The image is 16 years old but has not diminished in NBA lore. Two NBA muscle men, true tough guys, Alonzo Mourning and Charles Oakley, ready to brawl in a 1998 NBA playoff game, with Mourning’s Miami Heat teammate, Tim Hardaway, about to accost Oakley.
And there on the ground, his arms clenching the left leg of the giant Mourning like a cowboy clutching a runaway steed, was munchkin Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Welcome to the playoffs, where rivalries are incubated and familiarity breeds contempt.
The Thunder and the Grizzlies open their Western Conference first-round prize fight Saturday night in downtown OKC, and the one thing we know for sure is that by series end, these teams will despise each other.
“By that sixth or seventh game, you’re pretty much tired of your opponent and vice versa,” said Scotty Brooks. Especially since this will be the third Thunder-Memphis series in the last four playoffs.
Kevin Durant will be sick of Tony Allen maybe by Monday, just as Durant was of Allen last May, when the Grizzlies beat the Thunder in the West semifinals.
Zach Randolph will have had plenty of Kendrick Perkins, his old “I’ll meet you by the bus” and “I’ll beat your ***” foe. Maybe before Easter morning.
Great drama is the desired effect of the NBA playoffs. Bad blood is the unfortunate byproduct.
Which means the Thunder and Grizzlies are reaching rivalry status. Three playoffs in four years. The Perkins-Randolph feud. Combustible personalities like Allen and Russell Westbrook. Nice guys Durant and Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and Thabo Sefolosha are no match for the hostility.
“To really develop a great rivalry, there has to be incidents and there has to be meetings in the playoffs in close proximity,” said Van Gundy, now the lead game analyst for ESPN. “With Miami, we had a few things in games, a little flareups, and we met four straight years in the playoffs and they all went to a deciding game. You need those type of things to build rivalries.”
So consider the first round of the entire Western Conference a blooming field of rivalry. Blazers-Rockets has gotten chippy with dueling point guards Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley. Warriors-Clippers has staged some battle royales after the whistle the last couple of years. The Spurs and Mavericks have been common playoff foes since the turn of the century. And Thunder-Grizzlies is becoming an annual cage fight.
“You really have to focus on playing well moreso than playing with bad blood,” said Brooks. “You want to play your best basketball. Some players play better angry, some players don’t play well angry. And I know who on our team does and who doesn’t.”