Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Ghost of Ron Artest

By now, most people have seen and/or heard about the “elbow heard ‘round the world.” A lot of the focus has been placed on the two people involved in the incident, and rightfully so. While that type of violence may be seen in some of the more violent sports such as MMA, hockey, or football, it is rarely, if ever, seen on the basketball court. A game full of finesse and grace has little room for that kind of brutality and unhinged force. The actions by Metta World Peace not only had an immediate impact on James Harden’s sidebeard, but also may have had a reverberating effect 2000 miles away.

Even 7½ years later, the wounds from The Brawl are still very fresh. When I was down in Indianapolis a month ago, I attended a Pacers game and was completely surprised by the lack of fan support. This is a team that is young and near the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference. If there’s a team in the league that is replicating the Oklahoma City Thunder model, it has to be the Pacers. A positive team culture and a young budding core surrounded by good, upstanding veterans.

Even with the attributes of a team on the rise, I still could not find a Pacers shirt at the downtown mall. I asked some locals why they thought support for the Indiana Pacers was waning, while the support for the 2-14 football team was at an all-time high. The most resounding answer was that, to this day, they were still turned off by the Brawl. The next most popular answer was that the team wasn’t even that good. When I told them the team was in 3rd position in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse contender, the usual response was, “Really? I didn’t even know.”

In a moment of panic, the body sets off its “all hands on deck” response called the fight or flight instinct. In that moment, the body either gears all of its energy towards escapism or violence. In that instant, a couple Pacers players chose fight over flight. It’s amazing how a moment of instinctual insanity completely shattered the view a city had of its basketball team. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were always known as questionable characters. Loyal to a fault, but ticking time-bombs, nonetheless. Players who escaped their rough upbringings, but whose rough upbringings never escaped them.

The team, itself, was on its way to a probable championship run. It featured Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley in their young primes, Reggie Miller as the veteran seeking his first championship, and a cast of good supporting players. What was a 7-2 start to begin the 2004-05 season, ended in a 44-38 struggle to remain in the playoff picture. While many Pacers fans were initially supportive of their players for sticking up for themselves, many changed their tunes as soon as the suspensions were levied. Many fans wondered whether the selfish actions of Artest and Jackson had cost the team a title.

After The Brawl, things soured between Artest and the Pacers, and he was eventually traded the next season. Adding fuel to the fire, Stephen Jackson was involved in a shooting at an Indianapolis night club that further strained the relationship between the Pacers and their fans. The Pacers had no choice but to go the route of the Portland Trailblazers during their Jailblazers clean-up, and blow the team up. When that happens, though, you can bet on at least 2-3 season of rebuilding, if not more. Horrible teams tend to have a negative impact on fan support, further straining the relationship between the Pacers and the people of Indianapolis.

The Pacers finally made it back to the postseason last year, but with a sub-.500 record. While they were good enough to make the playoffs, they really weren’t THAT good. But this season, with the acquisitions of David West, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa, and the continued development of Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and Paul George, the Pacers have solidified themselves as the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference. And attendance and fan support seems to be coming along for the Pacers.

But with all these good vibes, a sad reminder happened on Sunday. A reminder of how one person’s actions can still hold so much weight on the psyche of a fan base. While this probably doesn’t affect most of the fan base, it’s that important final 10-15% that the team needs to be profitable. Those are usually the fair weather fans or the returning disenfranchised fans. With Artest’s actions though, those fans will probably think it is business as usual around the league, and will choose to stay home. Which is a shame, because the Pacers are team on the rise that needs a fan base that is also on the rise.

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The Thunder and the 2nd Seed

With San Antonio’s win over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder were assured of the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. While it is disappointing that they stumbled in the last month of the season to fall to the 2nd spot, the fact still remains that this is progression in a positive direction. Three seasons ago they were challenging to become the worst team in league history. Two seasons ago they were a surprise 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to 6 games in their 1st round matchup. And last season they were the 4th seed and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champs, the Dallas Mavericks. Progression from here on out will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.

