HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — If you blinked the past three seasons, you might have missed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s graduation from championship dreamers to living and breathing contenders.
But there is no doubt about where this team stands in the NBA chow line these days. They are at the front of the line, right behind the Miami Heat and in the same all-or-nothing realm as their South Beach counterparts.
It’s a space few teams occupy on an annual basis. The Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs have been regulars the past five seasons, measuring their seasons by either winning the entire thing or falling tragically short of that goal and wasting another year in finite championship window.
The Heat joined that party two years ago. And the Thunder dove in last season with their first trip to The Finals.
Both of those teams cut the line, but in completely different ways. The Heat went with the microwave approach, adding a superstar like LeBron James and an All-Star like Chris Bosh to a base of Dwyane Wade and viola, championship contender. The Thunder’s path had a much more organic foundation. Their biggest stars, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the now-departed James Harden, were just pups as recently as three seasons ago. They were generation next for sure, but believed to be a few years away from being true contenders.
But they shed that youngster label seemingly overnight and moved into that superstar space without so much as a hiccup. From the first round to the Western Conference in 2010, to the West finals in 2011 and, last season, to The Finals, they stand now as the standard-bearer in the Western Conference and have arrived.
They are, as my main man Jeff Caplan witnessed Friday night in their win over Kobe Bryant‘s wobbling Lakers, as deep and balanced as any team in basketball right now.
Anytime you lose a key member of your core (Harden) and don’t miss a beat, it helps when his replacement (Kevin Martin) fits right in, you know you’re legit.
Wanna-bes are exposed when they face the Thunder, teams like the Indiana Pacers, a crew still in the championship dreamer category. They show up thinking they have a chance to matchup with the Thunder only to find out that they don’t have the extra gear that Durant, Westbrook and even Martin can go when needed.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel talked his team up before the game, only to see them smacked into reality once things got started. It was a lesson for the Pacers and yet more proof that the Thunder (riding the wave of an eight-game surge) are a different cut than your average power, as John Rohde of the Oklahoman points out:
Against the league’s stingiest defense, a sellout crowd of 18,203 appreciatively watched OKC score 100-plus points for the 12th straight contest while improving to 17-4 on the season, tied with San Antonio for the NBA’s best record.
With his teammates struggling to score early, Martin ignited the Thunder when he entered at the 4:55 mark of the first quarter.
In a span of 15 first-half minutes, Martin shot 6 for 7 from the field, 3 for 4 from 3-point range and 7 for 8 from the free-throw line for 22 points. He finished with 24 points and shot 7 for 12.
“Just being aggressive and just doing what I’ve been doing for years,” the 29-year-old Martin said of his performance. “It was just one of those games where you kind of felt it.”
It was with 3:45 left in the game when Westbrook took control.
It began when the 6-foot-3 Westbrook blocked the shot of 7-foot 2 Indiana center Roy Hibbert, which led to a 14-footer from Westbrook on the ensuing possession, then a steal and another buried 14-footer on the next possession, and eventually an 18-footer to end all scoring with 1:02 remaining.
The Thunder know their limits and recognize that there is someone out there that is capable of matching their best and surpassing it with the season on the line. They learned that in The Finals, when they had home court advantage and couldn’t cash in on it against the Heat.
But they also know that what happened last season is history and not necessarily an indicator of what’s to come. Just like the Heat licked their wounds and came back ready for whatever came their way the season after they fell in The 2011 Finals to Dallas, the Thunder have the look of a team that has grown and adjusted from their fall on the biggest stage.
They look like one of those teams that fully understands fully that their season won’t be defined by impressive wins in December, but by similar wins in April, May and June.