Monday night (almost Tuesday morning), those who stayed up past their bed time to watch the Thunder game were given a treat. With a final score of 111-107 in overtime, Oklahoma City was victorious against the Portland Trail Blazers. The game featured prolonged scoring runs by both teams, two former Longhorns dueling for player of the game status, officiating drama, and Russell Westbrook dunking over and over and over again.
During the game, representatives from the deluded “Save Our Sonics” organization from Seattle (who now support Portland, the team that was once their greatest rival) sat behind the Thunder bench heckling the players they believe belong to them. Then, after the game, OKC players alluded to trash talk from the Blazers as motivation. Basically, it was everything you expect from a rivalry match.
This got me to thinking: Who is the Thunder’s biggest rival? As a team that has technically only existed for a few years, that is not an easy question. Such things must come about organically, and with a lack of history that belongs to the franchise, the animosity that comes about to create rivalries is difficult to pin down. But some do exist.
My rankings go like this:
5. Dallas Mavericks
Geography is always an easy way of creating rivalry. However, in the first couple of seasons, there was very little between the two teams except that it was an easier commute to play games. That changed last season, and it was before the two teams met in the playoffs.
It started with Mav owner Mark Cuban being one of only two owners to vote against the team relocating to Oklahoma. Of course, that was only trying to protect what had been Mavericks turf (Fox Sports used to show Dallas games in this market). However, I would peg December 27, 2010 as the day that sparked the inevitable rivalry between the two local teams. That was when a game at the OKC Arena featured an injury to Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki that still managed to be a Mav victory after a huge fourth quarter.
The outcome was not remarkable–the win signified the Mavericks 17th in 18 games at the time–but after the game, several Dallas players stood at half court taunting the crowd. This was not the behavior of a team who was simply satisfied by another win. Again, they were on a role during that time frame. Those were the actions of a team who felt a special satisfaction from beating their neighbor.
Then, of course, the two teams wound up facing each other in the Western Conference Finals in a prelude to Dallas winning their first NBA title. That series certainly inflamed the competition among the teams, and when Maverick coach Rick Carlisle lost his shiz in their most recent match up (kicking a ball into the crowd that struck a child in the head) it was abundantly clear that the competition between the two teams is anything but friendly.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Again, the Spurs are close in proximity, but the rivalry between the two has less to do with on the court (where the San Antonio tends to get the best of the Thunder) than off the court. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti is a product of the Spurs front office where he is credited with discovering Tony Parker when Presti was fresh out of college. His methods are entirely based on the system for NBA success in a small market that the Spurs created.
That may not sound like a great recipe for rivalry, but it actually does account for some heated battles. Whenever the two teams play, it is a battle of the tried and true small market goliaths against the up and coming small market goliaths. When the Spurs seem to inevitably dispatch the Thunder with a loss, it’s like when the big brother embarrasses the little brother on the drive way basket. For our sake, hopefully the little brother is ready to hit puberty.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Long before the Clippers acquired former Oklahoma City star Chris Paul and probably before local product (and former Sooner) Blake Griffin started playing for them, the Clippers were a thorn in the Thunder’s side. Traditionally a laughing-stock of the league, the Thunder have always had trouble with them, even when OKC is dominating everyone else. Now with CP3 and Griffin giving them legitimacy, not to mention making their visits to the Chesapeake Energy Arena hotter tickets than when Miami comes to town, there is definitely the makings of a real rivalry.
2. Portland Trail Blazers
If there is any historical rival for the Thunder, it is Portland who was once the team’s most natural geographical pairing. When the Thunder were the Sonics, these two teams were the two most Northwestern teams in the Northwest Division. And in some forty years of battling one another, they grew to hate each other.
While the actual geography is now different, there is still a lot linking the two teams. For one, they picked first and second in the 2007 NBA Draft with Portland taking Greg Oden out of Ohio State and leaving the Sonics the booby prize of Kevin Durant. Anytime they play, the Blazers have to be reminded that they selected a guy who has had seven knee surgeries in five NBA seasons and played only a total of 82 games while having to defend the back-to-back scoring champion.
Then, as I have alluded to earlier, the Save Our Sonics numbskulls use every game played in Portland as an opportunity to re-open the wound of the Supersonics moving to Oklahoma City because the city of Seattle would not support them. Ironically, it was just a couple of days ago that a hedge fund manager from Seattle announced that he was going to attempt to buy an NBA team and work to build an NBA caliber facility in his hometown. That way, he could move the team there. You think the S.O.S. guys will be annoyed when people dressed in retro Sacramento Kings gear wave their team’s flag at Golden State/Seattle games?
1. Memphis Grizzlies
It’s tough to have a blood feud with a team whose fans just realized they still had a team in town when said team advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals, but the Thunder have managed. In a rough seven game series, those two teams really grew to dislike one another.
Even before the epic semi-finals, these two teams always brought out the best in each other. You have to go back several seasons before you’ll find a game decided by more than a few points, and when they played early this season, Kevin Durant referred to how emotional the teams get due to the rivalry. Of course, that was the game that sparked the controversy about Durant and Westbrook having a “serious altercation” on the bench.
What makes these two teams such perfect rivals is that they are so similar. In the not so distant past, both were teams that were not taken seriously by the league’s elite. Then, quickly, they both put the fear of Gary England into those elites when the Thunder gave the Lakers their toughest matchup in the 2010 playoffs, and the 8th seed Grizzlies knocked off the top seeded Spurs. Their rosters are very much alike, as well. They feed off defensive specialists (Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha for OKC; Tony Allen for Memphis), bring a great scorer off the bench (James Harden; O.J. Mayo), and boast very young starting line ups.
Technically, they should be ready to butt heads for the next ten years. However, the Grizzlies have wrapped up three players on the 8th seeded team from last year to max-contracts, overpaid their point guard, and struggled out of the gate this season. So, since they have gone with the anti-Spurs method of building a winner in a small market and their fan base is about to tune out again, they’re probably going to have to disassemble the team soon. At that point, it is unlikely this rivalry will remain at the top.
By then, though, Seattle might have a new team and their will be a legitimate natural rivalry.
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