Now that the Thunder are set in their playoff seeding, it is time to look ahead and see how they match up with their potential opponents, both of whom are very familiar to the Thunder. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are both battling for the 6th seed. The Nuggets hold a ½ game lead over the Mavericks and have 2 games remaining, the first of which is against the Thunder, and the last of which is against the “nothing to lose” Minnesota Timberwolves. The Mavericks have one game remaining, on the road, against the Atlanta Hawks, who may still be battling the Orlando Magic for seeding. The Mavericks hold the tie breaker if the teams finish with identical records.

Denver

The Denver Nuggets have become the Thunder’s regular whipping boys these last two seasons. Including the playoffs, the Thunder are 9-2 in the teams’ last 11 meetings. When these two teams meet, points will definitely be scored as it features 2 of the top 3 scoring teams in the league. The Thunder’s rate of success against this team is surprising because the Nuggets have a deep collection of talent at all positions. They feature 6 players that average double figures and 4 other players that average at least 8.6 points per game. That’s 10 players that average at least 8 points per game! The crux to all the scoring, though, is that no one on the team averages more than 16.3 points per game. In crunch time, this team lacks a clearly defined offensive star to score that necessary bucket.

Defensively, the Nuggets are the 3rd worst team in the league, allowing 101.2 points per game. They are a lot like the SSOL (Seven Seconds Or Less) Suns of the early 00’s, focusing a lot of their energy on transition opportunities and increased offensive usage. With the acquisition of Javale McGee and the increased playing time of rookie Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets have become even more of a transition team. But when the Nuggets play another offensively potent team that plays good defense, such as the Thunder, the Nuggets eventually run out of gas in the 4th quarter. That’s been their M.O. in most games that they play against the Thunder.

Dallas

The defending champion Mavericks are a bit of an enigma this season. They lost their defensive anchor (Tyson Chandler), their offensive sparkplug off the bench (JJ Barea), and had a failed offseason acquisition (Lamar Odom). They have been consistently inconsistent this entire season, alternating winning streaks with losing streaks. The Mavs ended the Thunder’s season last year in the Western Conference Finals, defeating them in 5 games. This season has been a different story, though, with the Thunder winning the season series 3-1.

The Mavericks are still led by Dirk Nowitzki, but his scoring average has dipped this season from 23 points per game to 21.6 points per game. A lot of their core is a year older and a step slower. The young players (Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Brendan Wright) are just now getting their feet wet and are playoff neophytes. This team is middle of the road in nearly every statistical category, but still has enough championship moxie to be considered dangerous. The defense has suffered with the departure of Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, but is still in the top half of the league, allowing only 94.7 points per game.

So who do the Thunder want to face? They already dominated the Nuggets in the playoffs last season, and have continued that trend into this season. They were beat by the Mavs in 5 games last postseason, but held the lead in the 4th quarter in 3 of the 5 games, and have dominated the season series this year. Will we see a different Mavs team emerge in the playoffs? Will they be similar to the 1995 Houston Rockets team that won their second championship in a row as a 6th seed? The answer to both those question, in my opinion, is no. The Mavs team is a shell of what it was last season. They are building for the future (ahem, Deron Williams, ahem) by sacrificing a year of their present. The Thunder finish off both of these teams in 6 games tops. The real question becomes, who do the Mavs or Nuggets want to face; the Thunder or the Lakers?

Let’s Not Get All Defensive Now

In remembering these past 2 weeks, and watching the first 6 minutes of the first quarter in the Phoenix game, I’m reminded that, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder are athletically superior to most teams, their defense will be the tell-tale sign whether they reach glorious heights this postseason. A lot of the defensive breakdowns they had last season, are back again this season. The cast of characters is the same, so the fact that improvements have not been made, is really worrisome for their future postseason success.

 Two seasons ago, when the Thunder had Ron Adams as an assistant coach, they were near the top of the league in defensive efficiency and used that to propel them to the postseason for the first team since moving to Oklahoma City. Since Adam’s departure after that postseason, there has been a lack of defensive focus that is being masked and hidden by the team’s improved offensive efficiency. When the team struggles offensively, this lack of defensive focus can have adverse effects on the Thunder’s ability to win, especially in the playoffs.

The thing about defensive breakdowns is that they are usually a combination of several defensive breakdowns in one series. It’s not just one play in a possession that causes this. It’s usually a chain reaction of defensive lapses. The first thing the Thunder struggle with is their pick-n-roll defense. The Thunder guards, Russell Westbrook, in particular, have a tendency to go over the pick, instead of fighting through it to stay in front of their man. The problem with this is if the big man doesn’t hedge over a bit, the opposing guard just blows right by them and past their primary defender.

