prove.

San Antonio has never won an NBA title in an even-numbered year, but all that could change come June.

Printed on Thursday, April 19, 2012 as: Ageless Spurs continue to roll