The new Michael Jordan and basketball’s Bill Belichick meet in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. The LeBron Heat vs. the Popovich Spurs. Not a great time for the blossomed Thunder to be trying to crash the party.
The Heat can replicate the Jordan Bulls and win a third straight NBA championship, with an approaching-30 superstar. LeBron is 29. Jordan was 30 when the Bulls won their third in a row, in 1993.
The Spurs are cruising Patriot Boulevard. New England hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season but the crotchety Belichick and the evergreen Tom Brady still have the Patriots in the fast heat every season. San Antonio hasn’t won an NBA title since 2007, but crotchety Gregg Popovich has his ageless Alamos still playing like it’s 2003.
Just the Thunder’s luck to be dealing with such roadblocks.
Except for this. When hasn’t there been a sentry guarding the gate, keeping infidels from the throne room? Two sets of Kobe Lakers. Boston’s renaissance. The Jordan Bulls. The Dream’s Team in Houston. Detroit’s Bad Boys. The Showtime Lakers. Bird & Boston. The Dr. J 76ers.
You literally have to go back to the 1970s to find an era when the Larry O’Brien Trophy was there for the taking. Really, in only two seasons since the Carter Administration has the NBA race been wide open. Both resulted in Dallas-Miami Finals, 2006 and 2011.
So LeBron and the San Antonio Patriots are no excuse for the Thunder. No one’s holding the door open for you. You’ve got to kick it in.
And the Thunder didn’t kick in the door in 2014. In fact, the Thunder took a step back. The Boomers weren’t as good this season as last season. In 2012-13, the Thunder was fabulous. OKC ranked second in the league, behind only Miami, in offensive efficiency, and tied the Spurs for third in the league, behind only Indiana and Memphis, in defensive efficiency. The Thunder even had some eggheads (that’s a term of endearment) writing about the Thunder’s historic dominance.
The Thunder was primed last spring. The Thunder entered the playoffs as the West’s best, clearly. Russell Westbrook’s injury derailed those title hopes.
This season, the Thunder did not enter the playoffs as the West’s best. The Thunder was good. Really good. Just not as good. Injuries were a big reason. Westbrook missed 36 games. Thabo Sefolosha missed 21 games and Kendrick Perkins 20, most of them at the same time.
The Thunder slipped to seventh in NBA offensive efficiency and fifth in defense. Good. But not beat-the-Spurs good. Definitely not beat-the-Heat good.
The Thunder has been chasing the Spurs and Heat for the last three years. Momentarily caught San Antonio in the 2012 West finals, but otherwise, the Thunder has been just outside the exclusive club.
“Nobody else is in that class or even close to it but this team,” Derek Fisher said Sunday, about 16 hours after what probably was his final Thunder game. “But this group, they have it, they want it. You just have to do it, though. There’s no shortcuts.”
It’s possible the Thunder coronation we’ve been waiting on will be pushed on both ends. Thunder improvement, which is mandatory, but also the fall of other empires. The Heat is on the decline and could implode, depending on the contract decisions of LeBron either this summer or next. The Spurs some decade or another will age out of contention. The Thunder is ready to step into the void, just like the 1994 Rockets and the 1991 Bulls and the 1989 Pistons.
“I’ve always (had) this mentality — we have enough right now,” Scotty Brooks said. “We just have to continue to improve what we have. We will add pieces here and there but always have to have the mentality, we have a good team right now and we have to continue to improve it in different ways.”
You can improve by upgrading the roster, but also by tightening the screws on the holdovers. Cut down on careless turnovers and lax transition defense. Everything can be improved, but those two areas are a good place to start. Kendrick Perkins mentioned the turnovers this week; Hubie Brown talked about the transition defense a week or so ago.
Clean up those areas, and the roster decisions won’t be as paramount. Yes, the Thunder will have a different look. But sometimes, decisions don’t have to be right or wrong. Decisions just have to be made, then make it the right one. Bear down on defense, bear down on valuing the ball, and then it’s not so critical who is in the layup line with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Jackson.
“It’s a results-oriented business,” Fisher said. “In the NBA, the No. 1 result is winning the championship, and that’s not what we got done. But you can’t walk away from it thinking you completely failed. Not very many teams were able to do what we were able to do. We were one of three teams left to have a chance to win a championship, 27 other teams wished they had had that chance.”
One of three. But the other two are led by the new Jordan and the basketball Belichick. The Thunder has to get better quick or wait for them to abandon the throne.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.