The Thunder aren’t supposed to be here.
Ask any longtime NBA fan. This team should be in Seattle. It should be in the lottery. It should be taking its lumps in the first round. It should be in the middle of one of Kenny and Chuck’s “Gone Fishin’” graphics.
Been there, done that.
A year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked this same situation in the eye – ahead by double digits in the fourth quarter, poised to change the momentum of a Conference Finals – and blinked. Tonight, against a San Antonio Spurs team only a week removed from a 20-game winning streak, they intensified their stare.
This is not intended to traumatize Thunder fans, but it is worth examining how much the team has grown since last year’s meltdown against Dallas.
Then: Dirk Nowitzki tortured Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, hitting an improbable series of jumpers that became just another milestone in his championship journey.
Now: Kevin Durant and James Harden hit the improbable shots, capped off by Harden’s step-back three-pointer that gave the visitors a five-point cushion with 28.8 seconds left.
Then: Oklahoma City’s offensive strategy on the game-deciding play resulted in a broken play and a stagnant 30-foot Durant heave that Shawn Marion easily blocked.
Now: Some habits proved hard to break, as the Thunder still ran questionable plays at inopportune times and ignored Durant for inappropriate stretches late in the game. Still, OKC’s ball movement mostly minimized dribbling and found the increasingly large holes in San Antonio’s defense.
Then: The Thunder couldn’t stop the geriatric Jason Kidd-Jason Terry backcourt, which combined for 37 points.
Now: Oklahoma City battled through foul trouble to build a defensive wall that neutralized Tony Parker (20 points, 5-14 field goals) and choked off a few critical supporting Spurs (Gary Neal, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Boris Diaw combined to miss 14 of 17 field goals).
Then: Daequan Cook took zero shots in six minutes, failing to provide the deep threat to augment Oklahoma City’s 2-13 three-point marksmanship.
Now: Cook hit two huge corner threes to change the complexion of the game in the second period, during a run in which the Thunder built a lead that forced the Spurs to play catch-up for the rest of the game.
Then: Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to turn the ball over 15 times, exceeding Dallas’ total of 13 by themselves.
Now: Westbrook still took as much off the table as he brought, committing six turnovers and hitting only 9 of 24 field goals. The rest of his game brimmed with maturity, though, as he dished 12 assists and seemed content to yield to Durant and Harden for most of the critical fourth period.
Then: The Thunder’s collapse from a 15-point fourth quarter lead signaled the death knell for their season.
Now: The young team that’s not supposed to be here stands one win from the NBA Finals, only needing to win once on its home court to punch its ticket. Their fans don’t have to worry about where they’re supposed to be. They have arrived.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.