The Oklahoma City Thunder are one win away from their first trip to the Finals ever.
It's already been quite a run for the Thunder, who left Seattle in 2008, and currently have perhaps the most rabid fan base in American professional sports.
A year after being sent home by the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks, Kevin Durant and company steamrolled through Dallas, contained Kobe Bryant and beat the Lakers in five games, and handed the San Antonio their first three-game losing streak of the season.
The Thunder and Spurs clash in Game Six on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City. The game will be seen on TNT, and can be seen on a live stream online here.
With one game to go (two if necessary), here are five keys to Game Six, which has the makings of an instant classic:
1) Tony Parker
San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich, upon seeing Parker play as the integral part of his French international team last summer, has given the 29-year-old point guard more responsibility on this season's team. After years of deferring to future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, and crafty wing Manu Ginobli, the Spurs became Parker's team this year. The result was a 20-game win streak through the playoffs that had many pundits crowning the Spurs as champs already.
The Spurs' first three-game losing streak has coincided with struggles from the fantastic Frenchman. After a phenomenal Game Two when he scored 34 points, and dished out eight assists, Parker has struggled from the field the last three games, shooting just 39 percent and averaging 3.7 turnovers per game.
The Thunder have bottled Parker up and not allowed him any space off of pick-and-roll plays leading his shots to come from further and further out. If Parker really is the superstar that Popovich saw last summer, he will have to step up in a hostile environment for an elimination game.
Aside from Game Four which was won by superior offense, Oklahoma City has been winning by disrupting the formerly unstoppable San Antonio offense. With 21 turnovers in both Games Three and Five, San Antonio has been giving the ball up far too many times to be effective.
Those turnovers have often been steals that soon became easy baskets for Oklahoma City. Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and others have beaten the Spurs in the transition game. It takes a lot of effort to win against the number one offense in the NBA, superior athleticism has been a huge advantage for Oklahoma City.
The Thunder are prone to turnovers, as well. The 17 turnovers in Game Five included four from Russell Westbrook in the fourth quarter, which kept the Spurs within striking distance and almost gave the game away. Offensive execution will be key, and according to head coach Scott Brooks, his team improved its execution by studying tapes of San Antonio during their amazing run. Can the student surpass the teacher? We'll find out tonight.
3) Bench Players
After Popovich inserted Ginobli into the starting lineup in Game Five, the Thunder bench predictably annihilated the Spurs bench in scoring 40-22. If Ginobli starts again, the Spurs will need some sort of production out of former starter Danny Green. Green went 0-2 in four minutes of action on Monday night and his confidence is shot; he is averaging a paltry four points per game in this series.
Look for Stephen Jackson to continue to flourish in an increased role. His second stint with the Spurs has revitalized him and he has been contributing greatly on both ends of the floor, often guarding Kevin Durant while still adding some amazing shooting.
Dejuan Blair is another player to look out for, the young role player had a 10-point, six-rebound performance in Game Three after sitting through Games One and Two, and many have questioned Popovich's decision to keep him glued to the bench. His scoring capabilities are better than Tiago Splitter's, who has taken his minutes.
On the other side of the court, James Harden is the man everyone thinks of when the Thunder's bench is mentioned. He is arguably OKC's second best scorer and leader of the second unit. His clutch three in Game Five with 28 seconds left in regulation placed the Thunder up by five and put the game all but out of reach for the struggling Spurs. He will need another strong performance to push his team over the hump and into the Finals for the first time ever.
4) Coaching Matchup
Thought of as lopsided at the beginning of the series, Oklahoma City's Brooks has been holding his own and maybe even besting the longest tenured coach in America's four major professional sports. After two losses in San Antonio, Brooks looked outmatched, but he countered by playing defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha on Parker and limiting the French superstar's opportunities to get to the rim. The result: three straight wins and one game to go until the NBA Finals.
The 2010 coach of the year has helped his team grow up on the fly and has even admitted to learning a few things from his opponent and applied them to his team in this series. Oklahoma City was dead last in assists this year as opposed to the Spurs, who finished first. Now the tables have turned as Oklahoma City has actually out-assisted San Antonio over the last three games by double-digits
Popovich, this year's winner of the award has his work cut out for him tonight if he hopes to even the series up and have a Game Seven at home. Inserting Ginobli into the starting lineup was a good decision, Ginobli had an amazing game with 34 points on over 50 percent shooting, but it wasn't enough and we will see if Popovich makes any more adjustments to avoid being sent home after such a promising season.
For all the X's and O's talk between these two teams, at the end of the day it comes down to who performs when it counts. After falling into a 0-2 hole, the Thunder went back home and blasted the Spurs for two straight, protecting their home court. It seemed that the series would go on accordingly, and both teams would win home games on the way to a crucial Game Seven in San Antonio. The Thunder flipped the script on Monday with a huge win that broke all of the rules.
For one, little used rotational player Daequan Cook played four minutes that would have gone unnoticed if he didn't use those minutes to go 3-3 from the floor, scoring eight points. Game Four saw a similarly astounding performance by Serge Ibaka, who made all 11 of his attempted field goals and all four of his free throws. The, of course, there was Harden's three at the end of regulation on Monday that sent his teammates into a frenzy and took the life out of the Spurs' home crowd at the AT&T Center.
This is a point in the season where every possession matters and the statistics can often be dismissed.
The winner of this series will have truly earned it, because at this point, everyone is playing their hardest. Game Six will be no different.