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.
The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.
The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.
When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.
But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas.
The Thunder went into the season with their entire 9-10 man rotation still intact. This familiarity and chemistry would help propel the team to a 29-7 start, while many other teams were still trying to figure out where their new additions would fit. The quick start wasn’t without its casualties though, as Eric Maynor suffered a season ending ACL tear in the 9th game of the season.
This prompted the Thunder to use their rookie point guard, Reggie Jackson, as the primary back-up point guard. In hindsight, though, it’s interesting to think that if Eric Maynor doesn’t go down early in that season, the Thunder may still have James Harden on the team. With Maynor down and a rookie handling the back up point guard duties, Harden had to became the primary ball-handler/scorer/creator/spark/heart of the second team. He was the end all, be all for the bench unit and was rewarded at the end of the season with the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award. If Maynor never gets hurt, then maybe Harden isn’t forced to do so much. If he isn’t forced to do so much, then he doesn’t show the endless potential he has. Which probably means no 6th Man of the Year award, no Olympics, and no excessive facial follicular exposure. Instead of Harden becoming the best shooting guard in the league, he instead becomes the best combo guard off the bench in the league, which usually comes at a much cheaper price tag. In essence, I’m blaming the entire Harden fiasco on Eric Maynor. But I digress….
After the quick start, the Thunder stumbled a bit near the end, finishing the season on an 18-12 run. This allowed the San Antonio Spurs to capture the No. 1 seed heading into the Western Conference playoffs. These were the playoffs where the Thunder were supposed to put it all together. They had lost in the first round to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers two seasons prior, and lost in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the previous season. If the progression curve were to remain true, then this was the season where the Thunder were supposed to get to the Finals. But it doesn’t always work that way in sports. Team success is usually never a linear upward-climbing line. It’s usually an upward trending mountain range with peaks and valleys. After this past season, this reality has become very apparent to Thunder fans.
These playoffs, though, turned into a bit of a redemption tour for the Thunder. Their first round opponent was the 7th seeded defending champion Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs were a shell of themselves after failing to resign key pieces from their championship nucleus from the previous season. Mavs owner Mark Cuban let defensive lynchpins Tyson Chandler and Deshawn Stevenson, and offensive sparkplug JJ Barea sign with other teams in hopes of cashing in on a big time free agent in the future. As a side note, if there is one thing that I have learned in life is that you never give up on a short Puerto Rican or on a guy with Abraham Lincoln tattooed on his Adam’s apple. The Mavericks’ best chance of winning a game in the series came in Game 1, but on the game’s last meaningful play Kevin Durant faded to the left and let go of a high-arcing shot that bounced off the front of the rim and was caught by an angel who ever so lightly bounced off the backboard and in. After that, it felt like the Thunder had exorcised any of their past demons with the Mavs and they went on to sweep the series.
The Thunder’s next round opponent were the Los Angles Lakers. But if you would have watched any of the pre-series coverage about this series, you would’ve thought it was a 1 on 1 game between James Harden and Metta World Peace. In the second to last game of the regular season, the Thunder were playing the Lakers in Los Angeles. In the 2nd quarter, World Peace received a pass from Andrew Bynum, dribbled around Durant, and emphatically threw one down on Serge Ibaka to get the Staples crowd back on its feet. Run of the mill play in basketball, right? After he dunked, he started heading up court, as James Harden was jogging down the court to get the inbounds pass. As World Peace was pounding his chest to pander to the crowd, Harden met him at around the restricted circle. Now, Harden is one of the best players at playing the “passive-aggressive trash talker” role. To get under a player’s skin he would do things like slightly nudge them as they were running back up court and talk trash. Nothing dirty. Just something to say, “Hey, I’m here. And I’ll be here all night.” On this night though, Harden bumped World Peace right as he was coming around with his other arm and was caught with an elbow so vicious, that it would have probably done extensive damage to a regularly sized person. In the end, Harden went down in a heap and was out for a week with a concussion, and World Peace was suspended for 7 games (which ended up including the first 6 games of LA’s first round series with Denver).
The series itself was pretty competitive outside of the bookend games. The first and last games of the series were laughers, as Oklahoma City won by an average of 22.5 points. In game 2, the Thunder were down by 7 with two minutes to go and had to score the final nine points of the game to come out with a two point victory. In game 3, the Lakers near perfection from the free throw line to pull out a 3 point victory. In game 4, the Thunder rode the coattails of Durant and Russell Westbrook as the team outscored the Lakers by 12 in the 4th quarter to win another close one in Los Angeles. Game 5 wasn’t even a contest and the Thunder moved onto the Western Conference Finals for the 2nd consecutive year.
The San Antonio Spurs had always been the model from which the Thunder tried to mold themselves. The Thunder’s front office and ownership group is littered with guys who have been brought up by the Spurs organization. Thunder owner Clay Bennett was once part of the ownership group in San Antonio and GM Sam Presti and his plethora of Presti-bots were all taught the Jedi-mind tricks of GM’ing from Gregg Popovich and RC Buford. To say that it felt like the Spurs were the Thunder’s big brother was not that far flung of an assumption. But when little brother starts to grow up, the one opponent he looks to conquer first, is always big brother.
The first four games of the series went as planned with each holding serve on its home court. But as they say in the playoffs, “the series doesn’t really start until the home team loses a game.” The Thunder appeared to be in complete control of Game 5 when they were up by 13 with 5:16 remaining in the game. But the Spurs mounted an 11-0 run to bring them within 2 with 1:54 remaining. The two team exchanged baskets after that, as the Spurs remained down by 2 with 50 seconds left. One of the discoveries realized in these playoffs was that Thunder had not 1, not 2, but 3 possible closers on their team. The usual consensus was that Durant was option A and Westbrook was option B. But the emergence of Harden gave the Thunder a three headed monster to finish out games.
