Watching the 2012 playoffs made me feel like I was witnessing the ascension of one franchise and their franchise player. I’d been keeping tabs on Kevin Durant since the year his Freshman year at UT and my time in Austin coincided. There was nothing that could convince me he wasn’t going to be a star in the NBA. By his third year, I’d concluded that not only was he my favorite NBA player, but my favorite NBA player of all time.
His first year in Oklahoma City was a rough one, the team lost often, but you could see the progress. Tickets were still cheap then, and there were still people in the city that had no idea there was a permanent NBA team.
When Pau Gasol’s put back bucket ended the 2010 season, there was no denying that the team and the city had embraced each other. 2011 brought more expectations, and the team did not disappoint. RUN OKC was born.
Even though the Dallas Mavericks dismantled the Thunder during key 4th quarter stretches in the Western Conference Finals, there was reason to be optimistic for the OKC boys. 2012 did not disappoint, and despite the beat down that was handed to the Thunder, it was still fun to watch what I thought was only the beginning of a budding dynasty in the west.
Little did we know that James Harden would force his way out of town by grabbing 80 Million to ball for Houston, and the following three seasons would be compromised by injuries to key players. But things were still innocent in 2012. It was one thing to hope for a trip to the NBA Finals. It was another thing altogether to watch it happen.
Once a team gets that close to winning it all, nothing is the same. Expectations change because the ceiling has been raised. Its like the first time you drink organic milk out of a glass bottle, or smoke really good weed after only trying Mexican dirt swag.
I feel like this year’s roster is on paper the most balanced squad that Sam Presti has ever assembled, but the 2012 was special to me for sentimental reasons. Three of my favorite college players of all time were on the same team in Royal Ivey (one of the nicest Longhorns on campus when he played there), Kevin Durant, and Nick Collison, and I’d seen Kendrick Perkins in his “Baby Shaq” days at Beaumont Ozen High School. James Harden wasn’t annoying yet, and Russell Westbrook was just coming into his own. They were a fun to team to watch.
The Starters on that team were:
C Kendrick Perkins
PF Serge Ibaka
SF Kevin Durant
SG Thabo Sefelosha
PG Russell Westbrook
The Key reserves:
SG James Harden
PG Eric Maynor
SG Daequan Cook
PG Derek Fisher
PF Nick Collison
Head Coach : Scotty Brooks
Regular Season Record: 47-19 Northwest Division Champions
After posting 47 wins in a lockout shortened regular season, expectations were tempered, but hopeful, that somehow the Thunder would at least make the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were steamrolling opponents in the first 2 rounds of play, and it seemed inevitable that Oklahoma City was only cannon fodder for San Antonio on the way to their next championship parade (isn’t it crazy that there were almost 3 Spurs-Heat Finals Series?).
Kevin Durant and company had other plans however. Game 1 of the first round series foretold that the Thunder’s playoff run would be the revenge plot out of a basketball movie.
Mavericks got swept and the ghosts from the previous Western Conference Finals were exorcised.
Round 2 gave RUN OKC a chance to enact revenge against the soon to be LOL Lakers and Metta World Peace. Their recent run-ins had become testy at best, as the upstart Thunder had been giving the Lakers fits during the last couple of years. It was the young pups vs. the old dogs, and the biting had become less playful.
The Thunder were clearly faster, stronger, and better. The Lakers were just coasting on a dubious championship run (Denver and Orlando were talented enough to knock them out but they nutted up–and the refs had conveniently swallowed their whistles in the Lakers favor during a crucial stretch in game 7 of the 2010 Finals).
It was basketball justice to watch the LOL’s get that ass whupped–much like seeing a bully finally get what they deserve.
Round 3 against the Spurs was some of the best and worst basketball I’d seen during a WCF. There were stretches of incredible basketball, and there were times when I wanted to throw a shoe at the television.
Game 1 was probably the best game of that entire series from a pure basketball standpoint. There were so many OMFG plays that I went back and downloaded the game for whenever I needed to scratch that itch for “Hoops Porn”
The Spurs won that game and the next one, and with a 2-0 lead, the question wasn’t whether the Spurs were going to win it all, but were they even going to lose on their way to a title. The Spurs were 10-0 during the playoffs at that point, and had won 20 straight games going back to the regular season.
But RUN OKC had something to say about that and won 4 straight games, leaving San Antonio befuddled and confused, something I rarely saw from a Gregg Popovich coached team.
