This is a series of first times and last times for the Thunder.
It’s the first time, obviously, in Thunder history that the team has made it this far in the playoffs. The “Playoffs” decal on the floor of the arena will read “Western Conference Finals” the next time OKC takes the court. There will be a bigger throng of national media then ever before. There will be no other game that might bleed over into the Thunder’s start time and push the tipoff to TBS or ESPN2. All NBA eyes will be on Thunder-Mavs each time they play.
This is also likely the last time the Thunder will be playing in the West finals as this big of an underdog. The pressure will be there, but it will almost certainly be heavier in future seasons. OKC is playing a team with far more experience in the starting lineup, on the bench and on the coaching staff, and it doesn’t have home court. The Thunder had never won a playoff series before, much less been a contender for the conference title. The team in this era will never again be able to advance to this stage with the special hop in the step of a team with nothing to lose.
It’s the first time in the Thunder’s playoff history that the team will face an opponent with a superstar who it has little chance of matching up with defensively. Kobe Bryant last year, you say? Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden and Kevin Durant combined for some pretty solid defense on the Lakers’ star. Bryant had shooting nights of 6-19, 12-28, 10-29, 5-10, 4-9 and 12-25 in the six playoff games against OKC in 2010. He’s always a factor just by being on the court, but only the 12-25 even approached a true superstar-worthy stat line. The Thunder was clearly able to counter him for long stretches. But I don’t see that happening against Dirk Nowitzki. There’s not a lot of shame in that, because there’s hardly anyone in the NBA who can consistently defend Nowitzki well. Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Durant will surely have moments, but Nowiztki will get his.
It may be the last time “3-29″ gets brought up. I suppose it could get brought up again the first time the Thunder reaches the Finals — and it will definitely get brought up again if that happens in two weeks. But sooner or later, people will be more used to the idea of OKC being a perennial contender. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that most people around here for once have not been tired of the “These guys were 3-29 less than two years ago!” stories. For most of the preseason and season, folks would roll their eyes a little bit every time a national writer or opposing beat guy wrote his own “3-29 story.” Since Sunday though, I’ve been repeating “3-29″ to myself over and over again. Like Royce wrote Monday, I sat in my Loud City seats while we watched Earl Watson fire bricks in the company of Robert Swift, Damien Wilkins, Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, Johan Petro and P.J. Carlesimo and mused with Mrs. Patrick James about how someday the Thunder might even win some playoff games. This story line is enjoying one last local revival while we digest the whirlwind progress anew.
This series is the first time the Thunder will face a team in the playoffs that has a few soft spots in its emotional armor. The Lakers only developed those soft spots this year, or at least were only able to be taken down by them for the first time this year. The Nuggets went down easier than many thought, sure, but they were in it until the end and didn’t fold. The Grizzlies definitely showed they feared no one. But the Mavs? They could surely prove they’re tough, and are certainly capable of winning a title. But don’t you think the Mavs players would feel a twinge of doubt, and a lot more than a twinge of pressure, if the Thunder is able to win Game 1, or even Game 2? I know the fan base will feel a gigantic sense of dread and probably be pretty rattled if that happens, especially in Game 1. How many more chances will the Thunder get to exploit something like that this late in the postseason?
And finally, this is the last time this team will ever surprise me. It’s true that once the Grizzlies were the team that earned the right to face the Thunder in the West semifinals, I was pretty confident OKC would be in the West finals. I knew it would be hard, and it was, but I expected to be able to print off tickets to the Western Conference finals. But before the season began, and before the postseason began, I thought the WCF would be a little bit of a stretch. Possible, but probably asking too much. Well, shows what I know. And shows what everyone else knows, because the Thunder has made its name exceeding expectations. People expected one of the worst seasons of all time when the team’s inaugural season here began, but the Thunder won 20 of its final 30 games. People expected a climb to near .500 in OKC’s second season, but it ended with a box-out and jumper away from a Game 7 against the Lakers. People expected a playoff series win this season, but the Thunder has provided two so far. From here on out, nothing will surprise me. Including a title this year.
Next really is now. Next could be the Bulls or Heat. But first comes tonight.