With the shot clock winding down, and his team up by two, Harden dribbled hard to the left only to be met a second defender. Harden backed the ball back to the 3-point line and glanced at the clock. Then he took one hard dribble to the right to get Kawhi Leonard off balance, took a big step back behind the 3-point line, and let loose a 26 footer that hit nothing but the bottom of the net. Game, blouses.
In Game 6, the Thunder came out nervous and unsure of themselves, while the Spurs came out the gates on a mission. By the time halftime arrived, the Thunder found themselves down by 15. At halftime, while I was sitting there sulking a bit, I put out this tweet:
@AlexR44 6 Jun 12 #Spurs are only playing 7. Maybe they’ll tire in the second half. #IBelieve #DidWeStopBelievingWhenTheGermansBombedPearlHarbor?
And wouldn’t you know it, the Thunder came out red hot. They outscored the Spurs 32-18 in the 3rd quarter to head into the 4th only down by one. The Spurs looked extremely sluggish throughout the 4th quarter and struggled to execute, scoring only 36 total points in the 2nd half. One of the greatest moments that is seared in my mind was when Durant found Kendrick Perkins for a dagger dunk that put the Thunder up by 6 with 24 seconds left. If you had followed the team from the beginning, that was one of those moments. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled louder than when Perkins jammed that ball through. The whole scene was surreal. Durant hugging his family. The arena staff taping off the floor for the Western Conference trophy presentation. It’s literally a feeling that cannot be described in logical words. I went into the concourse and started calling everyone of import to me (my mom, my sister, my wife, my best friend) and was literally just screaming “WE DID IT!” To an outsider, it was the actions of a crazy man. But to a Thunder fan, you just knew.
Whew! We’re in the Finals…….oh, crap!…..we’re in the Finals……against Lebron and the Heat.
As you move on in the playoffs, you see a higher level of competition and a higher level of focus on your team from the outside world. During the 1st and 2nd rounds of the playoffs, all the media coverage is basically local with some national attention sprinkled in. As soon as you reach the conference finals, the focus becomes nationally-driven. But when you reach the Finals, it is a completely different animal. The focus on the team takes on an international focus. Media from across the world comes out to cover the NBA Finals. And that completely and utterly shocked me.
When I got to my seats for Game 1 of the Finals, my seats were covered by a plastic tarp. For reference, I sit in the last row in the balcony of the upper deck. Basically, I’m the upper middle class of Loud City. But when we arrived, our seats were covered in a tarp and the entire section above us was replaced by tables for media members. In fact, the sections to the left and right of us were replaced by tables for the media. There were paper placards for who was supposed to sit where and what staion/city/country they were from. In the end, they mistakenly covered my seats and I got to sit in them, business as usual.
The Finals can be a little strange for a first timer. You go the entire season getting used to a pre-game routine, but in the Finals, they streeeeeeeetch the pre-game intros out to a 15 minute montage for the TV audience. Even the Thunder players were a little surprised by this new development. When you go 100+ games doing the same thing, and then they change it up on you, it can be a shock to the system.
When the game started, you could tell the crowd was nervous. Not the, “Oh crap, we’re playing the Heat” nervous. But the, “We’ve never been here before. What do we do?” nervous. Eventually things settled out as the Thunder and the Heat battled pretty evenly in the first half. In the second half though, the Thunder outscored the Heat 58-40 to grab an 11 point victory.
To say that Thunder fans were on top of the world, would be like saying the Burj Khalifa is just a building. We were already thinking sweep and looking at parade routes in Bricktown. But we neglected to remember the psyche of the moment for Lebron James. This was his defining moment. If he didn’t win these Finals, he would probably go down in basketball lore as the biggest choker in the history of the game. The weight of the world was on his shoulders, and, unbeknownst to anyone else, he was primed to grab his crown. Frustration and losses can do different things to different players. Some players look at all their defeats and all their missteps and panic the moment they start to creep back up. Other players take what they have learned from their mistakes and begin to use them as fuel for a redemption fire. And that’s what happened in the 2012 NBA Finals after Game 1.
The Thunder lost a close one in Game 2 after they mounted a furious comeback, only to be stifled by a blown foul call at the end. Game 3 was a microcosm of what was to come for the Thunder in the next game. The Thunder would stay afloat, only to be outlasted at the end by the Heat. Game 4 saw one of the greatest individual performances in a Finals game by Russell Westbrook (43 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists) get wasted as the Thunder could not hold on to a lead. By the end of that games, the sharks were circling around the Thunder. There was blood in the water and the young Thunder were the ones feeling the pressure of being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals. And they played that way in Game 5, while Miami came out with a collective calm that oozed looseness. They dominated the Thunder in that game and went on to their 2nd championship (their first with Lebron).
In my opinion, winning Game 1 was a gift and a curse. It showed the Thunder that they could win in the Finals. But I also think it took the respect of the moment away from them. After Game 1, they probably thought, this is going to be easy. But as we saw, that turned out to not be the case. Were the Thunder too young for the moment? Probably. Did they have a little of the, “Just happy to be here” feeling? Probably. Most teams need a trial run before they taste success. But I would not trade the experience for the world. Growing up as a basketball fan in the 90’s and watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls dominate spurred my love for basketball. To actually be attending the event that was the apex of basketball was a great thing to watch. Whether we get there again or not, I can go through life knowing that I actually watched my hometown team in an NBA Finals. And to think, there was actual possibility that this moment may have never happened because of the lockout.