It’s a play like this where you have to know your opponent’s tendencies. If the scenario is guarding a slower guard (i.e. Jason Kidd or Mike Conley), then the Thunder guard can go over the screen as there is no threat of a blow-by. The only threat is if the guard is a competent 3-point shooter. The big man in this situation has to know who he is guarding and decide whether to hedge or stay with his man. In this case, if we are talking about Dirk Nowitzki or Zach Randolph, then it would probably be best for the defending big man to stay on his man.

If the situation is changed to a speedier guard, such as Ty Lawson or Tony Parker, then the big will have to hedge to allow the defending guard a chance to stay in front of his man. The worst thing that can happen in this situation is a switch, where the big is guarding a speedy guard, and the defending guard is on the offensive big. This opens up a ton of options for the offense and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

The primary goal of the pick-n-roll is to allow movement towards the rim. But, against the Thunder, this is also achieved through dribble penetration. When he was drafted out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook was advertised as a defensive guard, having just won Pac-10 defensive player of the year. But what worked in college (gambling on steals, using other-worldly athleticism to pressure opponents) hasn’t worked quite as well in the NBA where the world’s best basketball players play. A lot of what makes defense work is where you are positioned. If you are not in the correct defensive position, an NBA player will blow by you in a heartbeat.

Where Thabo Sefolosha is more of a technical defender, using his length to make the opposition adjust their play, Westbrook is more an instinctual defender, always trying to go after the steal. But don’t mistake steals for good defense. When you constantly gamble for steals, you put pressure on the rest of the defense to play 4 on 5 defensively. Eventually, the open man will be located, and its usually on the 3-point line or for an easy bucket.

This, then leads to the next defensive issue for the Thunder, which is closing out shooters. After the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and the insertion of Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup last season, the Thunder went from squishy soft interior presence to hardcore interior presence. One would surmise, with that kind of support in the interior (to also include Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed), the Thunder wings would trust their bigs more and not sink in every time the ball gets into the paint. Instead, it’s become commonplace for the entire defense to sag into the paint when a breach occurs which leads to wide open three point shots. Teams like San Antonio and Dallas feast on this and always give the Thunder problems.

Once the defense has been breached and the ball is in the paint, then the advantage goes to the offense. When big men have to move around, it takes them out of their comfort zone. Our big men like to battle until the shot goes up and then box out for a rebound. But if ball is penetrated into the paint, then the bigs have to move around to defend the paint. Even with Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots, this still puts the defense at a disadvantage. If Ibaka leaves his man and whiffs on a blocked shot attempt, then his man is in position for the offensive rebound and put back. Much like steals, blocked shot don’t automatically equate to good defense. But if you are going to have Ibaka play free safety in the paint, then KD needs to slide down on defense and help out on the boards. While it may seem like this has been happening, as evidenced by Durant averaging a career high 7.9 rebounds per game, it also needs to be taken into account that the Thunder have played a lot more small ball with Durant at the 4 this season.

The most important issue with the Thunder’s lack of defensive intensity is their will. A lot of their deficiencies can be overcome by focusing more on the defensive end and working smarter. Ron Adams may have been a great defensive strategist. But even more important was that he held the players accountable for their actions on the defensive end. Once he left, there was a general sense of apathy concerning smart defensive basketball. The Thunder were content with just being good enough defensively and letting their athleticism dictate their defensive schemes. This is especially evident in the 4th quarter of close games. When the Thunder are focused, they can play great defensively and use that close out games.

It’s not all bad though. Due to their athleticism, length, and youth, the Thunder are one of the better teams at defending the fast break. They are constantly stifling transition opportunities for the opposition and cause a good number of turnovers defending the fast break. As we saw in the 4 game stretch from March 25th thru April 1st, where the Thunder played the Heat, Trailblazers, Lakers, and Bulls, the Thunder can put together a string of great defensive games. The question becomes, will that translate to the playoffs?

