OKLAHOMA CITY -- We play amateur GM right until the trade deadline and play amateur coach throughout the playoffs, so why not play amateur psychologist for the most significant game in Oklahoma City Thunder history?
I’m curious to see how the Thunder react to the first time in this series that they’ve had to play with the additional burden of expectations. They weren’t supposed to win any of the games in San Antonio. Even a loss in the first game played in Oklahoma City could have easily been explained by the fact that they were facing the hottest team in the league, a squad that was unbeaten since April 11. Sure, there was pressure to win and avoid falling behind 3-0. Pressure is different from expectations.
It wasn’t preordained that the Thunder would win this series. Now it’s theirs to lose. All they have to do is win one game, and they’ll be on to the NBA Finals. That’s a new dynamic. We see it all the time in Grand Slam tennis events, when a lower-seeded player dominates for three sets, then puts together a string of double faults when it’s time to serve for the match. There’s something awe-inspiring and a bit terrifying about having the goals you’ve worked so hard to accomplish right in front of you.
The good news for the Thunder is that they have a formula that works. There’s been nothing but positive reinforcement the past three games. Play a certain way, and they’ll win. They know this.
"It’s one game, one day, and you have to focus on that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have a great opportunity. We’re on our home floor, but that doesn’t guarantee automatic victory. They’re not going to give us the game. They’re not going to say, ‘We lost three in a row, we’re going to give in.’ We know we have a tough challenge ahead, we know we have a great opportunity. We just have to play with the same energy, the same force, the same determination that we did the last few games.”
Sometimes keeping things the same when all the surrounding circumstances have changed is the biggest challenge. Brooks seemed a tad tighter, a little warier of saying the wrong thing, of dropping any hint that the Thunder are already envisioning themselves in the Finals. That was one indication that this is different. On Wednesday night we’ll look for it in the players’ demeanor, in their rhythms at the free throw line, in their execution of the offense. Can they maintain what they’ve done so successfully the past three games?
The two conference finals have followed the same path but with distinctly different plot devices: While the Boston Celtics are clinging to what they’ve established, the Thunder are blossoming into something new.
“They have gotten better each game,” Spurs shooting guard Stephen Jackson said. “They’re starting to pay more attention on defense in this series than the previous series. I think the kids are just focused. They got to the Western Conference finals last year and weren’t successful. They’re playing hard to keep it going this year. But it’s our job to try and stop it.”
The Spurs are trying to keep their old machine going as well. There’s no talk about breaking up the core and dumping the coach emanating from San Antonio the way it is in Miami this morning. The Spurs are all about stability. Sustainability, however, could be a different matter.
“I believe that as long as we all play and we’re all healthy, we’re going to have opportunities every year,” Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili said. “But of course, Tim [Duncan] is 36, I’m going to be 35 soon. You can’t play this forever, and we know that the window is” -- here he made a small gap with his thumb and index finger -- “closing. It’s a great opportunity, and we want to grab it.”
Ginobili prefaced his comments by saying he didn’t want to get in trouble like Tony Parker did last year, a reference to Parker’s comments to French sports journal L’Equipe: that the 2010-11 season “was our last chance. Tim and Gino are getting old. It’s going to be tough to regenerate ourselves. We will always have a good team, but we can no longer say that we’re playing for a championship.”
Until this week the Spurs’ season defied his words. Except now the Thunder have swooped in and put themselves in position to play for the championship. It’s possible that the toughest obstacle remaining is in their own heads.