Kevin Durant was asked at his team’s shootaround this morning if tonight’s Game 6, a closeout game in this Western Conference Finals, is the biggest game of his life.
Before answering, the Thunder star sighed.
“You’re putting a lot of pressure on me, man,” Durant said, smiling. “You could say that.”
Win tonight and the Thunder will be crowned as the Western Conference champion. The team’s first trip to the NBA Finals will be the reward. Lose and Oklahoma City is in trouble. Traveling back to San Antonio for a win-or-go-home Game 7 will be the consequence.
That, friends, is pressure.
“It’s going to be fun,” Durant said. “As a kid, you dream about playing in big, big games like this. Hopefully we come out there and do a good job.”
Eighty percent of the Thunder’s roster has never been in this position. For those 12 guys, this is the biggest game of their lives. Only Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed have appeared in the NBA Finals. For the rest, this is foreign territory.
“We just got to go out there with the mind-set that every possession is important, like if we lose this game it’s life or death,” Durant said. “That’s the type of approach we need to take.”
Get a load of the dynamic setting up for this Game 6.
Despite being the home team with the 3-2 series lead, the Thunder is the wild card. No one is quite sure which Thunder team will show up. That inexperience on this stage makes Oklahoma City a mystery. But everyone knows what to expect out of the Spurs. We know they won’t roll over. We know they’re going to come out and give the Thunder perhaps the toughest game it has played all season. We know that if the Thunder wins tonight the Spurs will have made OKC earn it.
“They’re going to come out with a lot of energy, a lot of force,” Durant said. “They’re going to play hard. They’re going to play very hard, and we got to come out the same way. We don’t expect this to be a cakewalk. We know this is going to be a tough, tough game. But we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said his team is “in a good place” and “had a great shootaround.” He said his players know what’s at stake but are excited about the opportunity.
“They have to stick with what they normally do,” Brooks said. “Nothing changes for us.”
That remains to be seen. Tension has a funny way of turning athletes tight. Brooks even admitted how difficult it is for him and his players to not think about how close this team is to making history.
“You’d be hiding under a rock if you haven’t thought about that,” Brooks said.
Asked if his guys are feeling any pressure, Brooks said “I have no sense of that at all.”
Let’s see what happens when the lights come on.
There are two schools of thought on which team faces more pressure. Some, like Shaquille O’Neal and ESPN analyst Tim Legler, have said in recent days that all the pressure is on the Thunder at home tonight because a loss means OKC has to go back to San Antonio and win Game 7 on the road. Others, like Charles Barkley, have said the pressure is always on the road team.
“You can dissect it a lot of different ways,” Brooks said. “But what we do, I tell our guys the pressure is to play hard and the pressure is to play for your teammates. You can’t expect to put so much pressure on yourself to make every shot. That’s not going to happen. Nobody does, other than Serge. But you have to have perfect effort, and you can do that 100 percent of the time.”
Really, that’s the most underrated and underappreciated aspect of this Thunder team. This collection of youngsters has a magnificent maturity about them. It’s cliche to say but beautiful to see. They really don’t get too high or too low. They really do just focus on one game at a time. And, most of all, they really do know and understand that even still they haven’t accomplished anything yet.
“We’re not focused on this game being the biggest game,” Brooks said. “Obviously, it’s an amazing opportunity for us and we’re going to compete like heck to have success with it.”
The pressure’s on.