Commentary

NBA playoff fear: OKC Thunder storm

They're clouding the future for anyone who has to face OKC in the NBA playoffs

Originally Published: April 19, 2011
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

We're only one game in, but it's already time to face the factuality: If the other teams in the West don't come with their A+ games each time they step onto the court to face the Thunder, they'll be collecting more L's than Penny Marshall's sweaters.

(You might need to be over 35 to get that one.)

Playing Oklahoma City right now? A time to fear. A time to recognize. The Thunder are for real. Seriously and dangerously real. Not just because of their 107-103 Game 1 victory at home over the Nuggets to open up the playoffs on Sunday night, and not just because they avoided the upset fate that had Los Angeles, San Antonio and Orlando losing home-court advantage one game into their series.

[+] EnlargeDurant
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKevin Durant is a superstar, but he knows how to involve the rest of the Thunder, too.

This is more. They are more.

Don't let the two superstars fool you. Don't think that what Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley said on TNT after Game 1 -- they both used the word "worried" when they suggested the Thunder won't go far relying on two players scoring 72 of the team's 107 total points -- is law. Don't think that Oklahoma City is two elite players surrounded by a bunch of Bobcats.

Don't be surprised if six weeks from now, we're still writing columns about them.

Just because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook duo-handedly saved the Thunder from coming out of the gates like the Lakers, the Spurs and the Magic, don't fall into a conviction that a) this isn't a team; or b) those two aren't enough to win series. Plural.

The Thunder have players at every position. Unknown. Unheralded. Players who know their roles but aren't just role players. James Harden. Eric Maynor. Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha. And they have benefited from the addition of Kendrick Perkins just as much as Boston seems to have been hurt by his subtraction.

"I think Kevin and Russell are great teammates," coach Scott Brooks said after the Game 1 win. "Obviously, they've developed into All-Stars. & But we're a good team. We're not a Kevin and Russell team. We're a Thunder team. Guys all chip in."

Oklahoma City has the energy and intensity of an NCAA mid-major winning deep into the tournament -- and a Hall of Fame-caliber player with the demeanor (and game) of George Gervin. The Thunder are the only team in the NBA playoffs out to prove that last year was not a fluke.

Every year entering the playoffs, there is one team nobody wants to face. It's that team that has nothing to lose and feels as if it's balling on the house's money. Losses don't faze this team; wins don't surprise it. In 2008, it was the Golden State Warriors, who eliminated the No.1 seed Dallas Mavericks. Two years ago, it was the Chicago Bulls, who pushed the then-defending champion Celtics to the seven-game brink.

Last year it was & it was them.

OKC scared L.A. last season, although the Lakers will never admit it. In some ways, their opening-round series (it went six games) seemed more compelling than the seven-game series that was the NBA Finals. The Thunder learned from that, learned they belonged.

They learned then that they had to make the outcome of this year's playoffs different. They learned what "nothing to lose" feels like. They became that team to fear.

Yes, the Thunder won Game 1 Sunday on a fluke. A missed offensive goaltending call (the league admitted it on Monday) that gave them a one-point lead with less than a minute left. But this was "Upset Sunday," and the Thunder found a way to survive. Down 13 early, in only this team's seventh playoff game, they didn't fold.

[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRussell Westbrook, along with Durant, made sure OKC didn't fall prey to the Game 1 hazard that hurt the Spurs, Lakers and Magic last weekend.

Get used to that. They won't fold and they won't go out or down easily. They've learned how not to give games away. If they are to lose, someone will have to beat them.

They are an NCAA-replica team in a pro basketball tournament. They'll play every game with the same "survive and advance" mentality that UConn, Butler and VCU did a few weeks ago. And if things fall into place, the Thunder could find themselves with the same Kemba Walker-inspired results.

Or very, very close to it.

So can a "college" team actually win an NBA championship?

Without making too much out of one win, the answer is: Most definitely. And one of the differences between the Thunder team in these playoffs and the one that showed up here this time last year is that it knows it now.

Now, can they show it and prove it to the 15 other teams left standing? With every game, can they generate more fear?

Brooks said during the game Sunday that the key is making stops and making 3s. He realizes for this team, it's really just that simple. He knows just how good the Thunder really are, not just how good they can be.

The anti-Heat, that's what they were called in a recent GQ story. Who are we to disagree?

The lightning has already struck. And once that happens, we all know what follows.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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