As the Thunder cut their collective playoff teeth, there are still plenty of new situations for the team to confront mentally and physically. Having a chance to really stomp on the throat of a wounded postseason opponent is one of them, and it comes tonight in Denver.
There aren’t many other playoff challenges that can present themselves for a first time for the Thunder. A close-out game and a Game 7 are two, but what else is there? Game 1 marked the first time Oklahoma City opened at home as a playoff favorite, and the Thunder responded to that test with a pair of wins.
Another challenge OKC encounters, but not for the first time, is to win a playoff game on the road. That’s on a list of problems that the Thunder have yet to solve despite previous attempts, including winning as a playoff underdog. Certainly OKC has only had a few chances to address these issues. But there would be no better time for the Thunder to get its first playoff win than tonight, and maybe it will have the chance to be a playoff series underdog again soon enough.
Thankfully for Thunder fans, Oklahoma City has made its name on answering the bell and exceeding expectations for two years running now. There’s plenty of reason to think the Thunder will again pass a mental test by being strong enough to win at least one of two games against the Nuggets on their home court. And I do emphasize mental, because I think the last four games have proved that Oklahoma City is the better team right now, and an A+ game from the Thunder beats an A+ game from Denver.
It’s hard to take lessons from the regular season and apply them to the playoffs, which is obviously a different animal. Then again, the first two games in OKC during this series have played out the way the two late regular season games the Thunder and Nuggets play. Still, I think a different two-game stretch late in the season combine to give the Thunder the kind of confidence it needs to win tonight and/or Monday, and can be a source of confidence for fans who are spending the last few hours before the game obsessing about it, looking for reasons why Oklahoma City should win. (Whoever THAT may be…)
The Thunder entered April 10 on a hot streak, but was running into the Lakers at the Staples Center. Los Angeles was determined to bounce-back from a losing streak and talked about how important a win would be on their home court against a contending team. But Oklahoma City went out and extended LA’s streak and closed out the Lakers in the fourth quarter. The next night, the potential letdown game came in Sacramento. Older, flakier versions of the Thunder would have responded to the trip in one of two ways: losing to the Lakers and taking out frustrations in a win against the Kings the next night, or somehow winning the bigger first game but losing focus against Sacramento and losing there. The new, tougher and determined Thunder won both games.
Tonight’s game in the Pepsi Center combines those elements. Denver should at least be trying to batten down the hatches (though the Nuggets may be failing, if J.R. Smith’s petulant post-practice interview Thursday is a sign of how they’re really feeling) and should enter Game 3 in “must win” mode. And the Thunder would be in danger if any sense of complacency has set in with a two-game series lead.
It may be asking a lot for the Thunder to beat what is a better team than showed up in downtown Oklahoma City through the first quarter of Wednesday night’s game once or even twice on its home floor in a playoff setting. Maybe my optimistic feeling isn’t quite as justified as it feels, even with a two-game lead, because four straight wins don’t necessarily have to be predictors of the future. The Nuggets could have a renaissance, play with energy and return to Oklahoma City having made this a tight series.
But I think the Thunder will pass this test as they have so many others. The toughness shown throughout the strong spring run, exemplified by the California road trip and in the four recent games against Denver, isn’t a fluke. Headed into tipoff, the Thunder is playing the best basketball in the West right now and shows no signs of stopping.
If this series comes back to Oklahoma City on Wednesday, it sure doesn’t feel like it will be 2-2. The Thunder has answered almost every recent bell, and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t answer this one.