UPDATE: The Thunder won't leave Miami until noon Friday, John Rohde reports. The team will arrive in Oklahoma City between 1:30-2 p.m.
The Thunder may flip momentum on Thursday night, snatching back home-court advantage with a series-altering win.
Or the talented young team may falter for the fourth straight game, closing out its banner season on a solemn and disappointing note.
The only certainty regarding Thursday night's Game 5 is the postgame reaction coming early Friday morning, when a fatigued group of players, coaches and personnel descend upon Will Rogers Airport, returning to Oklahoma City after a weeklong road trip to Miami.
No matter the time, weather or result, Thunder fans will be waiting.
“It shows you the support we have,” guard James Harden said. “Win, lose or draw, they're there, supporting us regardless and it's been there for a couple years, as long as I've been here. It shows the support they have for us and the love they have for us.”
It began on April 3, 2010, following a return trip from Dallas, where the Thunder had just clinched its first playoff berth since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City.
Daily Thunder blogger Royce Young spawned the idea, along with help from some of his readers, and he got the message out there.
A few hundred fans showed up at the airport, showing support for their beloved team.
From there, the event took off, transforming into a playoff tradition, with an expanding number of fans welcoming players back from every postseason road trip.
“In the fourth quarter, people will already start tweeting at me, ‘Hey, airport time? You got a time?'” Young said. “People are dying to know. And it's really become this kind of tradition of welcoming the team back to Oklahoma. It's become a cool thing.”
Even after last season's disappointing 100-96 loss in Dallas, which capped a 4-1 Western Conference Finals series loss to the eventual champs, fans flocked like never before.
“When they got eliminated by the Mavericks in Game 5, the crowd was enormous,” Young said. “There were people flying flags and playing music. It almost seemed like an impromptu celebration of the season, kind of like a way to thank the team for their playoff run.”
This season, after Oklahoma City finally conquered the Mavericks in a first-round sweep, South Meridian was stuffed once again.
Hannah Keel, a stay-at-home mother from Oklahoma City, was there, actively contributing to the “Beat L.A.” chants.
“It was surreal because they're, you know, my heroes,” Keel said. “It was really surreal getting to see them up close like that. It was just wonderful.”
For the players, it's another reminder of the affection and admiration routinely displayed by their adoring fan base.
The Thunder's Nazr Mohammed, a former Kentucky star who remembers the streets of Lexington flooded with people after the Wildcats' 1998 NCAA Championship, is reminded of those rabid UK fans.
“Very impressive, because it doesn't happen at the pro level,” Mohammed said. “Happened a little bit in San Antonio when I was there, coming to the airport. But as far as the magnitude of these Oklahoma City fans, it's amazing. Reminds me of a college atmosphere, how they treat you and their enthusiasm.”
For the fans, it's a fun and easily accessible way to interact with their favorite players, showing support, regardless of result.
“If it does end Thursday, I'm sure there will be a great response,” Young said. “But there will be one either way, welcoming them back to play Game 6 or thanking them for an incredible season.”