Why Not OKC?

“You will hear Thunder and remember me, and think: she wanted storms.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

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Throughout the 2015-2016 season the Oklahoma City Thunder has been the NBA’s most enigmatic team; parts of the season they showed us flashes of greatness and other parts they drove us absolutely crazy with careless turnovers.  There’s even been times that they have flashed both greatness and carelessness during the span of a single game, as they led the league in games lost after leading going into the 4th quarter (14). 

Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant (35) talks with coach Billy Donovan during Game 1 of the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Saturday, April 30, 2016. Sn Antonio won 124-92. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (35) talks with coach Billy Donovan / Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

The Thunder have been unwaveringly unreliable this season, but their undeniable talent allowed them to win 55 games and place 3rd in an imposing Western Conference.  Some of their inconsistency can be excused due to growing pains from their new Head Coach.  Billy Donovan coached for almost two decades in college, but this season was his first with an NBA team, leading to skeptics as to how effective he would be.  In the 4th quarter, the Thunder repeatedly became predictable down the stretch, turning a 2nd ranked team in Offensive Efficiency, into a much more easily defended foe.

Looking back into the not-too-distant-past, you would see that it was just 4 seasons ago that the Thunder were the NBA’s darling franchise.  In 2012 they finally broke through, beating the Lakers, Mavericks, and Spurs over the course of a postseason which ended in the NBA Finals.  They faced a talented and veteran-laden Miami Heat team on a mission, led by the resurgent LeBron James.  After winning game 1 at home, they were swept the final 4 games, beaten in impressive fashion 15 points in game 5.  After that Finals loss, the league consensus was that Thunder still had a bright future ahead of them: their super-star core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, were all still in the early 20s, with plenty of time to develop further. 

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One fateful day in October, after a Finals run just 4 months earlier, the ‘Big 3’ Era ended and the ‘Big 2’ Era began; after James Harden & OKC were unable to agree on a contract extension, he was traded to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick.  Kevin Durant was just as surprised as the rest of us:

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Even after Harden’s departure, the Thunder maintained their title contender status, going on to achieve 60 games and the #1 seed in the Western Conference.  As fate would have it, the Thunder matched up against James Harden and his new team in the first round of the playoffs. They seemed well on their way to a second NBA Finals berth – then Russell Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs.  Though OKC was able to limp past Houston, the Thunder ultimately lost in the next round to the Memphis Grizzlies.

The next season, OKC won 59 games and again made it through the first two rounds of the Playoffs, reaching the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in 4 years.  As they were dispatching the Clippers, they lost Serge Ibaka to another ill-fated injury.   They later lost to the eventual NBA champion Spurs. 

In the 2014-2015 season, the Thunder played a lost season with Kevin Durant sidelined due to a foot injury, missing 55 games. 

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Fast forward to now: the Thunder are a team which remembers the adversity that they have overcome to reach this point – 3 wins away from returning to the NBA Finals.  They avenged their 2014 Western Conference Finals loss to the Spurs, beating them in 6 games.  Now they face the 73 win Warriors. 

The 2015-2016 season has been a major-injury-free season, and the Thunder are peaking at the perfect time.  After losing to the Warriors 3 times in the regular season, most experts had written them off.  Each game was hotly contested: the Thunder led in the 4th quarter in all 3 games.  I love the Thunder in this matchup because of their size advantage – and they had it on full display in the 4th quarter of Game 1.  The Warriors didn’t have a response for the Thunder’s size, with Bogut ineffective and pulled from the game.  Oklahoma City was able to guard the Warriors’ infamous small-ball lineup, pummeling the Warriors on the glass. They out-rebounded the Warriors by 10 in the 2nd half & were able to overcome a 13-point halftime deficit despite their star duo of Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook shooting a combined 17 out of 5. 

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This should breathe confidence into the team: they were able to beat the Warriors in Oakland, while their two best players shot 33% from the field.  Oklahoma City has the tools to not only beat the Warriors, but to beat any other team in the NBA.  With 2 of the top 5 players in the NBA, the Thunder’s success ultimately comes down to their superstars’ trust in their teammates.  In the Spurs series, they exhibited that trust factor, and so in Game 1 against the Warriors, they have shown it as well. 

In the postseason, OKC has been getting consistent and improved play from their role-players, like Dion Waiters, who is averaging 9 points per game on 47% FG, or Enes Kanter, who is averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds.  Steven Adams has also stepped up in the postseason, giving the Thunder a weapon they never had in the days of Kendrick Perkins: a center who can reliably post double-doubles and switch on to perimeter players on defense.  Even with James Harden coming off the bench in 2012, this Thunder team has the deepest roster they have assembled to date.  If the Big 2 continue to trust their teammates, and if their teammates can prove themselves trustworthy in return, no team can stop OKC from winning the NBA championship this season!

By Blake James