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Sounds of Thunder: the NBA road, unlike the NCAA, leaves no room for excuses

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In the NBA, unlike college sports, everything gets distilled to the essence of whether or not one team is better than the other. Are the Thunder?

I have been an Oklahoma Sooners fan my entire life. When Arthur M. Alden improvised the notes and lyrics from Yale University's Boola Boola in 1905 and added a modified stanza from North Carolina's I'm a Tarheel Born a year later to form OU's fight song Boomer Sooner, he was thinking of me:

I'm a Sooner born and Sooner bred
and when I die, I'll be Sooner dead
Rah Oklahoma, Rah Oklahoma
Rah Oklahoma, OK U!

Boomer Sooner!

My love for the Sooners began almost 50 years ago in 1966 when I was just 7 years old. I remember one Saturday turning on the old black and white TV and there was a football team from Oklahoma playing and thinking how great that was, and I watched the whole game. In those days, halftime featured the bands playing and it was the first time I ever watched the "Pride of Oklahoma" marching band doing their thin. As they finished their set striding off the field playing Boomer Sooner, the camera panned the cheering crowd and someone holding up a sign that read "Sooner born and Sooner bred." I remember thinking, I'm Sooner born, I'm Sooner bred, it was the first time I watched OU vs Texas, OU won for the first time since 1957, the fans went crazy and I was hooked.

For me, it was all about football in those days. That first game in 1966 was during Jim Mackenzie's only season as head coach. He died that following spring at age 37 from a heart attack but on the coaching staff he assembled was the foundation of the "Wishbone Era."

Upon Coach Mackenzie's death, first year assistant Chuck Fairbanks, who had turned down an offer to be Missouri's head coach within 4 years to join OU's staff, was named Mackenzie's replacement. After a sluggish 2-1 start in 1970 and "Chuck Chuck" bumper stickers all the rage, offensive coordinator Barry Switzer convinced Fairbanks to dump the traditional I-formation for the Wishbone, an amped up version of the Houston veer offense with 3 running backs rather than 2.

The rest is college football history:

Gregg Pruitt, 1970 and 1971

"Little Joe" Washington, 1974 and 1975

and the greatest Wishbone running back of all time....

Billy Sims, 1977 and 1978

Many of the OU faithful that are reading this are probably wondering, and hating, why out of all the YouTube options I had to choose from of Billy Sims' OU career, I chose the one that finishes with the infamous fumble that cost the Sooners the 1978 National Championship? It is because of what followed.

Nebraska won that game and had the Big 8 Championship all but sewed up until they lost to Missouri the next week. That produced a tie for the league title, but the agreement with the Orange Bowl was that in case of a tie, if one of the two teams involved had gone to the bowl the previous season, the other would get the automatic bid. Ironically, OU had blown an almost sure National Championship the season before when they lost to Arkansas. (more on that later)

However, the Orange Bowl committee did something unprecedented. They invited OU to Miami for a rematch. Nobody saw that one coming, especially the Cornhuskers.

Rewind a year...The previous Orange Bowl was a nightmare for OU fans that wasn't going away without some sort of redemption. After winning the Big 8 easily, the Sooners had come to Miami ranked #2 and rolling. In fact, the Orange Bowl committee was forced to go 3 or 4 teams down their list before they could find anyone willing to play that game. That anyone was Lou Holtz and the #6 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks.

Favored immediately, Sooner confidence was running high and when Holtz was forced to suspend four of his offensive starters and the line ballooned until the Sooners were a 24 point favorite. The game and a National Championship after a Texas loss in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the day was deemed a foregone conclusion.

That is, until kick-off.

It was widely rumored that the Sooners and their coaches enjoyed their week in South Beach that year... a lot... and back to back fumbles to start the game that led to Razorback touchdowns and the resignation of Switzer's long time friend and defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell in the immediate aftermath of that debacle would appear to back that up. After two more fumbles, Switzer was forced to bench quarterback Thomas Lott, and the rout was on. A depleted Arkansas offense ran wild and OU's hopes for the title went up in a 31-6 puff of smoke.

Much like the Sims fumble at the Nebraska 3 yard line the following season, the title was right there, and then it wasn't. Now you see it, now you don't, just like a cheap magician's trick.

Fast forward to the rematch....While Cornhusker fans were outraged, the Sooner faithful were delighted for a do-over because you don't normally get a second chance at the college level. I have attended one Orange Bowl in my life, and this was it. I learned three things that January. First,  compared to the store-bought variety, tree ripened grapefruit is absolutely amazing. Second, single game match-ups don't determine who is the better team, simply who is better that day. And finally, complacency was a real problem for Switzer's Sooners.

