Experience matters in the NBA playoffs. Teams that hit the postseason before they’ve ripened don’t stay too long. This decade alone, three squads have made the playoffs with virtually no playoff experience. The ’09 Blazers, the ’08 Hawks and the ’05 Bulls. All lost first-round series, and Portland and Chicago had homecourt advantage.
This is a dues-paying league. Individuals and teams have to wait their turn. Mature and harden. Grow biceps and fangs. Admission to the throne room requires battlescars. Which means your Thunder, with a core that’s barely shaved, much less made the playoffs, will get drummed by the Lordly Lakers in their best-of-seven series that starts Sunday. Unless they buck history. Unless they follow the trail blazed by Portland’s 1977 whiz kids. Those Blazers’ top six players had no NBA playoff experience. Their top four players were 25-year-old Maurice Lucas, 24-year-old Bill Walton and 23-year-olds Bob Gross and Lionel Hollins. Yet Portland won the NBA title. Those Blazers had a secret weapon to counter their youth. "We were good,” said Hollins, now the Memphis Grizzlies coach. "That’s why teams don’t go that far. They’re not good enough. It’s a misnomer that youth and inexperience are why you don’t win.” Thunder coach Scott Brooks cracked, "Does he want to come in and talk to our team?” I don’t buy Hollins’ theory. Too much history says experience matters. But I’m also in no position to argue with the ’77 TrailBlazers. "Once you get in the playoffs, anything is possible,” said Johnny Davis, then a Blazer rookie and now a Memphis assistant under Hollins. Davis said it’s not just possible in the abstract. It’s possible in this very Thunder-Laker series. "I know by the way they play, they’re not going to concede anything to the Lakers,” Davis said. "The Lakers will have their hands full. I don’t think it’s a given that the Thunder is going to be fodder for the Lakers.” There are similarities between the 2010 Thunder and the ’77 Blazers. The Thunder won 50 games, the Blazers 49. The Thunder is led by Kevin Durant, a third-year superstar who reached iconic status at an early age. The Blazers were led by the same, Walton. The Thunder starts no one over 26 and three players under 24. The Thunder, counting years as Seattle’s SuperSonics, had victory totals of 23, 20, 31 and 35 the previous four seasons.