NBA: Thunderstorm

By: Shawn Davis

This could be the beginning of something special.

SA 99 @ OKC 107

Come with me on a trip back to your childhood – or maybe some of you still do this. Remember when you filled balloons with water and threw them at your siblings, friends, cousins…or cars? Who would do the last one? You’re bad kids! Think back to times when you had those water balloons, but no one to play with, what did you do? Placed in that position there were times I would find one of my mother’s safety pins, poke holes in the balloon, fill it with water (or fruit juice when I made sure no one was watching me so I could have a creative – re: stupid – drink dispenser), tie it in few knots and squeeze. Observing the liquid shoot out in all directions captivated me. The San Antonio Spurs were that balloon in the 3rd quarter of last night’s Western Conference Finals showdown (Game 6). Like a kid again, I was mesmerized by it all.

We all know how the contest ended – and that Oklahoma City will wait out their NBA Finals opponent – but that third quarter was the entire story. The Spurs took a 15-point lead into the halfway point and then the worst happened: halftime. They hit 9/15 on 3-pt field goals, confidence was dripping off their jerseys, their passing was crisp…and then intermission intervened. Spurs officials should have put the team on a bus, drove to a playground or anywhere else with a hoop so they could get shots up to keep their rhythm. (I’m almost positive it’s against league rules to leave the building at halftime when you’re one of the teams PLAYING THE GAME. They should’ve tried, right?)

The Thunder raced out of the gate like I’ll Have Another while the shots that fell for the Spurs in the first half were long rebounds and dunks for the home team. The crowd was so energetic that I was giddy on my couch absorbing it all and shaking my head at my laptop. This was it. It being watching the new league darling bubble up and take down an established franchise while that established franchise put up its very best to avoid what proved to be inevitable. You could feel the balloon bursting and water covered the length of the floor, going everywhere. Get a mop!

As the jumpers that fell for them earlier in the game began to miss and the Thunder kept chipping away at the 15-point deficit, something unexpected happened. The Spurs looked like they knew they were going to get beat. Their body language was startling because they usually show no emotion – or a quiet confidence – but they were strolling up the floor (instead of running) in transition, hanging their heads after misses, chirping amongst one another and then they committed the most egregious offense when a game (and their playoff lives) is slipping away: They looked to the referees for bail out calls. Done.

The Spurs have been in these situations before but they looked like the young, inexperienced team of the two. Some bad calls went against them but that’s no excuse at all for them to have reacted to the inescapable pressure in the way that they did. I’m not saying they folded because they kept themselves in the contest until the final minute or so but if you were watching you just knew the Thunder weren’t going to relinquish control. Especially once James Harden and Derek Fisher hit those devastating 3’s.

Why didn’t get they do a better job of going old-school and dumping it into the post with Tim Duncan? Late in the fourth quarter they went that avenue and he got three or four consecutive buckets. When the deluge soaked them in the third quarter and those pretty looking jumpers stopped falling, throwing it inside would have been a great way to try to ride the wave the Thunder created.

Since they were content defending Duncan with either Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka (one-one-one) why didn’t San Antonio gear their offensive scheme towards their classic look? Doing that – combined with the success that Duncan was having – eventually would have led to OKC doubling off someone and then those open looks at the basket would have resurfaced. I was frustrated because it seemed like such a simple gear to shift to. Maybe that’s why I write and they play.

Also, what happened to the Spurs’ half-court defense? They have the opportunity to score with any team in the league but the core problem of this series was that San Antonio could not get stops when they needed them. Giving the Thunder extra possessions is like eating fast food with a diet soda as the drink of choice and wondering why the pounds won’t come off: it’s not working.

I went through a range of emotions in the second half with joy, frustration, confusion, pride and sadness being at the forefront. Joy over the fact that Kevin Durant is one of my favorite athletes in sports and that home crowd made me feel like a kid again; frustration at the Spurs for looking (and playing) disheveled; confusion for just about the same reasons and why Dejuan Blair wasn’t a factor in the game (or the series at all); pride, for no other reason than you just cannot root against a team like that (sorry Seattle), you just can’t, and sadness, ultimately, because the Spurs lost. I wasn’t crying over the fact that my championship pick got caught in the storm without weather gear – I was just concerned that one of my favorite players (and the best power forward ever), Tim Duncan, may have lost his best chance for a fifth title. Although I do feel the Spurs will be in the hunt again, you cannot take chances to win titles lightly; every year has its own set of obstacles.

As a young boy, I remember being upset after the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1988, the Eastern Conference Finals 1989 – and possibly crying after them in 1990. Why? The Detroit Pistons stood in the way of the Chicago Bulls, my Bulls; the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. Anyone that knows me (or has read my writing) is clearly aware that Jordan is my favorite athlete ever and HE IS the greatest basketball player of all time, but that’s just my opinion – I could be wrong.

The Bad Boys beat my team back, relentlessly, every year and taunted Chicago while they did it. It pissed me the hell off! My mother would have to turn the television in my room off, unplug it, and threaten to whip me unless I went to bed and stopped obsessing over something I couldn’t control. Being a parent, she said the Bulls would beat them soon and I needed to relax.

As the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals began I was nervous and optimistic at the same time because I knew, at least psychologically, the Pistons were confident that they could hold the young team back. (Yes I was aware of psychological warfare early on in my youth because my G.I. Joe action-figure battles were of legendary status.) I thought they would continue to legally assault the Bulls (like they did the previous years) and move on to the Finals. We all know how that turned out! I watched with so much pride and after the Bulls swept them off the court – and most of the Pistons defiantly walked off the court without shaking hands – I had this feeling in my chest that I was seeing a shift of power in sports…not just the NBA. I wasn’t just watching my favorite team, finally, defeat a bitter enemy I was about to go on a ride that would define a decade, bring six championships in eight seasons, witness a repeat three-peat, a SEVENTY-TWO win season and cement the Bulls as a dynasty.

I AM NOT projecting the Thunder will go on a run like that, no one in their right mind can. In this day-and-age with salary cap restrictions, the luxury tax and the new collective bargaining agreement it’s going to be near impossible for them to keep their young core intact (Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka) long enough for an extended chunk of time. I’m just pointing out that the feeling I had last night reminded me of that night in 1991.

Boston or Miami will have all they can handle next Tuesday evening – June 12 – when the NBA Finals begin. The Thunderstorm isn’t coming anymore, it’s arrived.

 

Photo: nypost.com

 

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