It was some time in October 2008. I was sitting with my buddy Andy in the far reaches of Loud City, where concrete meets more concrete. It was a preseason game, I want to say against the Kings, and we watching very little of what was happening a hundred feet below us, because it was a preseason game against the Kings. So instead, we were doing a little dreaming.
“Can you imagine if this team ever got good?” Andy said.
“Yeah, like what if they made the playoffs?” I said.
Seemed quite ridiculous at the time as we watched Earl Watson take stupid 18 footers and Chris Wilcox miss point blank dunks because he tried to throw them in too hard.
Tonight, though, fittingly on April 19, the 19th anniversary of the moment this city changed forever, the Thunder will tip off in the postseason for the fifth consecutive season.
It’s not a surprise or anything, but it is something that still kind of amazes me. NBA playoff basketball in Oklahoma City. But it’s not about that, not anymore. It’s not about just appreciating the fact the Thunder are there, that we all have a ticket to the main event. Nope, now the opening round is just something that has to be got through before the next thing they have to get through. With what this team has accomplished and how they’ve progressed the last few years, anything less than a trip to the Western Finals is a colossal failure.
It’s not unfair to place that expectation on the team either. The players play to win, the fans watch to celebrate them win. It’s the whole point of this. Even when there are excuses and understanding, when you don’t win, you failed. We’ve all seen this meticulous plan come together, faster than any of us thought, as a young team has grown year by year. Last postseason was all about the next step, the next evolution. Season by season the Thunder had accomplished just a little bit more, gone a little bit further, gotten a little bit closer. But a pesky meniscus got in the way of it all, and those parade plans were placed on hold.
As the Thunder enter the postseason, there’s still plenty of talk about who’s not with them rather than who they have. Yep, James Harden isn’t here. And his absence may be felt again at some point. But this team has Kevin Durant. It has Serge Ibaka. And it has Russell Westbrook. They have the necessary pieces, the proper tools to win a championship. Any team the Thunder walk on the floor again, except for one, they’re going to have the best player. In a lot of cases, they’ll have the two best players. Outside of maybe the Heat, the Thunder are going to be more talented than any team they play against. If they can find that ideal standard of performance, there shouldn’t be anyone who touches them.
Which is why I think the pressure of this postseason falls on Scott Brooks. He’s accomplished quite a lot in his time in charge, but with the talent on his roster, there are lots that feel his team wins in spite in him. He has his flaws — stubbornness and a rigid belief that chemistry and intangibles trump ability and talent — but he also has overseen the development and progression of one of the most powerful teams in the league.
With Durant’s development, and a fully operational Westbrook back in his armory, it’s on Brooks to shoulder the responsibility of making sure his team performs. And if something needs to be fixed, needs to change, needs to be adjusted, Brooks can’t hesitate. These games matter now. Brooks has to coach his team with honesty, doing what’s necessary. If that’s changing his starting five, if that’s benching a key member, if that’s relying on a new lineup, those are the calls he’s been hired to make.
But even with all that, this is still about No. 35. Durant has gone from skinny scorer to likely MVP, at the age of 25. He’s about to cross off a major achievement from his to-do list, leaving one big thing left. And here’s his next shot at it. He’s destined to be NBA royalty. He’s going to be a legend. Question is, when will he begin to cement that? And how much of one will he be? Durant’s played seven regular seasons. He’s put in his time. He might just be 25, but he’s paid those dues. He’s ready. If not now, then when?
All of those thoughts though, are what make me think back on those first two playoff runs so fondly, because they were devoid of expectation. And that’s a beautiful world to live in. It was just about appreciation and unfiltered excitement, regardless of result. But that can’t last forever, nor should it. Because eventually, hope breeds expectation, and the weight gets heavy. That’s a good thing, though! It’s also terrifying, because it means failure is the worst thing ever, and fans get antsy and anxious, demanding immediate accountability for it. That’s the price you pay being one of the elite.
And each year you don’t succeed, that burden gets heavier. The longer it goes, the more the pressure builds. The greater the fear. The less the patience. At this point, I don’t think there’s much understanding and patience left in the Thunder fanbase. There’s quite a bit now-or-never thinking. That’s just the nature of the beast, though. And really, if you think about it, it’s much better to feel that way than just being happy you’re there. Because expecting a title means you believe it will happen. The other way, you’re just hoping for at least four more games against someone new.
Here it is, though. The whole reason for the 82. Only one team ends its season with a win. The rest go home in pain. Think about what we’ve seen, though. What we’ve been through. The stories of a fanbase and a franchise are built in the playoffs, and this will be the fifth postseason appearance for the Thunder. We’ve seen 29 euphoric wins, 25 soul-crushing losses. The second round four times, the Western Conference finals two times, the NBA Finals one time.
But what we’ve yet to see is that final step, that last check mark. Is this the year? Or will the weight just get a little heavier for next season?