Top NBA Teams and Senior-itis

Ahh, yes. April. That time of year where the memories of Spring Break start to fade, and the doldrums of the final quarter of school starts to set in. This is when high school seniors start to really feel the effects of senior-itis. It’s this same disease that is beginning to affect some of the better teams in the NBA. For those teams that have already sewn up spots to the NBA’s Big Dance, this affliction is making them act like 8 years olds on a road trip. “Are we there yet?”

When it comes to this time of years, teams are in one of 4 modes. They are either completely out of the playoff hunt, fighting (realistically) for a playoff spot, fighting to move up in the playoff standings, or fighting off boredom from having clinched a playoff spot so early in the 2nd half of the season.  Of the 30 teams in the NBA:

  • 11 are completely out of the playoffs: Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans, TTFKATSK (the team formerly known as the Sacramento  Kings), Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, New Jersey, Detroit, Minnesota, and Portland.
  • 7 are realistically fighting for playoff spots: Utah, Phoenix, Milwaukee(all currently out), Philadelphia, New York, Denver,  and Houston (all currently in).
  • 8 are securely in the playoffs and jockeying for positioning: Dallas, Memphis, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, and Indiana.
  • 4 teams are entrenched in the playoffs and fighting for the top two spots in their respective conferences: Chicago and Miami (East) and Oklahoma City and San Antonio (West).

Of the 4 teams at the top,Chicago is trying to battle through injuries and maintain the best record in the league.San Antonio is blitzing anyone in their way and trying to take the top spot in the West. And apparently, OKC and Miami (to the enjoyment of all the fans not in Chicago or San Antonio) are ready to meet in the Finals, and are acting like it’s a forgone conclusion. But, honestly, for these four teams, is there anything to worry about besides injuries at this point in the season?

These four teams are treading water at this point in the season. Chicago is 4-3 since April started. Miami and OKC are both 5-4. And San Antonio, riding the hot hand, is 6-2. Are these records indicative of any shortcomings that decided to pop up in the final month of the season?

In Chicago’s losses this month, it is quite apparent that they need Derrick Rose to be completely healthy for their playoff run. But, perhaps, more importantly, the health of Rip Hamilton is of great importance to the offense. While Rose is the end all, be all of the offense, Hamilton provides a great release valve if the defense collapses too much on Rose. Getting those two healthy at this point of the season is the best thing that could have happened to the team. It’s almost like they got a trade deadline acquisition in Hamilton, who is just now starting to pay dividends on the team. The greatest positive to come out of the injury plagued seasons of Rose and Hamilton, is that the bench players have had to contribute and have done so in above average fashion.

In Miami’s losses this month, a lot of the problems that surfaced last season are starting to resurface this season. It’s the Big 3 and no one else on that team. The Big 3 moniker has taken a bit of a hit this season with injuries to Dwayne Wade, but the production from the role players that was so evident in the beginning of the season, has begun to decline to the detriment of the team. The size issue that was a problem last season is still a problem for the Heat. They got Ronny Turiaf after the trading deadline, and while it is a slight improvement over Joel Anthony, the move didn’t really register too much on the Richter scale. The big man rotation of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Anthony, and Turiaf does give the Heat a bit more flexibility as compared to the big man rotation last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Bosh, Anthony, and an injury-recovering Haslem). The point guard position has been slumping for the last month and a half. Mario Chalmers has only been shooting 30% from 3-point territory since March 1st, after shooting about 48% from there in the first 2 1/2 months of the season. Norris Cole has hit the rookie wall and is not producing like he was in the beginning of the season, even being relegated to the bench in favor of James Jones, who is just now starting to find his shooting stroke. But, in the end, this team still has Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, and when those two are clicking, this team is still very difficult to defeat.

The Spurs have begun to streak after finally getting all their pieces back from injury. Its no coincidence that their 11 game win streak coincided with Manu Ginobili finally getting his rhythm back after being in and out of the lineup with a myriad of injuries for most of the season. The young players (Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green, and James Anderson) all know their roles and play them to a tee. This team is a well-oiled machine that is just now starting to hit its stride. The team still relies heavily on its trio of veterans, but Coach Popovich has made sure to limit their minutes in the regular season. The addition of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will help during their post-season run. This, in my opinion, is probably the most dangerous team heading in the playoffs.

