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
His Biggest Stage: A four-overtime Spanish League game last year in his only season with Ricoh Manresa "It was regular season, but it was for the classification to the playoffs. "The first overtime was my basket. This was my first time to play against a big team like Barcelona. To make a basket for overtime … that was my good memory. "Nerves? In the beginning, just a little bit. After five minutes, you are good. But in the beginning, just a little bit because Barcelona is a big team in Europe. "I found I enjoyed it. We won the game, and I played well, so that’s why.”
His Biggest Stage: 2007 and 2009 NCAA Tournaments in his sophomore and senior seasons at Virginia Commonwealth "Even though they say people lay it on the line out there every night, I feel like at that point in time, people were really giving it all they had. "Referees were letting a lot of stuff go. Fans were really into it. "My sophomore year, I was nervous. But as soon as the ball goes up, it’s basketball. You get all amped up, but when the ball goes, you just try to play basketball from there on out. "We had a bunch of young guys when I was a senior. I was that guy telling everybody how it is and what to do, what to expect, what to look for and stuff like that. "Playing at the highest level of college basketball … I learned a lot about what it takes if you want to play on this level. Guys that play on that level in the NCAA Tournament usually make it to this league.”
His Biggest Stage: 2005 and 2006 NBA Playoffs with the New Jersey Nets "I learned from playing in New Jersey that it’s totally different than playing in the regular season. So much excitement. Everybody waits for that all year, and finally when we made it, it was just really fun. "Everything becomes more mental. You don’t have practice. You just watch a lot of tape. "I always played good in the playoffs in New Jersey, and I always played good in Serbia when I was there. I played in the Euro League. I played against older guys and more experienced guys. I think definitely I was more prepared (for the NBA Playoffs) than somebody just coming from college. "My rookie year, my first time, we were playing against the Miami Heat, so I played against Shaq. That was really big for me, coming from Serbia and getting my first playoff experience against Shaq. "I think you need to be focused. Sometimes, you’re tired, especially when you’ve played the whole season. You’re tired, but that’s the time you need to be more focused.”
His Biggest Stage: 2006 Italian League playoffs in his only season with Angelico Biella "That was the very first time for the team to make it to the playoffs, so that was really something special. I don’t know if it was big in terms of exposure, but I think it was just great being there and making to the playoffs with a team that everybody doubted. "It kind of reminds me of the situation here. "I had been to the playoffs in France, but that was the first time for the team and the city going to the playoffs. We had some great fans, so just the whole experience was something amazing. "There was definitely excitement. When you play basketball, you try to stay focused at all times, but at the same time, it was just a lot of fun. I wasn’t that anxious that much but just excited throughout the whole process. "It’s kind of fun to relive it again.”Comments
His Biggest Stage: 2007 and 2008 Final Fours in his two seasons at UCLA "After you win the Elite Eight, you can’t wait until the Final Four. It’s a lot of pressure playing on that stage. "Once you get to that point … you want to win more. It puts pressure on you. You really don’t want it to … but you’re trying to go out there to win. You put pressure on yourself to play better, play harder. "My first time, I didn’t play too much. My second year, I was a starter, so you feel more comfortable. I was more excited than nervous. "I just think to be cool and calm … that’s one of the big things. "You just go out and try to do what you’ve been doing all season long. Don’t go out there and do stuff you wasn’t doing before. You just stay with the same routine.”
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