Now comes the hard part.
Somewhat quietly, former Florida coach Billy Donovan picked up his first NBA playoff series win when the Oklahoma City Thunder knocked off the Dallas Mavericks 118-104 on Monday night. Off the court, the Mavs didn’t go down as quietly, with owner Mark Cuban bloviating after the game that OKC point guard Russell Westbrook is not a superstar, even though Westbrook dropped 36 points in the series-clinching win.
Westbrook has flourished in Donovan’s point guard-friendly offense, and it’s helped that Kevin Durant has remained healthy all season. As a result, Donovan has posted a combined regular season/playoff record of 59-28, not too shabby for a rookie NBA coach.
The degree of difficulty, though, ratchets up from here on out. Next up for Oklahoma City is the San Antonio Spurs, led by future Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan and future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs are coming off a four-game sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies and will have homecourt advantage in the series. San Antonio went 40-1 at home this season, with its lone homecourt loss coming to the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
If Oklahoma City can somehow get past San Antonio, it would likely meet Golden State in the Western Conference finals. Steph Curry was diagnosed with a sprained MCL on Monday, but would probably be back in time for the Western Conference finals if the Warriors advance.
The key for Oklahoma City going forward will be to get Westbrook to play hard on both ends of the floor and make sound decisions down the stretch. Both Westbrook and Durant have proven prone to forcing bad shots in crunch time against elite opponents. As a result, the Thunder have blown 15 fourth-quarter leads this season. The late-game issues that Donovan experienced in tight games at Florida have followed him west to OKC.
But if Durant and Westbrook continue to click, and Oklahoma City upsets San Antonio and possibly Golden State, Donovan would put himself in position to win an NBA title as a rookie head coach and join Larry Brown as just the second coach in history to win both an NCAA and NBA championship.