Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

April 19, 2013

Thunder primed to take final step

Allow me, if I may, to revisit a day that will live in infamy within the pan-shaped border of the Sooner State for at least eight more weeks: Oct. 27, 2012.

It began like many autumn days in Oklahoma, sunny and beautiful, with mid-day temperatures edging 70 degrees. By nightfall, however, bystanders beyond the walls of Owen Field, previously pre-occupied with the pigskin, were suffocated beneath the unforgiving chill of a seemingly insurmountable loss — and I’m not talking about the Sooners 30-13 defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish.

The news spread like wildfire, from Twitter and Facebook, to friends and acquaintances, to neighboring tailgates and random passers by. Soon, collegiate gridiron shortcomings were an afterthought. James Harden had been traded.

Traded.

In return, the Thunder were receiving a rail-thin rookie named Jeremy Lamb along with “K-Mart” — and no fewer than one-in-three thought the “K” stood for Kenyon. The walls were closing in, Oklahoma City’s dynasty was destroyed. Forget multiple championships. OKC would be fortunate to sniff the conference finals. Ah, woe, the distress was overwhelming.

Sixty wins, a third consecutive Northwest Division Championship, and a top playoff seed later, and perhaps, just maybe, Greater Loud City overreacted just a bit.

The Thunder, not the Heat, find themselves squarely atop the final Hollinger Power Rankings (109.22) and its plus-9.21 margin of victory is the sixth-highest figure since the introduction of the three-point line in 1979-’80. Oh, and as for the five teams with higher victory margins? Each of them won championships.

In what can only be described as a convenient twist of fate, conference rival San Antonio practically conceded the top seed to the Thunder with a month left in the regular season — in an attempt to avoid the eighth-seeded Lakers, it would seem — while the once middle-of-the-pack Rockets dropped four of their final six contests to slip to the Western Conference caboose.

As a result, the Spurs must battle a suddenly resurgent group of Lakers, while Oklahoma City will enjoy a brief reunion with its former sixth-man and a team versus which the Thunder averaged 121 points per contest during the regular season.

Upon dispatching Houston in no more than five games, the degree of difficulty will increase for the Thunder in the conference semifinals, where it will find either the Clippers or Grizzlies. Los Angeles would appear to present a greater impediment, what with the services of a slew of shooters, Blake Griffin, and the best point guard in basketball, yet Oklahoma City swept the season series. Memphis has long been a thorn in the side of the Thunder, but the Grizz are shorter on talent than the team that took OKC to the brink in 2011.

Better yet, Durant & Co. will avoid a second round series with George Karl’s Nuggets. Denver took the regular season series from Oklahoma City with back-to-back victories in January and March. What’s more, the Nuggets, void of a “star,” pose a very real threat to upend San Antonio on the opposite side of the left bracket. Many will point to the loss of Danilo Gallinari as evidence of a weakened state, but consider this: The Nuggets have outscored opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions when Wilson Chandler — not Gallinari — joins Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer on the wings.

That trio, bookended by a point guard and JaVale McGee or Kenneth Faried, has thrived defensively, forcing a turnover on 18.8 percent of opponent possessions. If Ty Lawson returns at even 80 percent, the Thunder will be seeing Denver, not San Antonio, in the Western Conference Finals.

In any event, Oklahoma City — particularly with four games inside of the nuthouse that is Chesapeake Energy Arena — is simply too much. Be it the Spurs or the Nuggets, the opposition will likely find itself in a hole from the outset. Karl and Gregg Popovich will provide a coaching advantage over Scott Brooks, but it won’t be stark enough to offset Durant, Russell Westbrook and 18,203 maniacs in blue T-shirts.

It’s back the Finals for OKC, who will find a familiar foe anxiously awaiting their arrival: the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets, led by the hot shooting of Joe Johnson, will have stormed into June...

Just kidding.

Miami may well skip through the Eastern Conference bracket unblemished, giving LeBron James and his colorful cast of sidekicks plenty of time to brush up on Thunder 101. James has loaded up the trophy case in the past year, collecting championships, medals, MVP awards, virtually everything short of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Heat didn’t lose a game for two months, closed the regular season on a 37-2 surge, and raced to the best record in the Association.

All of that is wonderful, but history favors inclement weather in this case. The league’s superior regular season squad has hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy just once in the past nine seasons, and Oklahoma City is about to make it 1-for-10.

Brooks, for all of his South Beach stubbornness, will finally accept a fact of life that the rest of us arrived at more than 10 months ago: Kendrick Perkins need not play versus the Heat, a team without a center. Using Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka to cover the more versatile Chris Bosh, OKC will eliminate Miami’s lone advantage. Durant will outplay James, Westbrook will outplay Dwyane Wade, and the Thunder will ascend to the ‘Peake of the mountain.

No, seriously.

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