This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.
When the Thunder went into the 2009-10 season, their expectations weren’t that high. They were coming off a 23-win season that saw them change coaches mid-season and continued cultivating the young talent that would eventually become their core. They drafted James Harden with the 3rd pick in that year’s draft and ushered in Serge Ibaka, who was drafted in the previous year’s draft, but stayed in Europe for an extra season of development. With the coaching staff firmly entrenched under Scott Brooks and a full year after the Seattle to Oklahoma City transition, the team was looking for tangible improvements on the floor and in the win column.
Hindsight being what it is, the most important addition to the Thunder that season didn’t even don a jersey. After Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlismo in late November of the previous season, the team also fired Carlismo’s number one assistant Paul Westhead. On December 31st, probably in response to Brooks’ inexperience as a head coach, the team hired veteran assistant coach Ron Adams, whose specialty was defense. The teachings of Adams didn’t immediately pay dividends as the team saw their opponents’ scoring average go from 102.2 ppg before his arrival to 103.7 after his arrival. But the seeds of his defensive principles started to take root after the team had an entire offseason and training camp with Adams.
The team came out the next season with a defensive mindset that immediately showed results not only in the stat column, but also in the win column. They improved their defensive rating from 20th to 9th in the league, and held opponents to 98.0 ppg, which was a 5 point improvement from the previous season. The continued evolution of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into All-NBA stewards also helped in the improvement process, as well. The result was a 27 win improvement that netted the Thunder the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Their opponent in wait were the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
An eight point deficit in basketball can seem like a mountain to overcome. It’s a point total that cannot be achieved on just two trips down the floor (yes, I know you can do 2 three point And-1’s to achieve the 8 points, but let’s be realistic). That problem with trying to overcome an 8 point lead is that it gives the opponent ample opportunity to kill your momentum. You have to be perfect on at least 3 straight offensive and defensive possessions or sustain a good two way game for an extended period of time. It’s something that can be extremely difficult in professional sports.
In the Thunder’s first foray into playoff basketball, they found themselves playing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles for the first two games of the series. In the first game, the butterflies and jitters caused the Thunder to play extremely nervous and they found themselves down quickly and soundly. In the second half, they tried to cobble together run after run, but hit the 8 point deficit wall often. The Thunder found themselves down by eight 11 different times in the second half of Game 1, and that would be the final margin of defeat, as they lost 79-87.
The second game of the series was a lot closer as the Thunder shook off a lot of that nervousness and just played their game. The game was back and forth for most of the 2nd half, but in the end, the Lakers’ veteran experience (and Kobe Bryant’s 39 points) trumped the Thunder’s youthfulness late, as the Lakers won 95-92 going away.
This set the stage for Game 3. Through two seasons with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets and in the second season of the Oklahoma City Thunder, this was the moment that Oklahomans had been waiting for. Ever since professional basketball set foot in the Plains in 2005, the populace had been waiting for the day where it could host a playoff game.
The giddiness over hosting a playoff game hid the fear of us wondering whether we would ever be able to get over that proverbial hump against the Lakers. The fear was completely realized when the Lakers started Game 3 off with an opening 10-0 run. To go from chanting “Beat LA” like crazy people to saying “C’mon guys, at least score one basket” can be a humbling experience. The Thunder settled down, though, and fought back to cut the deficit to 5 points by the time the 1st quarter ended.
That magic number “8” kept popping up in the first half. The Thunder found themselves down by that amount 4 times in the first half of Game 3. Every time the Thunder made a mini-run, the Lakers countered. The Lakers countered so well in the 2nd quarter that they took a 7 point lead into halftime.
There’s a saying that Jack Del Rio used when he was the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003. The phrase was “Keep chopping wood”. The gist of the saying is that no matter what is in front of you (be it a problem or a deficit), continue to attack it. In terms of basketball, if you are down by 20, continue chopping away until you are down by 15. And then continue to chop away until you are down by 10. And continue chopping away until you achieve whatever it is you are trying to achieve.
For the first 10 minutes of the 3rd quarter, the Lakers’ kept quelling any momentum the Thunder were trying to build. The Thunder constantly found themselves down by 8, and were running out of time (and probably confidence) to come back. Then, the television telecast on TNT cut away to show a replay of Lamar Odom’s five foot jumper being goaltended by Serge Ibaka, while probably the most important shot in Thunder history was occurring.
Side note: I was at the game and at the moment of the Westbrook dunk, I was completely invested in some chicken fingers, and missed the play when it happened live. I felt the reaction from the crowd and saw the replay on the Jumbotron, but I probably felt like a lot of the viewing public at home. Damn chicken fingers.
