If I approached you in October and gave you a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that the the Thunder’s path to the Western Conference finals was a best-of-three series with home-court advantage against the Grizzlies and a best-of-seven without home-court advantage against the Mavericks, you’d take it, right?
Yes. A thousand times yes. And that’s why it would be a shame if the Thunder blew its golden opportunity to play for the conference championship, and perhaps even the NBA title.
Who would have thought that the playoff path for any Western Conference title champ would be clear of the Lakers and Spurs? That’s not the case for the Grizzlies or the Mavs, who vanquished the only teams with championship pedigrees on this side of the NBA bracket. Only the Thunder can boast a path that clear to the finals. Even the Nuggets were denuded of star power before their postseason encounter with OKC.
There is no disrespect intended here to Dallas or Memphis. Both are excellent teams — as would be expected at this stage of the playoffs. The absence of the Lakers and Spurs from the Thunder’s playoff schedule doesn’t mean anything will come easy. But how often will the Thunder be able to advance to the Finals without facing a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West, even if OKC attains one of those seeds in a future season? As Berry Tramel pointed out in his blog post today, a conference finals series rarely lacks both of the top two seeds. The Thunder’s easiest (on paper) road to the title round could very well have come now, before most expected the team’s prime championship window would open.
Oklahoma City finds itself with momentum in a 2-2 series, which seemed unlikely as recently as about two dozen different times during Monday’s marathon Game 4. It feels thisclose to what could have been a 3-1 hole, but it could have been a 3-1 lead if Game 3 played out differently. All things considered, the Thunder is pretty darn lucky to be where it is. If it’s going to be tied 2-2, you want the momentum.
Being a Thunder fan today probably just feels better than being a Bulls fan did Tuesday before Chicago’s home game against the Hawks in another 2-2 series with splits at each home venue — the Bulls came in on the heels of a loss instead of a win. Chicago won, and OKC needs a victory just as badly as they did. But not all 2-2 series are created equal, and the Thunder is fortunate to be the team with momentum headed into tonight’s pivotal game.
Don’t waste it, Thunder. Don’t let this golden opportunity slip away. The power teams may change with the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs aging. But not only do all three teams still have plenty of talent for the next couple of seasons, but the Lakers and Mark Cuban-owned Mavs will be able to sign top talent whenever they want. And teams like the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Blazers and Clippers are knocking on the door to join the Thunder as the elite teams of the near- and long-term future. There may never again be a chance to advance all the way to the Finals by battling only teams that were underdogs in their first-round series.
The Grizzlies probably feel similarly. They topped the conference’s top seed in the first round and probably feel like they match up with the Mavs even better than they do with the Thunder in some ways. Nothing will come easily tonight or any other night for the rest of the playoffs. OKC has to prove it wants to seize the opportunity.
The pressure will mount almost as much with each win as it does with each loss at this point in the postseason, and at this point in a series. The FedEx Forum in Memphis will be rocking Friday regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game. As will the still-the-Ford Center on Sunday if (or when…) the series goes the full seven games. But the pressure, though heavy, might get only heavier in future seasons when expectations weigh even more. This may not be a “must win now” season for the young and improving Thunder, but it may one day prove to be a “wish they would have won then” season when tougher postseason matchups mark the later rounds.