The Thunder’s last 10 games have exhibited the same errors that have been plaguing them the entire season. They are 6-4 in those games, but those errors become very evident in the losses. Stagnant offense always hinders this team in the beginning of games. The team even has a punt play to start nearly every game: giving the ball to Kendrick Perkins in the low post. It very rarely ends in points for the Thunder. In their 4 losses in this 10 game run, the Thunder score an average of 22.3 points in the first quarter. In the 6 wins, that number jumps up to 27. That’s nearly a 5 point difference, which, in an NBA quarter, is a huge difference. Another stat that hinders the team in their losses is the number of turnovers. In that same 10 game span, they are averaging 16.5 turnovers per game in their losses, and 14 per game in their wins. That difference of 2.5 turnovers can, hypothetically, be equated to an extra 7 points for the other team. Which, again, in the NBA, is a game-changing amount.  Defensively, the team still has trouble with the pick and roll and guard penetration.

The good news for all these teams is that there is nothing new that can be labeled a negative. The deficiencies and errors that they have been exhibiting all season, are the same things that are afflicting them now. Even with all these issues, these teams are still the top 4 teams in the league and the leading contenders to win the championship. Are there darkhorses on the fringes that could slip in? Of course. The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to show some diversity in their offense with Andrew Bynum finally taking charge in the absence of Kobe Bryant. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the deepest teams in the league, with 2 All-star caliber post players (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and an All-star caliber wing (Rudy Gay). And the Boston Celtics will give it all they got for what appears to be their swan song together.

The thing about senior-itis is that, eventually, everyone graduates and moves on to the next level. In that next level is where your skills and abilities come out in full force. Some end up in college, some in a job, and some at home on the couch. In this crazy season, anything can happen. But if the playoffs play out anything like the regular season, then these 4 teams should be the cream that rises to the top.

Interview With A Beard

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview the great James Harden’s Beard. Needless to say, it was a life changing event. After the interview, everything has became so much more clearer to me. Colors are brighter. Sounds are crisper. Smells are more odorous. And I’ve added 6 inches to my vertical. So without further ado, I bid you the interview.

(Pre-interview)

Me: Let me start by saying it is a pleasure and an honor to be in your presence. This interview could be a career changer for me.

Beard: This won’t just be a career changer, my friend. It will be life-altering. Many people have dropped everything they were doing, and have decided to follow me. I like to call them my Beard-sciples. And there are definitely more than 12.

Me: Wow, so would you say you have a cult following?

Beard: It’s not a following. It’s a way of life. Getting your Beard on allows to see things in a way that you’ve never seen them before. My Beard-sciples break their lives up into 2 parts: BB and AB. Before Beard and After Beard. There is no in-between.

Me: Interesting. Well, let’s go ahead and get this started.

(Interview)

Me: Hello, I’m Alex Roig of www.nowthatsthunderbasketball.wordpress.com and www.HoopsTalkNation.com , and I have the distinct honor of interviewing one of the greatest entities of our time. The Dalai Lama once said “When I seek peace, I always look for my inner Beard.” The President once sent the Beard to Russia to negotiate the release of 2 captured American reporters. Needless to say, the Cold War ended when he was done with his trip. 

First off, welcome and thank you for this opportunity. As revered and well-known as you are, you’re also a bit of a mystery. You’re known by many names, but what do you like to be called?

Beard: Well, my creator named me Beardfjelfioeualkjfdlskjfoisdjlfksdjsnuffalufagousgarciaortizrodriguezmikeandmikeinthemorning. But the “fjelfioeualkjfdlskjfoisdjlfksdjsnuffalufagousgarciaortizrodriguezmikeandmikeinthemorning” is silent. In fact, I joke with Serge (Ibaka) all the time that my name is actually longer than his real name and I have no spaces. The first time I said it, he got mad and gave me this look.

 

Feeling threatened, I put him in the cobra clutch and subdued him. We have since become great friends and, as Mike Dunleavy can attest, I have passed the secrets of the cobra clutch on to him. 

I’m also known as James Harden’s Beard, The Beard, Beard, Bearded One, Jeff Bearden, The Great JHB, The Most Interesting Beard in the World, Brian Wilson’s Nemesis, Brett Keisel’s Darker Brother, Rick Ross’s Homey, and Bob. But, I prefer to go just by Beard.