Anyways, the Westbrook dunk. I feel like that is the most important shot in Thunder history. There have been other great shots in Thunder history: the James Harden dagger 3 at the end of game 5 in the 2012 WCF. The Kendrick Perkins dunk to basically close out the 2012 Western Conference Finals. The Kevin Durant and-1 to complete the 4th quarter comeback in game 5 of the first round series versus the Denver Nuggets in 2011 to give the Thunder their first playoff series win. But this one was the catalyst to all of those shots. Does the run still happen without this dunk? Maybe, maybe not. But the team (and the crowd) was desperately looking for that one spark. That ignition switch that would allow all that pent-up energy to explode to the forefront.
When I think about that play, I hearken back to the Thunder’s first regular season game in 2008. After the Thunder found themselves down by double digits entering the 2nd quarter, the crowd was looking for something to explode for. Maybe a Desmond Mason break away dunk. Maybe a transition opportunity involving Durant or Jeff Green. But that specific shot never came in that game and it left an empty feeling as everyone was leaving the arena.
But now THAT shot finally presented itself. Westbrook, probably fed up with always having to play catch-up in the previous 2 and a half games, faked like he was going to drive right towards a Durant/Nick Collison double screen. As he turned Derek Fisher (yes, he played for the Lakers at one time), he crossed over and instead drove hard to his left. Two dribbles and two steps and Westbrook went airborne. Lamar Odom attempted to block Westbrook’s shot, but he got to the rim late and, as is the case for shot blockers, became part of a poster.
My favorite part was Westbrook’s reaction. We now know that Westbrook is the emotional pendulum on the team. This was very evident when Westbrook had to miss time in last season’s playoffs and had to miss the first two games of this season. When he gets hyped, he literally becomes the Tazmanian Devil character from the Looney Tunes. You know he’s saying something very demonstratively, but other than the F-bombs, you can’t really decipher anything else. So, when he tells you to GET UP!!!!, you do it.
With that, the crowd got up and started waving their rally poms. I’ve never been a fan of the rally towel/pom giveaway during games. First off, they don’t make noise. Secondly, all you can do with them is wave them back and forth to no acoustical avail. Its only saving grace is when the crowd does get hyped, and they are going crazy, it actually looks kind of cool to see all those rally poms being spun around.
When your emotional leader initiates an ignition sequence, it adds a little bit more bounce to your step. You saw that on the Thunder’s next defensive stand. They were locked in, crouched in their defensive stances, and were ready for anything. They fought through every screen and kept their eyes on ball and man. When Gasol passed out of a double team to an open Shannon Brown, Harden closed on him with so much effort that it caused Brown to airball the shot straight to Durant.
There are two ways to rally in the NBA. First there’s the method where a team meticulously grinds out points and eventually trims a lead down in small increments. And then there’s what the Thunder did in this game. It was akin to a no-huddle offense. Don’t let the defense get their feet set and attack, attack, attack.
When Durant grabbed that airball, his first instinct (and only instinct) was GO! Durant was not trying to allow the Lakers defense to set-up and kill any momentum that was built off the Westbrook dunk. After contesting Brown’s shot, Harden leaked out to the 3-point line on the left side. The Lakers’ defense committed to a driving Durant, and he passed it out to Harden who buried a 3-pointer.
This is why the Harden trade was so hard for Thunder fans. It wasn’t that we traded arguably one of the top 3 SG’s in the league. It was that these three guys (Durant, Westbrook, and Harden) had such great chemistry with each other. They each knew their roles when they were on the floor together and never allowed egos to get in the way. Even with Harden being a rookie and struggling mightily in the first two games of the series (0-5 FG, 0 points combined), Durant still trusted him enough to pass him the ball in that critical situation. These three guys (along with Ibaka) grew up in the NBA together and formed a great chemistry that is still cherished (and missed) by Thunder fans to this day.
On their next trip down, the Lakers tried to slow it down and run a set. Again, the Thunder defenders were fighting through every screen and clawing to stay in front of their man. When Fisher let go of an ill-advised three that clanked off the rim, the stage was set for that moment.
Call it naiveté or a generation entrenched in YOLO-ness, but when Durant got that carom with the Thunder down by 3, everyone in the building knew what was going to happen next. Durant streaked up the right side and pulled up about 3 feet in front of the 3-point line. Shot up…..SPLASH! Would Durant, in that same situation, make that play now? Probably not. Maturity lends itself to slowing down and trying to outthink your opponent, instead of trying to overtake them using sheer athleticism.
And there it was. The game was finally 0-0 once again. The Thunder would foul Gasol on the Lakers’ next possession and he would hit 1 of 2 free throws to put the Lakers up by one heading into the 4th quarter. The momentum generated in that 3rd quarter carried the Thunder in the 4th and they won the game 101-96.
The Thunder ended up losing the series in a heart breaker in Game 6. But the seeds had already been planted. The Thunder knew what it felt like to win the playoffs and they felt what it was like to lose in the playoffs. That experience, and especially that 8-0 run, is what I think is the most important moment in the Thunder’s first 5 seasons. The team and us, the fans, learned so much in that 2 minute run, and it has carried us to this day. Here is the clip of that moment. Enjoy!