Tag Archives: Indianapolis

The Final Push: Impact of OKC’s next 5 games

Spurs-Thunder-Basketball-Kevin-Durant

If the goal of the regular season is to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs, then this is probably the most important stretch of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. With their win over the Portland Trailblazers and San Antonio’s loss to the Houston Rockets last night, the Thunder find themselves 1.5 games back of the Spurs for first place in the Western Conference. These next two weeks may be the most critical for the Thunder in their quest for home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.

Any time you’re playing catch-up, you always need a little help from the team that’s ahead of you. Luckily for the Thunder, the Spurs play an incredibly difficult slate of games before their meeting with the Thunder on April 4th. The Spurs next five games look like this: vs. Denver, vs. Los Angeles Clippers, vs. Miami, at Memphis, and vs. Orlando. While 4 of those 5 games are at home, the combined winning percentage of these five teams is .623. San Antonio is very good at home, but this stretch comes at a time when the Spurs play 6 games in 9 nights (to include the Thunder game). With San Antonio’s propensity for resting it’s veterans during these types of stretches, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in the schedule for the Spurs to do that without risking a game or two.

parker

The Thunder, on the other hand, play 3 games in 4 nights beginning Wednesday: at home against Washington, and then a double dip on the road on back to back nights against Minnesota and Milwaukee.  The combined winning percentage of these three teams is .406. Not exactly the gauntlet that San Antonio has to face during that same time period. After that short road trip, the Thunder get four days off before their game against the Spurs. While the Thunder will be well rested, the Spurs will be playing their 4th game in 5 nights. After the Spurs game, though, the Thunder will hop on a flight to Indianapolis to face the Pacers the next night. 

The key word in the next 10 days will be focus, sprinkled with a little bit of luck. The Thunder should win their next 3 games easily. But the Thunder have been known to play down to the level of their competition, especially on the road. Even the game at home against the Wizards will be fraught with caution, as John Wall has completely recovered from the knee injury that caused him to miss the first 33 games of the season. In his last 9 games, Wall is averaging 25 points, 9.3 assists, and 2 steals per game, while leading the Wizards to a 6-3 record over that time against some stiff competition. The Timberwolves always give the Thunder problems, especially in Minnesota, regardless of who is on the active roster. And Milwaukee is chock full of players that can go off for 30+ points at any time (Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova).

John wall

All this is before they actually play the Spurs. The Thunder had an opportunity to take over first place from the Spurs two weeks ago, but decided to fall asleep at the wheel in the 2nd quarter of that game and never recovered. The Spurs are offensively great where the Thunder are defensively weak (dribble penetration and 3-point shooting). The Thunder have the ability to beat the Spurs, as shown in last season’s Western Conference Finals, but usually have to catch a couple jabs to mouth before they wake up. Hopefully, the Thunder comes into this game with a winning streak and the Spurs are coming off a loss or two.

The most important game in this whole stretch may be the Indiana game. If the Thunder accomplish their goal and take over first place after the Spurs game, they still have to regroup and come back the next night against one of the toughest teams in the league. This is where their focus comes into play. It would be a shame for the Thunder to gain control of the conference one night, and then give it away because of the lack of focus the next night. Trap games are usually reserved for games before rivalry games, but this may be a case of a post-trap game.

Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, Russell Westbrook

The Thunder needs to live by their creed of “one game at a time,” and treat every game with utmost importance for here on out. Do they need San Antonio to possibly lose a game or two? Yes. But that becomes a moot point if the Thunder doesn’t take care of their own business. In a time where it seems like every elite team is streaking and peaking, Oklahoma City has some how managed to tread water long enough to position itself into possibly getting the top spot in the West. Do the Thunder need to win the West to advance to the Finals? They didn’t need it last season when they were the number 2 seed and still beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. But, this is a different team, whose role players seem to respond a lot better at home than on the road. For that reason alone, the Thunder should be making every possible push to get home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It’s all about staying focused from here on out.

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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.

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.