HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Remarkable is the only word we can think of to describe the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the past 14 months.
Now we don’t mind pointing out that we were ahead of the curve in predicting big things for the Thunder this season, just check our midsummer rankings and see if we weren’t dead on in our assessment of this crew when we ranked them behind the Lakers in the Western Conference food chain.
Fine, if you don’t wanna go back and see what we said in July we’ll do the work for you:
2 — Oklahoma City
Last season: 50-32
The Skinny: You think this is too big of a jump for a team was the 8th seed last season, don’t you? Well, too bad. If you’re not ready to drink the Thunder Kool-Aid we’ll handle it for you. As long as Kevin Durant is healthy and Russell Westbrook continues to evolve into one of the league’s elite point guards, the Thunder will be a force. Last season’s breakthrough season was just the appetizer. Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha are quality players at their positions, on both ends of the floor, and Nenad Krstic has Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and rookie Cole Aldrich helping him out down low. James Harden had a solid rookie season and could challenge for a more prominent role this season. But even if he doesn’t push for a starting spot he’s already a huge part of a Thunder second unit that has been upgraded tremendously from where it was this time a year ago. Eric Maynor could start of plenty of teams at point guard and Daequan Cook gives them a distance shooter with fantastic size and solid experience, having played with Wade in Miami the past three seasons. Of course, everything here starts with Durant, who signed a five-year extension this summer. The Thunder will be among the West’s elite for as long as he is in uniform.
The one thing we left out of the mix is a fan base that rivals any in the NBA.
Seriously, the Thunder will enjoy a home court advantage this season that few teams on the professional level will ever have the luxury of experiencing. (Be sure to weigh in on the Prime Minister-inspired poll at the bottom of this post.)
We’re talking about a basketball love affair that is going on in Oklahoma City right now, with both sides equally head over heels for the other. It’s been spotlighted by several publications, Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated did a masterful job of capturing it in his magazine’s NBA preview.
But no one understands this bond like the folks that live it.
You saw them during that first round playoff series against the Lakers last season. The sea of blue t-shirts filled with screaming fans. It was like Golden State 2007, when they upended the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Only the Thunder didn’t have a magical ending to their story. They lost in Game 6 to the Lakers, and somehow the bond between team and town (no disrespect Oklahoma City, but ‘team and town’ had a better ring to it than ‘team and city’) grew stronger.
John Rohde of the Oklahoman says the Thunder are still searching for a reasonable explanation for that scene after the Game 6 loss to the Lakers, when a raucous sellout crowd stood on its feet and applauded its team for a herculean effort only to have the players return the applause:
It was a raw sports moment that couldn’t possibly be choreographed — disappointment, followed by emotion, followed by gratitude — a sequence rarely experienced by any team whose season ends with a loss at home.
The 18,342 fans inside the Ford Center won’t forget that moment, nor will a national audience on ESPN, nor will the Lakers.
Nor will the Thunder.
“I’ve never seen a response like that,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who played in the NBA for a decade and has coached for another. “That never happens. It was heartfelt and our guys appreciated it.”
Brooks paused and searched for more words.
“That’s, um… not common,” Brooks said. “That’s not common, but there are so many things we love about Oklahoma City. Our fans are so loyal to us. They had tough times early on (a 3-29 start in 2008-09), but hopefully those times are behind us.”
Trust us coach, the tough times are a thing of the past.
The love affair, though, is just beginning.