This the the first in what might become a small series. Who knows. I just know that I started thinking the other day and for whatever reason, this game still sticks out in my mind as one of my favorites ever. So I’m revisiting.
October 30, 2009. The Oklahoma City Thunder are miraculously 1-0 heading into a road game against the Pistons. You see, the word “miraculous” truly fits in this circumstance. The season before — Oklahoma City’s maiden voyage into the NBA — the team started out 1-12 which eventually ballooned to 2-23 which eventually swelled to 3-29, the lowest of low points thus far for this franchise.
So to have one win in the bag already felt nice. And surprising. It was the home opener, a blowout of the Kings. The Thunder looked pretty solid, but then again, it was the Kings.
It’s almost hard to track back to that time where a single, lone win felt important. But that’s how it was in 2009. Just getting that home opening win was massive because it meant the team just needed three more before Jan. 1 to get off to a better start this year than the last. Progress, as you might say. Baby steps, indeed, but steps nonetheless. That was the mission in Season 2 with the Thunder. Make another step forward. Move ahead, even just a little. The 2008-09 season ended with the team 23-59, kind of a respectable mark because of, you know, 3-29. There was a little reason to hope for something better, for a little sunshine. I think I had the Thunder winning 36 games for the season or something like that. And even I felt like that was horrifically optimistic.
So again, to pound my point home, just being 1-0 was a big bleeping deal. Back in those days — I say that as if it was 30 years ago — the name of the game was just getting a little better year by year. No one foresaw major leaps toward something like a .500 record. Absolutely nothing like a playoff berth. And to mention something like the Western Conference Freaking Finals two years later? I would’ve felt compelled to punch you in the ear if you said that to my face. When the 2009-10 season started, the mission was to contend for a playoff spot maybe next year. Then maybe the Western Finals or something the year after that. And in maybe three or four more years, make a push toward actual contending.
That was the plan.
Well, sometimes plans change.
And really, the night we all should’ve seen something brewing, something special happening was October 30, 2009. The Thunder marched into Detroit wearing a proud undefeated badge on their chest. Just 1-0, mind you, but still, the record was without blemish. That was something. But naturally, I’m pretty sure everyone could sense a return to reality coming in the trip The Palace. Not that the Pistons had a good team or anything — and they didn’t (they finished 27-55) — but winning road games was a mighty challenge for anyone, much less the Thunder who winning was a mighty challenge period.
The goal, as always, was to be in the game in the fourth quarter and hope maybe Kevin Durant could make a shot or two, the defense get a stop or two and the team somehow stumble around to find a win. Not the ideal gameplan, but it was kind of the best bet.
That’s pretty much what the Thunder were executing to perfection in this one. They were down 24-16 after the first quarter and 45-38 at halftime. A good third quarter put OKC up a point heading to the fourth. Right in the game, right on schedule. Now it was a matter of figuring out how to win.
Rewind back to 2008-09 again. The team had no idea how to finish. Clearly it was a youth issue, but if I remember right, OKC’s record in games decided by six or less was something like 2-96. Give or take. Nick Collison preached the same message from the start of training camp. This team just needs to learn how to win. That’s a challenge for any young group. It’s one thing to play well in the open flow of a game for the first 36 minutes. But where you really earn your keep is those last 12. Those last 12 is where a 23-win team can go to a 50-win one, seemingly overnight.
So here are the Thunder facing those 12 minutes, holding a one-point lead. In hindsight, and probably one of the reasons I recall this game so vividly, is because you can really see the development of this team in those last 12. It wasn’t necessarily The Growing Up Moment, but it was certainly something important. How was this season going to go? I think the upcoming 12 minutes at The Palace were about to give us a good early indication.
Remember every detail is a bit hazy, but here are three things that I definitely recall:
1) KD sunk a nifty little pull-up jumper to put the Thunder up by I think 10 with about six minutes left. It was at that moment that I was like, “Oh crap, they actually might win this. It’s possible. Please don’t blow it.” Remember, this was the second game of the season and in most regards, largely unimportant.
2) The Pistons come right back on an 8-2 run and get the game to within three or four in what felt like two seconds. They were going to blow it. Those damn final 12 minutes. But in what is now simply just Russell Being Russell, Russell Westbrook came up with one of his patented hero plays. Ben Gordon had just made a couple big jumpers and was wide open from 3 with a chance to get Detroit to within one while also forcing me to stick my head in the microwave. I mean, Gordon was wide open. Nobody around.
Gordon stops in that way he does with his feet sort of askew while his body is improbably squared up perfectly with the rim and rises for 3. Almost like he was Nightcrawler teleporting in, Westbrook comes flying in from behind and lunges at Gordon at the very last second. Westbrook puts his palm on top of the ball, blocking Gordon’s open look. The Thunder’s life was spared. For once, they avoided that backbreaking moment. It was a sign.
3) The Thunder edged out to a little lead after the block, but the Pistons wouldn’t go away. Gordon hit a couple free throws and then a 3, bringing Detroit to within six with about two minutes left. Still squirming. This thing wasn’t close to settled. There might as well been 45 minutes left in the game and it be tied. That’s how it felt. But no worries as KD drilled an ice cold 3 to put OKC up nine with a minute and a half left. Game, essentially over.
The Thunder made some free throws, got some rebounds and in the end, put away their second win, 91-83. Funny thing about this second win though: It came in only the second game of the season. The year before, the Thunder needed 15 to get it. Progress. Not just in the sense that the Thunder had won a second game, something that was excruciatingly difficult the season before, but they had also conquered in the fourth quarter and even better, it came on the road. Not against the Spurs, Lakers or Celtics. No, it wasn’t that good. But it didn’t have to be. Didn’t matter if it was the Pistons, the Timberwolves or even Edmond North’s JV team.
The Thunder were 2-0. Undefeated. Two games, two wins. It felt so, so very good to actually be watching a basketball team that actually had an actual chance of actually winning on any given night. And this was when I still thought just winning 30 games would be an achievement. Little did I know that they were about to get crazy and make the playoffs, making all that “next year” talk pretty much irrelevant.
A couple notes:
- Another fun part of this game: It was Serge Ibaka’s Thunder debut. He played three minutes and the only thing he really did was grab a lone rebound. If you watch the video of it, he looks sort of like that kid hitting a pinata in that Volkswagen commercial. He’s all over the place, trying to way too hard and not overly productive. Here’s how I evaluated that first performance: “It’s not like he was completely lost out there, he was just a bit off. He’s got pretty good instincts and with his length and athleticism, he could be a very quality defender. But it’s about communication, trust and hard work on the defensive end. What’s encouraging is that it’s pretty evident that Ibaka’s got the hard work part down. And that’s the only part you can’t teach.” Yeah, I guess you could say he worked hard. I mean, look at that Serge Ibaka and then a little something from 2011, maybe like his nine blocks against Denver in the playoffs. Not only that, but back in October 2009, if the ball went to Ibaka, it better have been for an easy dunk. Now when Serge has an open 18-footer, we’re all thinking money. That’s called development, ya’ll.
- James Harden had eight assists in this one. Here’s video proof.
- Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie combined to play 37 minutes. Think about that for a second.
- In those days, Harden’s beard wasn’t much more than just scruff. It wasn’t the glorious swag machine that it is today.
- KD finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, Jeff Green had 16 and Nenad Krstic put in 14 big points. At that point, Ibaka was still a mystery, Harden was just starting out, Shaun Livingston was still on the roster, Kendrick Perkins was one of our least favorite players and Eric Maynor was an enemy. And I bet gas was still over three bucks a gallon.