The curtain is soon to rise on the NBA Playoffs. When it does, the Thunder will make its debut on that big stage. It will play in a spotlight like no other. It will perform under pressure that is unlike anything else in basketball.
For the youngest team in the league, that could cause some serious stage fright. Only three players in the Thunder’s nine-man rotation, after all, have NBA Playoffs experience. Nenad Krstic went with New Jersey, Thabo Sefolosha with Chicago and Nick Collison with Seattle. They have played in a combined 35 games in the playoffs. By comparison, Mehmet Okur, the Utah Jazz big man whose team could face the Thunder in the first round, has played in 70 games in the playoffs. Jazz stars Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer have almost as much postseason experience individually as the Thunder does as a team. Both have played in 34 playoff games. So, is the Thunder doomed to falter when the curtain goes up and the playoffs begin? Not necessarily. That’s because the players have been on big stages. While none of their experiences were as intense as these playoffs promise to be, they have faced pressure and experienced stress. They have maneuvered pitfalls and learned lessons. In their own words, they reflect on those moments when the curtain rose and they had to perform.
His Biggest Stage: 2003 national championship game in his senior season at Kansas "There were like 60,000 people there and millions watching on TV. I played in two Final Fours, but I think that Monday night game is a little different. Shooting before the game, it was just kind of amazing how many people were there. "I was pretty focused on what we needed to do. I’d been wanting to play in that game my whole life, so I was really concentrating on the game. And then once it started, it was just like any game. I was into it right away. "For me, those big games, I just have a better sense of awareness and focus about what’s going on. All of your senses are kind of heightened. You’ve got all the adrenaline in the world. It’s a lot of fun. "You try to see the big picture. This is your opportunity to play in that game, and you don’t really let anything else bother you. You’re not going to let an hour media session the day before … do anything to affect the game. "There’s so much anticipation. You wonder how you’re going to do. Are we going to play well? Are we going to win? Are we going to lose? You just want to get out there and start playing.”
His Biggest Stage: 2007 NCAA Tournament in his only collegiate season at Texas. "The All-Star Game … that’s just a game. Win or lose, it really doesn’t mean too much. That’s just cool to be part of. "But the NCAA Tournament where your whole season is at stake? I guess that’s the most pressure you can be put under as a player and a team. "Just being a part of it, you really don’t get the gist of it until the ball is tipped. "A minute left in the game, it’s tied up? That’s when you start to get a little nervous. It’s not like in the NBA where you know you’re going to come back next season. You know you’re going to come back the season after that. College, you don’t know. Your career might be over in a minute or so. That’s the kind of pressure that’s fun as a competitor, but it’s tough to deal with. "Win or lose, if you go out there and say you really gave it your all, you really came out there and left everything on the floor, that’s when you can really deal with it. Of course you want to win, but sometimes, it may not happen like that.”
His Biggest Stage: 2007 Final Four in his junior season at Georgetown "Everybody is watching. You don’t realize until you’re actually there. You see it on TV. But there’s so much attention and so many people come to the city. "You get police escorts to the game. I’ll never forget. It’s rush hour. We got on the interstate, and the next thing you know, the traffic just split up. You just see this big blue bus going through the middle of traffic. "We weren’t allowed to leave the hotel because there were so many people just waiting with merchandise for you to sign. There’s just so much attention that was on the Final Four that it kind of took your attention away from the actual game. "You learn how to deal with it. You learn how to block it out. You learn how to move on. You learn how to tell people that you have focus on what you have to do. "Once the ball is tossed up in the air, it’s a game that you’ve played a hundred times already. You’ve just got to go out there and play, but it’s dealing with the fact that so many people are going to try to contact you, try to be a part of it.”
His Biggest Stage: 2009 NCAA Tournament in his sophomore season at Arizona State "It was the first tournament that Arizona State had been to in like 10 or 15 years. So that was a pretty big stage. The environment. The atmosphere. The crowd. "You hear so much about the tournament and how that’s where the players make a name for themselves. "You have to be aggressive. You have to be ready for every single play. Every single play counts in the tournament. That’s how teams get upset. "We lost to Syracuse. They were a lot bigger than us and more athletic. But I could have played better. It was just the pain of losing and letting my teammates down. "Guys really came together. That was a time that we made it so far, and no one expected us to make the tournament. Just playing in those games, guys had a lot of energy and bonded as one.” Interviewed by Darnell Mayberry
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