It’s a terrifying place to be. Especially when you’re a virgin.
An NBA title favorite virgin, that is. Gone are the easy-come-easy-go days of being the young and fun upstart group of kids. No more process or building for the future talk. It’s now. The Thunder are damn good and everybody knows it. They’re still extremely young and Sam Presti’s master plan is working wonderfully in that if Oklahoma City falls short this season, there should be another five or six years of trying. Or if we’re lucky, 50.
But you worry about next year, next year. It’s this year, this year. It’s playoff time now and the Thunder are one of the four or five teams most likely to win it all. And if that doesn’t scare you to death, you either don’t have a pulse or you only like the Thunder because you think a couple of the players are cute and their Twitter accounts are funny.
Here the Thunder are, on the eve of the postseason as a favorite. When you add that word to the mix, another is potentially tagged onto the back end of it — disappointment. Things have progressed with this team, from project to upstart to dark horse to legitimate contender. But what’s worrisome is that while I think we’d all agree that the team is better, a year older and a year wiser from elimination in the Western Finals, it still does feel a little like the same group that struggled executing late in games. We saw some of those same old issues during the past couple weeks and with the Thunder losing to the last seven playoff-bound teams they’ve faced, the anxiety meter has ratcheted up a notch.
We have the promise of “another level” from the team, but there’s no guarantee. There’s no way to really know if they’ve been simply saving themselves the past couple weeks. I don’t know about you, but it looked to me that they were playing hard and trying to win. Maybe not. Maybe the fine line between defensive focus and effort wasn’t there. Maybe they were just going through motions to get to this point. At least that’s the hope.
I think they have it in them. I think they’ve been playing coy. I think this group is special and they can unlock the next level. There’s an incredible drive, an insatiable appetite for perfection a thirst for constant improvement and evolution that just makes you believe. They all fall lock step in line behind Kevin Durant, who not only gives those clad in Thunder blue a heaping level of confidence, but those other 13 guys in the locker room too. Because of it all, there’s just… hope.
You can’t hope though, lest you set yourself up for a hard fall. But that’s the world you live in as a sports fan, especially when you’re as bright-eyed and naive as most of us in the Thunder fanbase. We ride on the clouds next to the top of Devon Tower without even the faintest idea of the possibility of falling off and crashing back down. What we expect is something bigger, better. We expect that championship, even if we don’t want to talk about it. One trophy during The Process is probably actually good enough to satisfy, but we want it now. Enough building, enough waiting. This team is good, they’re built to contend and they should win.
This fanbase is tip-toeing its way towards that nasty e-word — entitlement. Thunder fans have suffered through only one season of bad basketball, and it was in a year where nobody cared because it was so damn awesome to be watching professional basketball in Oklahoma City at all. Year 2 was another step toward the goal as the Thunder won 50 games and pushed the Lakers. Year 3, another leap as OKC went to the Western Conference Finals and were two fourth quarters away from maybe making a trip to The Finals. I sucked at patterns in my high school math class, but I think if I’m following this right, another forward step is due for the Thunder. The Finals, perhaps? Or maybe more.
And that’s what’s so scary about it. Expectations aren’t exactly new to this team as last season there was the burden of it entering both the regular season and playoffs. The team lived up to it all, if not exceeding them. But at the same time, that just raised the bar. Because in the end, this thing is about trophies. Whether it’s one in the next 10 years, or five, the whole idea is to be the team hoisting that gold ball at the end of the year. Presti’s plan is obviously working, but it hasn’t worked. Plus, sometimes a plan seems so good that there’s no way it can work. This isn’t Ocean’s 11. This is basketball where dumb turnovers, bad breaks and great performances happen. Hence, the anxiety.
It’s quite a place to be though. I think some Thunder fans honestly fret about things like, “Is Russell Westbrook really this good, or has he just played over his head for the past three years?” or “Have we just been super lucky with some of those close wins? Are we really just an average team?” I think there’s an unspoken anxiousness about the team because it’s all so very new to a lot of us. The playoffs are a different beast, and one that’s hard to tame. I still think if we all really thought back to last season, we’d all say, “Holy s@%$, we’re in the Western Conference Finals?” It all seemed to just happen so fast that there wasn’t time to process what was really going down.
But here it is, time to shine once again. Westbrook and Durant have to put it together, James Harden has to play offensive peacemaker, Serge Ibaka has to bail out shoddy Thunder defense, Perk has to get meaner than usual and somebody has to make a big shot or two. The postseason comes down to stars being bigger than stars and lucky for the Thunder, Kevin Durant has that ability to take his game, and his team, to a higher place. There will be issues. There will be frustrating moments. There will be a game where OKC’s offense screeches to a halt as Westbrook finds a the ball turning into a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit. There will be fallout from an ugly loss, with talking heads calling for player’s heads. There will be frustrations, arguments and anger. There will be times you doubt, times you believe and times you have no idea what is even going on. This is a new world for not just the Thunder, but for most of their fanbase as well. With exploration and uncharted territory comes exhilaration, crippling fear and a lot of unknowns.
Every team has to finally take that step though. It could be the Thunder’s time. It could not be. It could be KD’s time to rise to another level, to stamp his name among the greats. It could not be. It could be Westbrook’s time to shut up every critic, every hater, every blowhard and prove to the world that he’s not only a fantastically fantastic player, but a championship caliber point guard. Or it could not be. It could be time for Scott Brooks to show his chops, make tough choices, good calls and smart moves. Or not. A lot could happen over the next two months, or regrettably, two weeks. Point is, it’s playoff time baby, and we’re fortunate enough to have the chance to find out. Embrace it.