Print and Go Back ESPN.com: News & Opinion [Print without images]

Friday, May 20, 2011
Young, hungry Thunder continues to surprise

By Andrew Gilman

DALLAS -- While we weren't looking, or maybe not paying close enough attention, something happened with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It's 2011. The playoffs. The Western Conference finals, and the Thunder has gone from the shadow of Seattle's Best to Sooner state sensational.

Just three seasons ago, the Thunder moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City where it promptly opened the 2008-09 season 3-29, fired its coach and finished 23-59.

From there, the Thunder has had back-to-back 50-win seasons, and now finds itself tied with Dallas at one game apiece heading back to Oklahoma City for a Saturday Game 3.

How?

It started with the draft of Kevin Durant, who became the youngest scoring champ in NBA history, and Russell Westbrook, one of the most dynamic point guards in the game. A 2011 trade brought tough-guy Kendrick Perkins to the team. The Thunder has developed a roster that will still be considered young in five years.

Combine all that with playoff series wins against Denver and Memphis this season, and not only is the Thunder in the discussion as a potential NBA championship team, it has developed another kind of reputation.

This isn't the love-'em-or-hate-'em Miami Heat. It's not Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, or even consistent, steady Dallas.

"We look at ourselves as a team that's come a long way from our struggles a few years ago," said forward Nick Collison, who was on that last team in Seattle. "It's continuity. It's a lot of young, hungry players who play with a lot of effort. It's kind of boring, but we just come in and do our work every day. We realize we've come a long way from being one of the worst teams in the league."

The Oklahoma City fans are appreciative.The Thunder's home games easily could be confused with a Justin Bieber concert, with throngs of fans screaming continuously in a constant party mode, hoping to get a chance to see the newest young sensation.

Now the rest of the country is seeing it, too.

"I think people know a lot about them because of their two young stars," Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler said of Durant and Westbrook. "And I think around the country they are darlings to a lot of people."

They're darlings because of an up-tempo pace, a young roster -- nine players have three or fewer years of NBA experience -- just enough stars (Durant, Westbrook), and a series all tied up with Dallas.

"It's playing the game for the love it," Thunder guard Nate Robinson said. "Not for fame or the money or to get credit. Just play basketball, because that's what we love to do. It's awesome. Feels a little like a college team. It's a fun locker room. We do things together as a team. On the road, we go eat together. We're not one, big, big name. We're all just one together."

And heading back to Oklahoma City for the next two games against Dallas, tied 1-1, the Thunder can also rely on the fact that it doesn't need a sexy storyline to be successful. No taking their talents to South Beach. No MVP. No precedent to follow, good or bad.

"They just play hard for each other," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who was a reserve point guard on Houston's NBA championship team in 1994. "I know they're young, but we're not going to use that as an excuse, but they also know what's at stake. They never quit, and they play with toughness."

Consider the following: Thursday in Game 2, a 106-100 win over the Mavs, the Thunder trailed in the first quarter by as much as 11. As late as the fourth quarter, when the Thunder led by as little as one, it was reserve Eric Maynor who played all 12 minutes, not Westbrook. Westbrook finished with 18 points, yet Maynor's four points, assist, rebound and no turnovers in the fourth quarter was a notable addition.

"There's no storyline here," Maynor said. "We just work hard. We're humble. Everyone has the same goal here."

He's wrong, though. There is a storyline.

"You saw a young, determined and focused team," reserve guard Daequan Cook said. "You can see how we matured over the season. It's showing in the playoffs. We came to another team's arena, and won on the road in a tough environment."

Just another day at work.