After 93 games, cold Wednesday nights in New Jersey and Minnesota, Sunday afternoon showdowns with the Lakers and Heat, riveting playoff series with the Nuggets and Grizzlies, the Thunder arrives here.
A season-defining game.
Game 7 of this Memphis brawl, Game 7 of this wow!-huh?-wow! Western Conference semifinal, is at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and will define this Thunder team.
Win, it's a great season. A landmark season.
Lose, it's a disappointing season. Hard to pin that label on a bunch of guys still younger than some of Eddie Sutton's old OSU teams. Tough love for a franchise that won all of 23 games just two years ago.
But it's true. Get to a Game 7 with homecourt advantage, and nothing shy of victory will suffice.
Nothing against the Grizzlies. They're not a fluke. Memphis has a ballteam on its hands. As Brooks said, in the playoffs, “you lose, it's not the end of the world. The other team has just as much talent as you have.”
But only one team gets to host Game 7. Playing Game 7 on the road usually is a death sentence and should be today.
Which makes victory mandatory for the Thunder to feel good about this season. Not talking about the future. This season.
The 55 wins. The Kevin Durant scoring championship. The Russell Westbrook all-NBA laurel. The Kendrick Perkins attitude transformation.
All great steps for down the road. But to stamp this season as a success, the Thunder must beat Memphis.
“Quite obviously, how you finish is how you're remembered,” Nick Collison admitted. “We want to win as far as we can.”
Win this game, and the Thunder suddenly is playing with the same house money the Grizzlies, as the West's eighth seed, use in this series.
Win this game, and the Thunder has sufficiently placed Memphis below OKC on the food chain of West contenders.
Win this game, and Scotty Brooks' coaching style — steady as she goes, no tossing stuff against the wall — is ratified.
Lose this game, and it barely harms the Thunder future. Won't cast the Boomers as frauds. Losing doesn't mean an NBA title is a distant wish.
But as far as the future, beating Memphis accelerates the Sam Presti plan. Make the NBA's Final Four with your four leading scorers all under 23 years old? The dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
“Our window's not closing,” Brooks said. “No question it would be a great win for our organization. We're excited about playing it.”
But, he said, “I don't think it defines our season.”
We all know Game 7 victory will be elevation for Durant and Westbrook, or Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
But this game also will be elevation for Brooks or Lionel Hollins, who have staged quite the chess match through six games.
Hollins trying whatever pops in his head. Shifting Tony Allen over to Westbrook instead of guarding Durant. Starting O.J. Mayo, who had been banished to a reserved role for months.
Brooks' idea of a radical move is having his assistant coaches swap seats at halftime.
There is something to like about both styles.
In the playoffs, you can't assume everything will work the way it does in the regular season. In the playoffs, you've got a good opponent every game and the same opponent every game. So if you don't try something new, you might get up close and personal with a brick wall.
Of course, coaches who are steady instill stability and confidence. You know what you're getting with Brooks. James Harden and Collison know they are coming in mid- to late-first quarter. The B teamers know Brooks will play them all together, maybe twice. Durant knows he'll play some power forward while the Thunder goes small.
Players know their roles and get no surprises. There's something to be said for that.
“We make adjustments,” Brooks said. “We don't tell the world what we're doing.
“We're not going to change our starting lineup. We've gotten this far with a good mix of guys playing their roles. I don't believe changing our lineup makes us better.”
Heck no. In fact, starting Mayo actually helps the Thunder, since Thabo Sefolosha's biggest problem this series is no one to guard. With Mayo on the floor, Thabo's got someone he can chase around.
Coaches in the NBA never are as important as players, not even if they date the owner's daughter or light up a cigar on the bench.
But this Game 7 could be a status changer for Brooks. Coach the precocious Thunder to the West finals, and we might have to start getting serious about the kind of job he's done and doing.
Coach the precocious Thunder to Game 7 victory, and Brooks will have done more than improve his already-good name. He will have stamped this Thunder season as an absolute success.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.