For several months I’ve said Thunder fans will evolve from elated to having their own team to passionate zealots once they build some history. Nothing makes a fan care as much as having history with another team.
Especially heartbreaking history. Controversial history. Against a division rival.
Tuesday’s game in Salt Lake City was one of those games. If these two teams meet in the playoffs, a controversial 140-139 overtime loss to the Jazz, the regular-season game on April 6 will add some extra emotion to a best-of-seven series.
Thunder fans, of course, will claim Kevin Durant, who put on a dazzling fourth-quarter display just to send the game into overtime, was fouled on the final shot. Replays showed Durant was fouled. But on the road you don’t always get the call, especially when there is only 1.1 seconds left off an inbounds pass of a game with playoff ramifications.
I felt the game in Boston last week was the most entertaining of the Thunder’s 159 games since the team relocated from Seattle two years ago. But Tuesday’s game was even better.
It was a thoroughly entertaining game. But the bottom line is the agonizing loss hampers Oklahoma City’s playoff seed positioning. Tonight in the Ford Center, the Thunder hosts Denver in another game which will impact the Thunder’s seeding.
It will be interesting to see how much energy the Thunder can summon up after playing such an emotional game 24 hours earlier.
The Thunder all season has focused on their next game. But the controversial ending will make it difficult to move forward. Besides playing an extra five minutes, 53 intense minutes of playoff-caliber basketball, the Thunder boarded a plane around midnight Oklahoma time and probably didn’t arrive in Oklahoma City until 2 or 3 a.m. Tonight’s game will be the Thunder’s sixth game in nine games.
In contrast, the Nuggets haven’t played since Saturday night. It’s uncertain who will be their coach. George Karl, undergoing cancer treatments, has been out for three weeks. Adrian Dantley, filling in for Karl, missed Tuesday’s practice with kidney stones.
Regardless of who coaches, the Nuggets will be well rested while the Thunder will be playing on a half-empty tank. But it’s a game Oklahoma City needs to win or risk finishing as the No. 8 seed, i.e. a first-round match up with the Lakers.
Even if the Thunder loses tonight, OKC has an escape hatch to avoid the No. 8 seed. Post a win April 12 against the Trail Blazers in the next to last game of the regular season, and the Thunder owns the tiebreaker over Portland. But lose another game or two, then lose to Portland, and the Thunder is staring at opening the playoffs in the Staples Center.
Regardless of how the final week plays out, the Thunder has exceeded everyone’s projections. Almost no one predicted a .500 finish, much less a probable 50-win season and a playoff berth.
Utah, owning the tiebreaker over Dallas, is now the favorite for the No. 2 seed. If the Thunder finishes No. 7, it would make for an intriguing first-round series.
Especially now that there’s some history.