The Thunder face more than the Nuggets beginning tonight at Oklahoma City Arena. For the first time in most of their playoff lives, Oklahoma City’s players face outsider’s expectations of victory.
A few have been there before, namely former champs Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. And no doubt they’ve been imparting their wisdom to the Thunder’s youngsters and been voices of leadership at practice and in team huddles. But for most of the rest of the roster, this is the first playoff series that the players have been expected to win. And it will be the only series this season that they’re the true favorites, even if lots of folks might think Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio in a second-round series.
Any Thunder player who has done channel flipping or Internet clicking over the past few days — and color me shocked if none of them have, because despite protestations of ignorance, pro athletes always seem to know who is favored and who made what prediction — has seen and heard assertions that Oklahoma City-Denver should be one of the most exciting series of the first round. And they’ve also seen and heard that, for the most part, people have picked the Thunder to move on. A few dissenters picked the Nuggets to make the second round, but the Thunder is the consensus favorite.
And it’s not just the media who expects Oklahoma City to take the series. Thunder fans expect it too. The blue-clad faithful who will pack the arena tonight — myself included — don’t just want and hope for a win like the Lakers series last year, but fully expect to see a win in Game 1 and in the series and will be disappointed if the Thunder doesn’t come through.
The dynamic is different, and it will be tangible. There will be a subtle but important change in the inflection of voices and shouts in the arena. If the Thunder has a cold shooting stretch, there will be as many exasperated gasps and screams as encouraging roars and claps. Same if Oklahoma City has some defensive breakdowns and lapses. I still think the crowd will live up to its reputation of being one of the rowdiest in the NBA, but the edge to it will be just a bit different. There’s a little fear now — the fear of falling short. Against Los Angeles in 2010, there was that nothing-to-lose feeling. No more.
If Oklahoma City can find a way past the Nuggets, the more comfortable feeling of being the underdog will return. Even if the Thunder were to wind up the Vegas and pundit favorite to beat the Spurs (assuming Memphis doesn’t pull a shocker), I don’t feel like Oklahoma City would feel the pressure a true favorite does. How could Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest step onto the floor in San Antonio and see those banners, knowing the Spurs have home court, and feel like the pressure to win is on them? I just don’t see it. The Thunder would be back on familiar ground as the up-and-comers against the established, savvy veterans.
But that second round is a long way off, and is no guarantee. Denver has the horses to win the series if the chips fall right, and the Nuggets enjoy the advantage of feeling no added weight on their shoulders.
All that said, it’s fair to say the young Thunder has met just about every challenge anyone could reasonably ask them to meet over the last three seasons. In the first year, Oklahoma City responded to derision after the brutal start by finishing with flourish and stamping the team as a force to be reckoned with in future seasons. Last year, the Thunder vaulted to a 50-win season that few thought possible and pushed the Lakers as far as anyone this side of Boston. This year, Oklahoma City matched the most realistic expectations by getting to the upper echelon of the Western Conference and establishing itself as a Finals contender. So who is to say the Thunder can’t successfully take on the new challenge of being a playoff favorite, especially for only one round?
And luckily for the fans, we’ve reached the point in the season when loyal support does the most good. For those who can’t make it to the arena, the task is to rep your Thunder gear around town to add to the atmosphere that reaches a crescendo at tipoff. For those with tickets, the task is to yell and scream and implore and intimidate until you have to sit down to avoid passing out.