Me: Interesting. So, one of your aliases is James Harden’s Beard. Describe your relationship with Mr. Harden.

Beard: Well, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Animals in the wild will sometimes form alliances with other different types of animals that benefit both parties. That’s how our relationship works. He’s my vehicle and my protection. He carries me and I carry the message. In return, I give him powers beyond belief. As I grow bigger, his skills become more diverse and more immense. He’s gone from 2nd Team All-Rookie, to possible 6th Man of the Year this season, to probable future All Star selection. Can you imagine when I reach the floor?

Me: How did you guys come together?

Beard: I’ve always had James. Many people think I grew out of him. It is quite the opposite in fact. I allowed James to manifest himself and become a man. He didn’t always have the beard, you know.

When he was mature enough to handle the responsibility, I appeared. And I’ve been growing ever since.

Me: It seems like a lot of this is based on James’s maturity. If he ever digresses, will you move onto another subject?

Beard: It all depends. There’s a judgment period after what we call, ‘the great betrayal.’ It usually involves the person wanting to cut us off. If that happens, we then judge the person and see if we want to stay with that subject or not. It all depends on what James does if he ever commits that betrayal. We give our subjects free will to do as they please.

Me: How many of you are there?

Beard: That question is so subjective. How many of you are there out there? (Me: Just one) But there are over 6 billion people out there in the world. It’s all relative. There’s only one James Harden’s Beard. But there are plenty of beards out there.

Me: What are your feelings towards people making shirts based on your likeness and people wearing fake beards trying to imitate you?

Beard: They say imitation is greatest form of flattery. I don’t fault or look down on those people. Unlike Charles Barkley, I want to be a role model.  There’s a message I’m trying to spread and silence will get you nowhere. The more free advertisement I get, the better.

Me: Is there anyone in the NBA community that you have a kinship with?

Beard: Well, me and Baron Davis’s Beard are tight. Baron even touched me one time. And it may surprise you, but me and Chris Kaman’s Beard work out often. That crazy wannabe German.

Me: Okay, word association time: Razors

Beard : Weapons of mass destruction

Me: James Harden’s mother

Beard: Working on her to like me

Me: Brian Wilson’s Beard

 

Beard: My nemesis

Me: OKC

Beard: My home

Me: Restricted free agency / possible extension

Beard: Not thinking about that right now

Me: Brushes and picks

Beard: My tools

Me: Person with a surprisingly great beard

Beard: Rumble the bison

Me: One last question: Who pulls more women, you or James?

Beard: A beard never kisses and tells.

Me: Thank you sir.

Beard: The pleasure was all mine.

A View From the Other Side

When I first started writing this piece, I didn’t know how to approach it or where to take it. I grew up a military brat, and when we lived overseas, our experience can be best described as sheltered due to living “behind the gates.” It’s this mindset, which I believe, has kept me from experiencing other teams and other team cultures. I honestly don’t feel the need to explore other teams as I have everything I need here in Oklahoma City. A great, young team, a fervent fan base, an excellent front office, and an ownership group, that for all intents and purposes, appears ready to break the bank in order to keep their young core together.

I know a lot about the Thunder. I know the players, their stats, their comforts, their weaknesses, etc. But as a blogger, I’ve learned to look at other things not related to players and stats. The recent lockout opened up a Pandora’s Box of knowledge, not entirely related to the game of basketball, but instead to the business of basketball. While I can’t say that I’ve become an expert on such things, I have begun to put the pieces together and observe things such as fan attendance, TV money, corporate sponsorships, the dynamic between the community and the team, and future projections.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a game with two of my friends in Indianapolis, where the Pacers were playing the Washington Wizards. We got great seats from Pacers superfan, El Pacero, and were ready to became Pacers fans for a day. We were told to round up some Pacers gear before the game. We were staying in downtown Indy, 4 blocks from the arena. I figured, “how hard would it be to find some Pacers gear this close to the arena?” So I headed to the downtown mall and started looking around. Surely there would be some Pacers gear in an athletic store. Asked around and nothing. Next, I went to the Indianapolis Colts store and asked an employee if there were any places to get some Pacers gear in the mall. The employee thumbed his nose at me and said, “There’s no place in the mall to get Pacers’ gear since their store closed down last year.” One of my friends actually trekked it over to the Pacers store in Bankers Life Fieldhouse and got the gear we needed.

