Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I ... Think the Oklahoma City Thunder's win makes an impact in more ways than one

It's been a long time since I've done a "Why I..." column. A few months, actually.

For those who don't remember, this column was an opinion piece on sports that I put on my Sports Blog. I've since merged the blog with this one, but the old columns still exist, and my most recent Why I (from February) is here.

Today, I would like to talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder, who just won the Western Conference over the San Antonio Spurs in six games.

I'm not going to lie: I had the Spurs striking the iron and winning in five games. I fully expected the unit of experience, who has mixed so well with the young guns on their team, to continue its run of dominance over the NBA and storm the playoffs.

And they did. For two and a half rounds.

But the Thunder created momentum out of the Oklahoma City crowd and rode it all the way through Game 5, where the team stole a game in San Antonio.

Still, I had the Spurs stealing back Game 6 and the series. And as I left for karate class at halftime, it seemed like they were well on their way.

But the Thunder, as a unit, pulled it off. Seeing the highlights, I saw a unit overtaking the Spurs. It wasn't that the Spurs played badly - they played pretty well, actually. It was that Kevin Durant took over the helm and his whole group of teammates played better.

Durant's performances in Games 4 and 6 signify a maturation - a realization that he is the superstar on this team. While he keeps it about the team, which he should and I'm glad he does, he finally sees that in key moments, it has to be his leadership that saves the team.

Russell Westbrook in Game 4, according to the radio commentary I was listening to, was frustrated that his shots weren't falling. And unlike past games where Durant would keep splitting the shot-load and hope Westbrook got hot, he seized control. He took the shots he needed to take and wound up scoring 16 consecutive points to grab hold of the game.

This series symbolizes Durant's final evolution into the unquestioned "Best in the World" status as a player. Moreover, it symbolizes the Thunder's growth into the West's highest class of team.

Since the Jordan Era ended, 13 seasons have been completed. The Western Conference's champions have gone as follows: Spurs, Lakers, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, Spurs, Lakers, Lakers, Lakers, Mavericks.

Only three squads have won: Lakers seven times, Spurs four, Mavericks two. In terms of NBA titles, those three combined to win the whole thing 10 of those 13 times (Detroit, Miami and Boston each stole one).

I bring this up because the Thunder beat all three of these teams in succession this postseason. They swept the Mavs, took out the Lake Show in five games, and finished the Spurs in six.

This may well signify the old guard's reign has finally ended. While they may compete for the titles still, it will be with different units. Squads led by Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitski will need more elite support if they are to compete with Durant and his legion of lottery picks.

Seattle doesn't look like they got the worse end of the Oden/Durant lottery now, do they?

Oh wait, yes they do. Because they don't even have a team.

That's the piece of significance lost to all besides Scott Van Pelt, it would seem. While Oklahoma City has been wonderful to the Thunder, and that crowd was amazing in all three conference finals games, it cannot be denied that the city of Seattle has to be stinging at seeing this squad be successful without them.

It's a shame that the citizens lost a team that they had supported so fiercely because the city refused to make any real improvements to KeyArena. It's a shame that the NBA lost such a legacy franchise.

It was sad for me to see the team move, as Shawn Kemp's No. 40 road jersey was the first jersey of an active NBA player I owned. (My Larry Bird jersey preceded it, but he'd been retired for years.) I can only imagine that the city sees the Thunder's performance in the same light that Cleveland fans must have seen the Ravens' Super Bowl title.

Actually, it may be worse if the Thunder win. By the time Baltimore won the title, Cleveland had its Browns back and the Ravens had no claim to the pre-1996 history. Seattle still has no team, OKC lays shared claim to the SuperSonics' history and 1979 championship, and the Thunder are winning with Durant (drafted by Seattle), Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook (drafted with picks gained through a season played in Seattle).

So not only does the Thunder's win represent a changing of the guard in the West, it represents what could have - heck, what probably would have - been for the city of Seattle. Seattle gets no claim to a Finals run built within its city limits while OKC shares all three of Seattle's Finals runs (1978, 1979, 1996).

That has to sting.

Knowing all this, I'd say that if OKC ever tries a "SuperSonic throwback jersey night," all of Seattle should be allowed to draw a mustache on a photo of Thunder owner Clay Bennett, tack a caption on the bottom saying "Real Sonics still live here. NBA CHAMPS FOR REAL!" and hang a gargantuan version of this image from either city hall or the Space Needle.

OK, that may be a little extreme.

But I did want to point out that OKC's win means so many different things depending on where in the country a person resides.

One of my colleagues here in Vegas tweeted yesterday that it's hard to believe Las Vegas was competing for the Sonics with Oklahoma City. I am sure former Mayor Oscar Goodman hasn't forgotten that while watching this run.

In Miami and Boston, the legacy of the Thunder won't mean much right now because of the focus on the Eastern Finals.

It only seems fitting that for OKC to win the title, they will have to face either the squad who has been uncrowned NBA champs for two years in a row, or the only Eastern team to sustain high-level success since the Jordan Era and the Gold Standard for championship-level success in professional basketball.

As I said, OKC has won rounds this year in 4, 5, then 6 games. Also, over four years in OKC, they have missed the playoffs, lost in the first round, lost in the conference semis, then lost in the conference finals.

If natural progression of events is any indicator, the Thunder will either win in seven games or lose outright. But then again, this is a team of 22- and 23-year-olds, so adhering to a natural schedule hasn't really been their thing.

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