After four games in the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder/Los Angeles Laker series is tied up at two games a piece.
The Lakers are shocked.
The media is shocked.
Thunder fans are shocked.
Me? I’m not even mildly surprised.
In the lead up to the playoffs, it had become apparent that our Thunder were a lock to play in the post season. The question that remained was which team Oklahoma City would play in the first round. My thoughts at the time can be found here. Of the five teams who OKC could have played, I ranked L.A. as third, and the only reason I didn’t have them right behind Utah was that I assumed the Lakers would have an inpenetrable aura.
When the Thunder stumbled their way to the playoffs and ended up having to play the defending champions, there was much nashing of teeth locally. The Lakers. The LAKERS! How could our local, green in the gill basketball team compete with one of the most storied franchises in the National Basketball Association? This is the team of Wilt. This is the team of Kareem and Magic. This is the team of Shaq. And, most importantly, this is the team of Kobe.
That aura. That belief every team tipping off against them is a sucker wasting their time. It doesn’t take a basketball expert to detect that arrogance (or confidence–depending on who you root for) in every aspect of the Lake Show’s organization. From the fans who mocked Thunder backers as naive backwoods hicks for thinking it might be a five game series, to Kobe Bryant strutting on the floor like a put upon CEO having to observe inventory, to their part-owner/ABC studio analyst speaking of the team playing in the finals as if it were a foregone conclusion–anyone associated with the purple and gold believes destiny alone will advance their team.
To be clear, that was not a slight against our team specifically. While that kind of advantage was certainly a point of concern considering the inexperience of the Thunder, the Lakers have that same cocky belief regardless of if the opponent is OKC or San Antonio, who have won four championships in the past ten years, the gods of basketball will favor them. And early in this series, it clearly appeared to be a legitimate line of thought.
Oklahoma City wilted under the lights of the Staples Center early. In front of the biggest stars of Hollywood, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the crew played nervous. After the first quarter of game one, the Lakers more than doubled the Thunder’s score, 27-13. The good news was that OKC survived.
It was very much like when Buster Douglas made it through the first round against Mike Tyson. At the time, Tyson seemed invincible as most of his fights lasted less than ninety seconds. Buster had taken the best punch Iron Mike had to offer, and still stood. After that, the reputation of Tyson was no longer a factor in the fight and Douglas ended up winning.
In the rest of game one, the Thunder actually outscored Los Angeles, but the early hole the team dug was just too deep. Two days later, the Thunder lost again, but had a shot at tying late. As the series moved away from the Lakers’ turf, the effect of the aura had worn off.
Now the advantage is the Thunder’s.
I’ll make my point with an analogy. I play softball, and, if you can boast about a sport played by old men hitting pitches thrown underhand, I am good. Well, at least I was. When I was fresh out of college, playing with a bunch of other guys fresh out of college, we routinely brought home the championship t-shirts the league handed out. Now? I play with basically the same team, but we are lucky to win half of our games. The reason is that we just don’t have those young legs, arms, et cetera anymore. And unlike the Lakers, we don’t play 82 games to test our endurance.
While Los Angeles did have the best record in the Western Conference, they locked up that status early. By the all-star break, the Lakers had clinched a .500 record at 41-13–winning 76% of their games. After the break, they were a pedestrian 16-12 (57%) and actually awful against teams that qualified for the playoffs. Versus playoff teams, they won just four of their final fourteen matchups. By the time the season ended, they were seven games better than their eighth seed opponent, which is not a huge margin. If those aren’t signs of an aging team wearing down, then I am open to other suggestions.
For a team who thinks it can “flip a switch” and start playing with elite intensity in the playoffs, this is a pretty damning analysis. Being able to suddenly become the best in the league relies on having the physical capability to match that mental shift. After game one, quarter one, which really seemed more like Thunder bad play than Laker good play, I have not seen this becoming a reality.
Then, of course, there were the two games, both wins, here in our town. While I like to say no visiting team has ever come into the Ford Center and won a playoff game, it really is not that simple. The Thunder really were not a great home team this year. Their 27 home wins do not show a major statistical advantage over their 23 road victories (which, by the way, are identical in number to the quantity of road wins by the team with the best record in the Western Conference). So, as much as I would love to hand out attaboys to the Ford Center crowds–which were, by all accounts, amazing–it does not seem like the determining factor.
The Thunder now possess the confidence to knock off the defending champions, and the defending champions, quite possibly, have the fear of being knocked off. With pivotal game 5 being played in Los Angeles tomorrow, my hypothesis is about to be tested. If the Lakers come out for blood to avenge the thumping they received on Saturday night, and win, the odds of the Thunder making round two are very low. Game seven in L.A. would certainly heavily feature the Laker aura.
However, if the Thunder mix their metaphors, smell the blood in the water, and take advantage of the Lakers being on the ropes in game five…it will be time for us to start scouting Utah (who, not to get ahead of myself, the Thunder outplayed in the regular season).