Shake down the Thunder?
That’s what Oklahoma City did to the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
This surge might mean that the Thunder — viewed with legitimate skepticism entering these playoffs, especially the West semifinal series against the San Antonio Spurs — are about to cast away the dark clouds which have followed them over the past few years in the NBA playoffs. Oklahoma City’s Thunder-clouds might give way to a bright new sunshine, found in the form of a second trip to the NBA Finals.
However, if you know your NBA history, you realize that owning a series lead entering a late-stage NBA playoff home game is no guarantee of success for the Thunder.
The year was 2012. The scene was Chesapeake Energy Arena (then the Ford Center). Oklahoma City owned a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals as it hosted the Miami Heat in Game 2. In the 27 NBA Finals with a 2-3-2 format which had been contested from 1985 through 2011, only once — in 2006 — did a team trailing 2-0 win the middle three games at home and eventually take the series. Oklahoma City just had to win one game at home to throw all the pressure on Miami heading to South Florida for Games 3 through 5. Scott Brooks and James Harden could have joined Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the victory podium in late June.
Instead, Oklahoma City stumbled out of the gate. The Thunder played catch-up all night against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. They made a furious fourth-quarter rally, as they have always been able to do since they became a playoff-caliber team in 2010, but they couldn’t close the sale. Durant missed a 10-footer on the left baseline against LeBron in the final 10 seconds. Miami escaped with a 100-96 win which evened the series and took it to South Florida on even terms.
The series never came back to Oklahoma City.
Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals was not an elimination (or closeout) game, but it meant everything within the context of that series. OKC played it at home… and lost.
Tuesday night, in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder arrive at that similar intersection of hope and peril. Not in an elimination (closeout) game, not able to pop champagne in the immediate aftermath, the Thunder still know that if they prevail, they will very probably win the series. In Game 4, Golden State will either shake off the chains of doubt and regain home-court advantage, or the rattled and thin-skinned reaction to Game 3’s most controversial moments will leave the Warriors in ruins. It’s not Game 7. Heck, it’s not even Game 6. Yet, the weight of these West Finals genuinely seems to rest on the outcome of Game 4.
Oklahoma City gets to play it at home. It is the biggest non-closeout home game in franchise history since Game 2 in 2012.
Let’s address the plot twist involved in Game 4.
You need to keep the following point in mind about the Thunder’s biggest series wins: They were achieved after falling behind, 2-1. The 2012 West Finals against the Spurs fell into this category, as did the series victory over the 67-win Spurs a week and a half ago. Oklahoma State did not call the shots in the early portions of those series. The Thunder owned the moment in Games 4 through 6.
This time, it’s different.
Oklahoma City has its opponent on its heels. The 2012 Spurs were 10-1 in the playoffs entering Game 4 of those West Finals. The 2016 Spurs had lost just one home game out of 44 entering Game 2 against the Thunder. OKC promptly proceeded to win each of its next two games in San Antonio to turn that series around. Now, Oklahoma City is trying to become — in Game 4 against Golden State — the first team to win consecutive games against the Warriors this season.
The Thunder might enjoy the lead in this series through three games, but their greatest playoff conquests have emerged from 2-1 deficits. Playing with prosperity is a relatively new challenge for K.D. and Russ, and the one time they owned the upper hand against a formidable opponent, they couldn’t handle the Heat in 2012.
The Thunder have been at their best in the NBA playoffs — four years ago, yes, but also this year — when trailing in a series. Now, Oklahoma City must put on its front-runner shoes and become the first team to beat the 73-9 Warriors in back-to-back games.
Coping with prosperity is the unexpectedly central obstacle to an NBA Finals return for the Thunder.
Unexpected… but very real.