The Thunder move on to the 2nd round tomorrow, almost two weeks after they send the Mavericks into the off-season. The Mavs had put up a good fight, but OKC marches on. In a way that's how the NBA goes, although you could argue that the Mavs' self-inflicted dismantling has been unprecedented in recent history.
I do not want to leave the Mavericks behind quite yet, however, as I think there is still something left to glean even though their championship defense was ended in the most humbling of ways possible. You would not be wrong if you accused me of offering an inordinate amount of respect and admiration for the Mavericks franchise, even as they were the ones that ended the Thunder run a season ago. I think that the reason why is because each and every season has its own personal narrative that captures and enraptures. Sometimes it is media driven, but most of the time we can trust what we see. For example, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers really were a combustible team of unparalleled talent that balanced on the psychology of their head coach, The 2005 Spurs really were kind of boring, and last season's Mavericks were the epitome of what happens when a team concept triumphs over the individual.
It was sad when Dallas beat the Thunder last year, but in a way I was glad because it proved to me that all of the things that we publicly praise - maturity, teamwork, sacrifice - can still make a difference. In the end, LeBron James decided to be the bad guy, and as we all know, the bad guy loses in the end. The story's denouement culminated with the Mavs' quiet leader Dirk Nowitzki leaving the court abruptly in a tender emotional moment, knowing that he, Sisyphus, figured out how to trick Persephone and kick the rock over the cliff.
These playoffs represent the new narrative, the new story. Part One is complete.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
With all due respect to Ms. Roosevelt, I think that the fully developed mind can traverse between all three, moving from the simple to the complex.
I. The People.
On one end of the court, we saw the representation of GM Sam Presti's master strokes:
- Kevin Durant - the skinny superstar, scoring champ, MVP candidate
- Russell Westbrook - the enigmatic All-Star dynamo
- James Harden - the whiff that wasn't
- Serge Ibaka - the steal of the draft
- Kendrick Perkins - the deal that changed the culture
- Thabo Sefolosha - the Kobe stopper
- Derek Fisher - the veteran
One team was a #2 seed with the second-best record in the NBA. The other team held on for a #7 seeded playoff spot. At a glance above, it would not be difficult to guess who was who. Simple.
II. The Events.
On paper, a #2 vs a #7 with the disparity in youth and talent that is described above is not a competition. In the afterglow of a 4-0 sweep, the series was not a competition. To accept the facts of the people involved and the ultimate outcome, it is not unreasonable to come to such a conclusion.
Of course, this conclusion is incorrect.
An act told in four parts, these four games each represented compelling moments that had to be experienced/endured to fully appreciate.
Game 1: Lucky Bounce.
The Mavericks were the defending champs, proud, determined, surly, and undermanned. The Thunder were supposed to be the same not-quite-ready youthful but inexperienced team. For a half, the Mavericks took it to the opponent they defeated a season ago, and we all began to wonder if the Thunder's final month of the regular season wasn't actually an anomaly.
However, with precious few minutes to go and the Thunder trailing by seven, history began to change. Kevin Durant, struggling with his shot for most of the night, assisted Serge Ibaka with two critical And-1 plays, setting the stage for a grand finale. Trailing by one, Durant received a pass and muscled his way to the free throw line against Shawn Marion. Elevating, he later admitted he couldn't see the rim. The shot bounced in anyway.
Game 2: Westbrook's Redemption.
In last season's playoffs, no Thunder player endured more scorn than Russell Westbrook. He was apparently the lone reason why the Thunder were always going to falter, and the media let him know it. A year later, all of those who whispered it a season ago were still bleating their mantra - Westbrook's penchant for shooting too much would undo the Thunder.
Westbrook then submitted Game 2. With his All-Star teammate struggling, Westbrook scored a team-high 29 points, played ridiculous defense against Jason Terry, and willed his team to a win. Everything that he did wrong a year ago, he did right that night.
Game 3: Dominance.
Dallas was returning home to try and find their way back into the series. They were the defending champs, they were at home, and they were ticked off. How would OKC respond to their first dose of adversity?
The Thunder charged out to a lead in the first half and never relented. They had the perfect disposition and countenance to handle Dallas' determination. By the time the 3rd quarter was over, OKC knew that they were the better team and Dallas was running out of options.
Game 4: The comeback.
Dallas, desperate and despondent, had only one shot left, one more opportunity to show the Thunder that they still knew one or two things that OKC did not. After playing a taut first half, Dallas' veterans began to solve the Thunder offense while Dirk Nowitzki began to heat up. After a barrage of 3-pointers to end the 3rd, the Mavs found themselves up by 13 and with a clear path to send the series back to OKC.
How would the Thunder deal with their final lesson from the champs? A year ago, they would have responded by hoisting up a number of quick shots to try and rapidly get back in the game, and just like in last year's Game 3, probably would have failed.
Instead, the Thunder searched until they found the match-up they wanted. Marion had Durant on lock-down, the Mavs were aggressively trapping Westbrook 30 feet away from the rim, so 6th Man of the Year James Harden stepped up. The Thunder put the ball in Harden's hands and waited him to go to work against the soft part of the Dallas defense. The Thunder never deviated the plan, even as Harden's All-Star teammates waited in the wings for an opportunity. By the time the game was done, the Thunder had solved the Mavericks' riddle and closed out the series with a sweep.
III. The Ideas.
Our actors are in place, the events have been told. So, what? This final level is where the narrative really takes place and history is made worth remembering. Magic Johnson does not exist in the vacuum without Larry Bird. Michael Jordan is not 'MJ' without his overtaking the Pistons. The Lakers are not champions without Phil Jackson. The Mavericks do not win without besting the old guard (Lakers), the new guard (Thunder), and the Global Icon (LeBron James).
The Thunder's story, which began in 2010, is of a young bunch of players, mature beyond their years, who are trying to do something that is unprecedented - ascend to the championship with a core of players all younger than age 25. In 2010, they crashed the party and took the Lakers to 6 games before succumbing to LA's dominance. A year ago they ran into the veteran Mavs team who showed them all the ways that they were not ready to advance. Ironically, both of those chapters in the Thunder's young history are now primary components as to why OKC believes they are ready to move forward.
Not only do we have players in place, but archtypes as well:
- Kevin Durant, the young man who would be willing to be the rare player who understands what it means to want to be a leader.
- Kobe Bryant, the best of the last of the old guard, wanting one more ring to cement his legacy.
- Russell Westbrook, almost like the alien Kal-El who has come to earth and is slowly learning what kind of abilities he truly has.
- Pau Gasol, now operating in the shadow of his little brother's eyes, wanting to show that he's not soft.
- James Harden, the throw-back old school player who was willing to follow in order that he might have an opportunity to lead.
- Harden's newfound nemesis, Metta World Peace.
- Kendrick Perkins, desperately wanting to prove that he would have made a difference in the 2010 Finals, finds himself once again fighting an injury that could limit his success.
- Andrew Bynum, who is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by a mystery.