We finally got to the arena and were cheering for the team from Area 55, the cheer section authored by Roy Hibbert, where only the wildest and craziest fans sit. We learned the chants (“Whoomp, there it is” every time a Pacers free throw fell through), did the arm signals (X sign for David West), both hands opened and in the air for Hibbert (to signify his jersey number 55)), and had a great time in that first quarter.

But we also noticed something else. More than 50% of the arena was empty.  Now, mind you, I could have stood up and cheered with the Area 55 crazies for the entire game. But my friends, who are about 15 years my senior, have a life’s worth of old football and running injuries on their bodies and would have preferred to sit. So, with the arena so empty, we decided to make our way down to see if we could score some better seats. After an unfortunate alcohol accident (one the guys I was with fell and spilled his beer), we were sitting in the end seats on the lower bowl lamenting the loss of a full cup of golden brew, laughing our butts off, and enjoying the game.

After halftime, we tried our luck at heading to the sideline lower bowl seats. Everywhere we looked in the lower bowl, the upper half of the sections were completely empty. We slipped past the ushers and enjoyed the rest of the game 15 rows from the floor. And it turned out to be a pretty good game. It was a 2-point game with 8 seconds left. While the arena got a little loud, everyone in the arena was basically glued to their seats.

The experience was completely surreal to me. Not the game itself, but the arena experience was, surprisingly, a bit depressing. If the Thunder were ever involved in a 2 point game in the 4th quarter at the Chesapeake Arena, that place would be rocking and everyone would be on their feet making noise. It wouldn’t matter who the opponent was. That’s how it’s always been in Oklahoma City. Even when the Hornets were in town, we were known as Loud City. While that may have been a marketing ploy concocted by the Hornets’ arena staff, it worked for us and we ate it up. That slogan became us.

This is where I revert back to my military upbringing. I’ve “grown up” under the veil of OKC basketball. All I’ve ever known is to be loud and cheer like hell for my team. If we are up by 20, scream because we are winning. If we are down by 20, scream even louder, because that may provide the spark to uplift the team. So when the Pacers were up by two with 8 seconds left, and no one was on their feet, I didn’t know what to think.

So, I asked around town why the 2-14 football team (the Colts) is so wildly supported, while the basketball team that is playoff-bound is left to fend for itself. The most popular response was that the team hasn’t been good in a while. While that may be true, the Pacers gave the Bulls a helluva first round matchup last season in the playoffs and are currently 10 games over .500. The second most popular answer was that the city still hasn’t gotten over the Brawl and the Stephen Jackson night club shooting incident. That completely floored me because it has been over 7 years since the Brawl and 5 years since Captain Jack donned a Pacers uniform.

The fragile relationship between Indianapolis and the Pacers surprises me because Indiana is known for its love of hoops. No state is associated with the grassroots aspect of basketball like Indiana. Between the Hoosiers movie, French Lick being Larry Bird’s hometown, and the constant replays of the Bob Knight-led Hoosiers team, the last place I thought would be a struggling in terms of basketball fandom would be Indianapolis. But, apparently, such is the thin line between fanaticism and empathy.

And let me be clear. The piece is not, in any way, shape, or form, indicative of what may be the true situation in Indianapolis. I went to one game, in which they played against one of the worst teams in the league. Everybody has an off-day, even fan bases. The truth may be so different from my little one game sample, that I may have a couple Indianapolis fans mad at me for writing this blog. But in comparing this to the only thing I know (OKC), I still find it a bit puzzling that the arena was only half way full for a strong playoff team.

I hope I’m wrong concerning what I saw in Indianapolis. Maybe it was an aberration. A statistical anomoly in the world of numbers. I just saw the New York Knicks face the Pacers in the Fieldhouse and the place was packed. Good for you Indy. You have a good, up-and-coming team. I hope the Fieldhouse is full to the brim when the Thunder play the Pacers in Indy on Friday. I hope Area 55 is raising hell for the entire game and pumping that crowd up. I hope El Pacero dons the mask and drums the crowd into a frenzy. I hope it’s a close game. Annnnd, I hope the Thunder come out of there victorious.