Game 1 of the second round playoff series between the Thunder and Lakers begins tonight. With recent events however, it is almost as if the actual match-up has taken a back seat to the building drama between James Harden and Metta World Peace. MWP's elbow and subsequent refusal to acknowledge Harden on the court has led to a round of chatter about a player's duty to show respect, the concept of revenge, and how the two competing forces will play out in this series.
Revenge on a basketball court is tricky business. Unlike in hockey or football, there isn't much cover offered for players to engage in clandestine fisticuffs. Furthermore, with the eye in the sky always watching, even something that gets missed by the referees may still find its way to David Stern's office. It is risky to the point where looking for an opportunity to exact revenge, Alexandre Dumas-style, is practically impossible. Furthermore, the instigator is MWP, a guy who practically invites a dirty blade to the knife fight.
What to do then...what to do?
There is really only one thing that can be done that truly matters, but the ability is only owned by a select few throughout NBA history. Here are a few examples:
1. Michael Jordan's "LaBradford Smith Game."
There were few things more enjoyable in my NBA-watching childhood than watching Jordan follow up a sub-par game. Any time he either lost a game or did not play well I knew that the next game would be a must-watch event, because he was almost always on a seek-and-destroy mission.
In 1993, a young player for Washington named LaBradford Smith had his moment to shine by scoring 37 points on Jordan while Jordan himself struggled. Jordan never liked getting shown up, especially by a youngster, so the next time the two played, which just happened to be the very next night, Jordan was on the hunt from the get-go. MJ devoured the kid by scoring 36 points on him...in the first half.
2. Michael Jordan in the 1993 Finals
The Bulls had won back-to-back championships, but public sentiment was that their time might be passing as the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns finished with the best record in the season and Sir Charles won the MVP award. The 1993 Finals was to serve notice that Barkley was Jordan's equal.
Heh, far from it. Jordan used the hype surrounding the Suns as well as Barkley's personal accolades to fuel his fire and then systematically destroyed the Suns almost by himself. It is one thing to get revenge on a game to game basis, but in this Finals Jordan served notice that nobody, even his good buddy Charles, had the right to wrestle the crown from him. If they tried, they were going to get embarrassed.
I distinctly remember Bill Walton, who was doing studio commentary for the Finals, exclaim after the 1st quarter of the very first game, "This series is OVER." Walton knew it, and so did we.
3. Hakeem Olajuwon destroys David Robinson and the rest of the world
Olajuwon is one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. We knew this even before the 1995 playoffs started, in part because in the season before he finally took his Houston Rockets to the top of the mountain. In the 1995 season however his team underperformed, entering the playoffs as a 6th seed. Further rubbing salt in the wound, Houston had to watchtheir in-state rivals the Spurs run out to the best record in the league and their Top 50 big man David Robinson win the league's MVP award.
Olajuwon responded with one of the most notorious shamings of a personal rival that we've ever seen. Despite the fact that Robinson was a former Defensive Player of the Year, Olajuwon turned him into a dazed and confused spectator.
With Jordan and Olajuwon, you can see that the ability to exact true revenge is reserved for the select few all-time greats who understand how to channel their emotion into heightened performance. Furthermore, they possessed the ability to actually win the battle before anyone even stepped on the court. Jordan was a mental mastermind, and Olajuwon arguably altered the rest of Robinson's career.
Which leads us back to the Thunder. When MWP walks onto the court tonight, we have an idea of the type of reception he will receive from the OKC fans. We do not yet know how he will be received by the Thunder players though. If we're talking about exacting revenge however, there is only one guy on the court who has the ability to do it, and it just so happens to be the guy MWP will be guarding - Kevin Durant.
Does KD have it in him? Can he lace up his own "Air Jordans" and put MWP and the Lakers on notice? Would OKC even want him to try?
To me, that's the greatest potential momentous drama that we might see, even though the likelihood is small. We want the Thunder to win and that is ultimately all that matters. That said, there is a small but significant part of me that imagines Durant taking Harden aside before they walk out for Game 1 and whisper to him, "James, I got your back on this. I'm going to destroy him for you."
Durant could become a stone cold killah, and besides, it is best served cold, anyway.