I was there when the Thunder clinched the West in game 6, and that was the loudest venue I’d ever been in at that point (Game 2 of the Finals’ volume would eclipse that night–and I hadn’t been to a Warriors game yet).
Game 4 of this series was the apex in my opinion, with KD scoring 36 in the game–18 of them in the final quarter. That shit was unreal to watch live.
This was the point where it was clear that my man was going to be a SUPER DUPER STAR, and everyone finally had to acknowledge it. It made for good cinema. Unfortunately in every good revenge movie, there is a foil, and the Thunder were about to face them.
THE MIAMI HEAT
Everyone remembers this:
Side Note: Is it just me, or does Lebron seem remarkably younger in this clips? He seems to have aged in the same ways that U.S. presidents age after a full 8 year term. I’m sure as great as those feelings were winning those chips, I can’t even imagine the stress he has faced in taking on that challenge.
I was very happy for Dallas Mavericks fans when they were able to deny the Miami “Lebrons” a title in their first year together. If you enjoy schadenfreude, then watching Jason Kidd whip the ball around to Dirk who whipped the ball to Jason Terry for open shots was enough to make a person giddy–or if you like watching grown men cry. The Heat losing that finals was their reward for doing everything the “wrong way”.
They were the perfect foil to the OKC Thunder and their (rightly or wrongly) choir boy personas.
As much as I wanted to see KD get that ring, they were just outmatched. Scotty Brooks was outcoached (not for the last time) and when Harden wasn’t on the court, it was a 2 on 5 offensive game, with way too much isolation play. This played right into the Heat’s hands who were smothering on defense.
Oklahoma City wasn’t ready for what the Heat had for them. Brooks had no adjustments for the series, and after game 2, it was clear that the moment was a little too big for OKC (especially Harden who had a terrible Finals).
Game 1 was a misleading blowout in the Thunder’s favor, and although Game 2 could have easily been won (terrible no call in the final seconds on a foul by Lebron), OKC had trouble achieving any sort of offensive flow. I was in the stands that night, and what should have been an enjoyable experience, only left me frustrated and hoarse from screaming so loudly.
3 games later, the series was over. The Thunder had their best chance to reverse their fortunes in game 4, but the person keeping them in the game, also contributed to the most devastating play in crunch time.
But everyone knew that this wasn’t the end. There was still another run for RUN OKC right? This only seemed like the part of the basketball movie where the team bonds during off-season workouts and then come back to face the villainous bad boys in a rematch and take the title from them.
But we know what happened next don’t we? No reason to go into all that again. There are countless columns by former ESPN employees that do this ad nauseum. I will say that I feel like I got robbed of my Hollywood ending–kinda like watching a movie for 2 hours at the theater and the projector craps out right before the climax.
It is hard to call a team that makes the NBA Finals losers. OKC got a taste of the good life. People started visiting Oklahoma City for reasons other than seeing the Bombing Memorial.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two of the most marketable players in the NBA (and let’s not forget that Harden is at least 280 million dollars richer since missing that crucial breakaway dunk in game 4 of that finals).
Yes, it is hard to call a team that has had such success for the past five years, losers, but each season preceding 2012 has been increasingly frustrating.
Unlike the 2013 Spurs who redeemed themselves after a heartbreaking Finals loss, with an even better roster that demolished the Heat (and destroying any need to write a requiem for that team),each season since 2012 has been increasingly frustrating for the Thunder.
Russ got hurt the very next season to a team that wouldn’t have made the playoffs if not for James Harden. Ibaka was hurt the year after that and they watched the Spurs advance. And of course KD broke his foot twice last year. Is this the “Curse of Daniel Plainview“–the Sonicsgate Curse?
Or is it just a series of increasingly bad decisions?
OKC should be odds on favorite to come out of west if they are healthy and all of this may be forgotten. The bottom could fall out just as easily though, if KD and Westbrook split for greener pastures. Then again, they could just as easily compete for championships for the next few years, while James Harden becomes the first player to play through being cursed two years in a row (the Khardashian curse is real).
Are we approaching an era where we see Oklahoma City-Cleveland series 3 years in a row (Golden State may have something to say about that)? I think this season will be the big fork in the road for Russ, Kevin Durant, and the Thunder franchise. If both KD and Russ end up leaving, people will point to this season as the fork in the road for everyone, but history might show that 2012 was the real turning point. We are only a week away from finding out.