A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

How the Thunder looked the 09 Blazers in the eye and said “We’re not you”

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Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunders at ...

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The Oklahoma City Thunder won 55 games this year, grabbing a division title and home court advantage for the first time in the Kevin Durant era. Two years ago Portland won 54 games and also grabbed home court in the first round for the first time in the Brandon Roy era. But, Oklahoma City came out flat with the pressure against a more experienced Denver team and fell 13 points back by the early 2nd quarter of their Game 1. Portland similarly came out flat against Houston and stood 14 pts back by the early 2nd quarter of their first game.

Yet this is where the similarities end for the two games. Oklahoma City ended up cutting the deposit to 1 by halftime on the way to a hard fought 2nd half and 4 pt win, Portland went the other direction and fell down 18 by halftime, losing by 27 when all was said and done.

That game cost Portland the series. They played well to win their remaining home games, but were too green to go into Houston and win a road game to reverse the momentum. Houston took a 3-1 lead in the series and then won in 6. The Blazers desperately needed their hard fought home court advantage to advance.

I have been eyeing Oklahoma City’s first playoff game for months as a result of this comparison – and especially when a matchup with Denver became obvious. Losing Game 1 would have been deadly against Denver – Not only would the Nuggets have the momentum and a mental edge, but the combination of Denver’s schoolyard style, the altitude advantage they get playing at home, and a surely ridiculous crowd makes the Pepsi center last place you want to go needing a road win to escape a 3-1 deficit. If they lost Game 1 I believe everything was pointing towards the Nuggets taking a 3-1 series lead and winning in 6 – because I don’t believe OKC could reverse the series on the road in Denver, not against a team with the Nuggets’ energy and after Denver mentally one upped them early. OKC was my pre playoffs title pick and after that first quarter I truly believed they were on their way to losing in the first round.

Yet this was not that Portland game. Perhaps making the playoffs last year and facing the Lakers made OKC – and particularly Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, more ready to step up this game. Perhaps Oklahoma City’s crowd roaring despite a deficit while the Rose Garden went into shocked silence helped the Thunder. Perhaps the refs played their part, giving Durant some questionable calls early and botching a certain offensive goaltending call late in the game. But maybe this team is just in a different place in ability and mental fortitude than that Portland team. Earlier in the week when Chicago trailed Indiana in the 4th quarter, Bill Simmons made this tweet:

“This is turning into a “you need to prove to us that you’re a legit title favorite” game for the Bulls. Gotta take care of business here.”

I believe the same applied for Oklahoma City on Sunday night. That was a test to prove whether they’re ready to make a title run this year or whether they’re another Portland 2009. They dug in and made the plays on both ends to pull it out. It’s the type of game that won’t get as much talk as a big Conference Finals or Finals game will if OKC makes a run (if they do, Denver is far from dead), but it might end up just as important. If the Thunder end up taking over the Western Conference in the next half decade, you can say it started here.

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