Take five minutes and go back through the archives. I’ve probably said 50 or so times following a big win that THIS one convinced me this Thunder team was actually good. THIS is the statement game that tells the world the Oklahoma City Thunder have arrived. Typically that was following a bad loss that made me want to cry into a pillow or after a big win against a contender.
But I’m not sure I totally believe it. Why? Mainly because of games like yesterday’s laugher in Indianapolis.
I think the main reason for this is that we’re all a little nervous, a little on edge. Or at least I am. There are 14 games left in the season and OKC holds a six-game lead of the Houston Rockets, the team nearest to it that’s sitting outside the top eight in the West. Yes, at this point playoff seeding and home court advantage is what’s on all our minds. But yet, in the dark recesses of our fandom, there’s the scary thought we try to avoid but all think about constantly: Could this team fall on its face and miss the postseason?
If you ask me the answer is no. Seriously, no. Well, I’m pretty sure… no. I suppose if they lost three straight it might get tight… but no. Well… I guess they could go 5-9, Houston could get hot and blow it. I will now put on a black jumpsuit and lie down on a busy street at night.
But that’s kind of sort of the thought process I live with every day. Did you know I stare at the Western Conference standings for problem 10 minutes a day? It’s true. One, because I can’t stop looking at that sexy 42-26 record. But two because I live in fear thinking someone behind the Thunder will catch them. But the reality is, if OKC went 5-9 to finish the season – a horrible finish considering how well they’ve played this year – Houston would need to go 11-3 to catch them. Is that possible? Sure. Is it likely? No, not really at all.
So why do we fret? There really shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Yes, the upcoming schedule is tough. Yes, this team is inexperienced and can drop games like in Indiana. But they’ve proven time and again that they’re a good team. I think it’s because the Thunder fan’s psyche is a fragile one and that’s largely because we don’t know how to completely understand this incredible turnaround. I’ve been trying to sum this mindset up the last few weeks, but honestly I’m not a good enough writer to really get it nailed down. But hang with me.
This all seems a little surreal, doesn’t it? I mean, 3-29 to now sitting sixth in the Western Conference? Seriously? For some reason, it all kind of feels like a sham. It feels like an abberation. Some weird coicidence that’s gotten the team lucky. It just feels too good to be true. And as a result, I think trying to overcome this state of mind makes us all a tad fickle and a lot anxious.
It’s hard to really completely comprehend and understand this season. We try to thumb it down by talking about expectations and how far they’ve been exceeded with 14 games to play. But yet, I don’t think I even fully get it. How can a team that started 3-29 last year and won only 23 games, turn around and compete for not just the playoffs, but home court advantage in it the very next year with essentially the same core group of players? It honestly just doesn’t make sense. So as a result, I end up waiting for a crash. Some dose of reality that wakes us all up and says, “Nope, just kidding. You’re not really that good. But the first five months were fun, right?” It seems like it has to happen. Right?
It’s this underwriting fear of a collapse that I think is why we live and die with each game. A big win in Toronto? Ah no sweat, this team is good stuff. An ugly loss in Indiana? AHHHH, IS IT ALL FALLING APART? TRADE EVERYONE!!! I’m being honest here, but before each game I wonder if the Thunder really has a shot to win. Even against the worst teams. I think it’s because there’s still a little scar tissue left over from last season so the taste of constant defeat lingers, but if OKC were playing Putnam City West High School, I think I’d stop for a second and wonder if this really was a winnable game. I realize that’s pathetic. But then they beat Orlando, they beat Phoenix, they beat Dallas and it all makes sense. You watch the game and nothing is surprising. Kevin Durant is really, really good, Russell Westbrook is a star waiting to explode, Jeff Green is a glue guy that makes big plays, the bench is solid, Scott Brooks is smart and they all play excellent defense. Yet still, it all feels surprising for some reason.
I think another reason for all of this might be because a lot of us have really never been through this before, myself included. Both years the Hornets were in OKC, they competed until mid-March before folding completely, most notably their last season here when they lost 10 of 15 in March, which included a six-game losing skid. So combine that, with the incredible turnaround, with the scars from last season’s failure, with the newness of this race, with the typical anxiety ANY fans has around this time, and maybe you can understand where I’m coming from.
Marc Stein brought some reason to my brain today in his power rankings: “OKC has set the bar so high that you didn’t know how to react when it finally threw in a stinker in Indy. It was just the fifth L in 23 games for a team whose leading rebounder — Durant — averages a whopping 7.5 rpg.” That’s right. OKC is 18-5 over the last month and a half. Think about that. That’s pretty good. Is it luck? Is it an abberation? It’s tough to fake 18 wins in the Western conference over the course of a season, much less five weeks.
Maybe I’m alone in all this. But when you stare down a difficult schedule to finish the year, you worry a little. I think it’s hard not to and completely natural for you to. It’s what makes us fans. Sure, we want the four-seed and home court advantage. Sure, I’d love a favorable matchup that gives OKC a chance to get out of the first round. But you know what, I’d be pretty stinking thrilled with just a spot in the playoffs too. I don’t think it’s greedy to have big expectations for the next month, but I think it’s silly to be disppointed with a postseason birth, even if it’s the black spot of eighth to play the Lakers. I think I’d take it with a big grin on my face.
This doesn’t mean I’m not going to worry about these last couple weeks. Until that magic number clicks to zero, I’m going to fear the worst. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, so I’m probably a little more scarred than most. Not to say I don’t believe in this team, because I do. I’m just, let’s say, cautiously optimistic at this point. But this couldn’t be more fun right now. Would I rather be fearing a collapse that could cost my team the playoffs, or wondering if they’re winning to much and costing themselves ping-pong balls?
I think I can confidently say, I’ll take the former.