This article is mainly about the fans and the experience in Oklahoma City. Articles concerning the strategy, analysis, and emotion of the players are upcoming.
I've been to a lot of basketball games, but none were more cataclysmic than what I happened to witness last night. Oklahoma City has watched the air fall out of the balloon before, when Pau Gasol eliminated the Thunder with a clutch putback in 2010. But they've never seen their team crumble before their very eyes, and tonight was like a breaking point for those in the crowd.
For one, everybody in my section of the stands was very adversarial. While the Thunder played one of the ugliest first halves of all time, fans were turning on each other and engaging in shouting matches. In particular, the two guys seated in front of me, who love to criticize the officials calls, had several people started shouting at them and telling them to be quiet. It's something that they've done all year, and nobody really ever gives them any flak for it. But last night, lots of people just wanted a reason to be angry.
There also seemed to be a war going on over when it was proper to stand up. The two gentlemen in front of me were pretty insistent on standing then entire time, as were many people surrounding them. But the people behind them, who mostly had tickets from Chesapeake, seemed to disagree. There were a lot of loud statements in general, and at times I couldn't really tell if it was directed at the refs, the players, or at the people who were standing. My best guess is that it was all three.
As the game headed into halftime, things didn't get much better. The boos rained, and the Thunder had only scored 38 points. When I headed out to the concourse for my ritual drink of water, one guy just started talking to me about how miserable I made everyone, and how I wasn't any bigger of a fan than him just because I stood up. To be fair, I was standing a lot, but it was the first time in five years that I've ever been accosted for how I cheered at a game.
If the first half can be described as a disgruntled mess, then the second half was sheer pandemonium. The Thunder were making serious runs at the Grizzlies, and the fans, sensing the total doom of the situation, finally rose to the occasion. I know that lots of people have made claims about how the Peake has gotten quieter over the years, and it wasn't until last night that I finally realized that they were right.
But what I witnessed in the second half wasn't just loud noise. The anger continued. Countless boos rained down from the stands every time a foul call went the wrong way. One of the guys in front of me was on the verge of having a heart attack, constantly ranting and raving about the foul differential. He got so worked up that another guy from a few rows back walked down to console him, mid-game. It was a very strange moment, because the guy from a few rows up is infamous for shouting really loudly at random intervals and wearing cutoff plaid shirts. I had never seen the two interact before, but the man behind me only had one thing to say. "Don't worry, the game's already been decided." After he finished his sentence, he walked back to his seat, while the man in front of me simply agreed with him.
When the game reached its final moments and the Thunder embarked on an epic comeback, the negativity finally ceased. The crowd united as one, just as they did during the Thunder's playoff runs in years past, and forgot about all of the errors. They were simply hungry for some Kevin Durant magic, and another chance to see tomorrow. Boos were overcome by extremely loud cheers, and the crowd may have played a part in Zach Randolph's missed free throws.
Unfortunately, the Oklahoma City miracle was not to be, and the air was let out of the balloon. It took a long time for the fans to start chanting "O-K-C" after the final buzzer had sounded, and the Thunder hardly acknowledged that there was anything out of the ordinary going on. The whole thing felt like a chore, and everybody knew that this season was a huge failure. But the energy and respect was still there, and to me, that's what was important.
After witnessing the debacle that was this season, I kind of feel like the result was a necessary evil. Oklahoma City has some great fans, but they haven't ever gotten to experience true disappointment. Every year up until this one could be written off as a year of growing, or a year of learning. The Thunder were like a storybook tale, inevitably heading in the direction of a Jordan-like dynasty.
But that's what's so great about the NBA. Nothing is written. You can complain about the officials all you want, but the fact is, the Thunder played a really poor series and just couldn't deliver when it mattered most. The Grizz won fair and square.
Being put through this kind of adversity isn't easy, and it isn't desirable. But it's a definite reality check. The Thunder aren't the Lakers, or the Celtics. There's no guarantee that they're going to be a dynasty for years to come, and there are going to be times in the future where the team really sucks. But, for now at least, the Thunder have a very excellent team, and a solid shot at becoming world champions in 2014. Flaming out in the second round has taught the fans how truly special this time is, and how hairy things can get if the team or the fans don't deliver.
Welcome to the NBA, Oklahoma City. I hope that next year, we're all finally ready to haul the mail.