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Whether it was on the flight home, or when they ran out of the tunnel and saw a rabid sea of 18,203 clothed in blue, something clicked.
The Thunder were facing the mighty Spurs, the unbeatable monster that hadn’t lost in some 60 days. Down two games to none, everybody — I mean everybody — was writing them off. But with kind of a wounded animal mentality, the Thunder embraced being the underdog, embraced the “Nobody Believes In Us” mindset, embraced it being us versus the world and took four straight from San Antonio.
Then in the Finals, it flipped. The Thunder entered it being the favorites and after taking Game 1, the whole thing turned. People had given up on the Heat and the Thunder were the ones that had all the backing. No more talk about Oklahoma City being too young, no more talk about having to wait their turn, no more talk about shocking the world. No more hunting. They were the hunted.
Now, the Thunder didn’t fall to the Heat because of some silly mental weakness where they couldn’t handle a little media and fan love. They lost because the Heat played four games better than they did. But it did seem pretty clear that the Thunder had become extremely comfortable in the “Nobody Believes In Us” position. Almost relishing it seems.
For example, take this summer where the Lakers made all the headlines with their offseason moves. Kevin Durant told Yahoo! Sports openly that he thought the Lakers were the best team on paper and really pumped on the underdog theme.
“People outside, fans, media, of course they are going to say [the Lakers are the favorites] because on paper they have the best lineup in the league. But you still got to play the games. We respect everybody. We are going to go through the league respecting everybody as well. We already view ourselves as an elite team, but we have to prove it again. Last year is over with.”
Kendrick Perkins said this a few weeks ago: “I’m glad the attention is off us, because we the type that like to put our hardhats on and do stuff and keep it under the radar and at the end of the day you look at the box score and Oklahoma has won. So that’s the way we like to keep it.”
The Thunder seem to draw motivation from being slighted. Durant does. Russell Westbrook absolutely does. Whatever it is and wherever you get it from, if it helps, then it’s good. The Thunder prefer being under the radar, even if it’s mostly unrealistic this season. Whether they like it or not, they’re one of the few legit favorites this season.
Still, the Lakers stole the Thunder’s thunder a bit with their blockbuster summer. The spotlight has shifted to L.A. where most of the national media has flocked during their training camp. Few are talking about how the Thunder are going to bounce back from the Finals, how they’ve improved, how they’re more dangerous. When the Thunder get mentioned right now it’s either about how they match up with the Lakers or about James Harden’s contract extension. They’re as anonymous as a contending team with two superstars can be.
Which is how they seem to like it.
Now, it’s pretty absurd to act like the Thunder are some sleeper in the West here. Not everyone is so completely Lakerstruck to crown them. For instance, Magic Johnson, via NewsOK:
“I would say that the Lakers have to beat the Thunder. The Thunder has something over the Lakers that the Lakers don’t have right now and that’s being a team. They’ve done it before. And the Lakers, as they are assembled, have not played with each other. And that’s going to be the goal of the Lakers. Can they become a team? When the chips are down, one thing that’s great about the Thunder is they know where they’re going for a shot. ‘I’m going to look for Kevin (Durant) first.’ Then Russell (Westbrook) and James (Harden) decides who has it going and then they’ll look for their shot. I’m talking about in the last two minutes. Two minutes and down, when the game is in the balance. They have a sense of knowing each other.”
The Thunder still have their doubters though. They’re a contender built in a petri dish, a small market powerhouse carefully crafted with it all improbably perfectly going according to plan. A step to the postseason, a step to the conference finals and a step to the NBA Finals. Natural progression says a step to a title, but that just seems too scripted.
Are they really an underdog? Well, John Hollinger of ESPN.com doesn’t have them in his top two of the West. Bovada’s NBA title odds have the Thunder third (9/2) behind the Heat (11/5) and the Lakers (5/2). There’s a difference in being picked in the top four and being a sleeper, but the fact is, nobody is shoeing the Thunder in for anything this season. Which means they can play on their favorite motivational tactic.
Again, reality is that the Thunder are one of the league’s three title favorites. While the Lakers might have more buzz and attention, nobody is completely writing off OKC. But you can be sure that’s not what the team is telling themselves. They’re going to play up the idea of nobody believing in them, they’re going to try and feed off of it. Everybody is looking for that added edge. The Thunder found it in the Spurs series and now they’re looking for it again.