After a 5 year winless streak against OU to begin his coaching tenure, legendary Cornhusker coach "Dr. Tom" Osborne had finally broken through. It took 9 OU fumbles, including the final and fatal drop by Sims at the Husker's 3 yard line to do it, but Dr. Tom had finally beaten Barry Switzer and Husker Nation rejoiced....and then came the Orange Bowl's announcement.

As a head coach, Switzer had never lost to the Huskers. Furthermore, no player on that 1978 roster had ever lost to Nebraska and they played that way the day the Sooners lost in Lincoln. And just like the Razorbacks a year earlier, the Sooners took the Huskers too lightly and the better team lost that day. The proof to that is that even though they won the game in Lincoln, after the Cornhuskers fell to Missouri they came into the rematch ranked 6th, two spots under the Sooners.

I didn't get much of a feel for the buildup to the game. The plan was for my family to get to Miami two days prior to the game, but the RV we were in had other ideas. Let's put it this way, the trip was eventful and we didn't arrive until late in the night before the game. However, what I did see was the difference in the Sooners when they came out on the field. Sure, there was the traditional dog-pile coming out of the tunnel, but rather than the high fives and silliness that generally followed, there were a few helmet slaps and then it seemed like the entire team just glared across the field at their opponents.

Something was very very different, and by the end of the third quarter the Sooners held a 31-10 lead, and take it from me, it wasn't that close.

As I said, it was always football in those days, but after the rematch and Sims and Lott left the program, the Sooner football team had some pretty lean years by Switzer standards, even finishing outside the top 25 of the AP poll for the first time in Switzer's career in 1983. Sooner basketball had always been just a blip on my radar even during Alvin Adams career, but that changed soon after a feisty little coach named Billy Tubbs showed up in Norman. Just when Switzer's team was dropping out of the rankings, Tubbs team was leading OU to the Big 8 title for the first time in 5 seasons, and their style of play got my attention.

There is really no other way to put it; "Billy-Ball" was fun. It started with running, continued with running, and ended with running. The 45 second shot clock? What shot clock? We don't need no stinking shot clock! The current NBA 24 shot clock would have been more than generous for those Tubbs' teams, and the fun didn't stop on offense because the Sooner's pressed on defense on virtually every possession. By 1988, they were almost unstoppable.

Pressure, pressure, pressure, run, run, run. Any team that was foolish enough to try and stay up with the 1988 Sooners perished in an ugly fashion. The only hope an opponent had was to slow the pace, and that only happened if the Sooners' shots weren't falling and they couldn't press effectively, but even then the pressure never stopped. Most teams just simply wilted late, even those desperately trying to slow the game down, and Tubbs' boys would finish them off with uncontested lay-ups.

That was the recipe that beat the Kansas Jayhawks twice in that season. Kansas would try to turn the game into a half court slugfest and the Sooners would keep pressing. Eventually the Jayhawks would tire and the Sooners would win rather easily. I was in Lloyd Noble Center for the second meeting on February 24th, 1988. At halftime the score was OU 35 and KU 32. The Jayhawks had slowed the pace, but they had put in a ton of work doing it.

I have a vivid memory from that game of Jayhawks star Danny Manning slumped over during a Mookie Blaylock free throw and hanging onto his game shorts so hard they were stretched to his knees. I'm talking these shorts:

I remember wondering how Manning was able to stretch those hip huggers that far without mooning everyone behind him. He was exhausted, his head was sagging, sweat was dripping so heavily off his face it was pooling at his feet... and there were still 8 minutes left in the game. In a word, the Jayhawks were toast and the easy Sooner buckets started falling and a close game became another 8 point win over Kansas.

Fast forward to April 4th, 1988. Twenty-four years ago today. The day my illusions about college basketball and my TV died.

The Sooners had literally flown to the NCAA Final with a winning margin of over 20 points in four games, including an 18 point dismantling of #2 ranked Arizona Wildcats and their star, current Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, in the semi-final game. The only thing standing between the Sooners and immortality was Danny and the Miracles, a team the Sooners had beaten already...twice.

The recipe was there and it was proven: run Manning to death and take home the trophy. The image of the halftime score is forever etched in my memory. Oklahoma 50, Kansas 50. We had them. I had already caught Manning pulling on those shorts a few minutes before the midway point. There was no way he would hold up for 20 more minutes of this.

Then it happened. The unthinkable. The Sooners stopped running!!!

The teams came out of the locker room and the Sooners missed a few shots and the Jayhawks made a few and took a lead. Tubbs called timeout and rather than just doing what got them to the show in the first place the Sooners started playing Kansas's game.... half court. They stopped running, they stopped pressing. I remember a shot of Larry Brown, the Jayhawk head coach winking at one of his assistant.

Personally I have always felt Brown pulled off the most colossal bluff in NCAA College hoops history and Tubbs bit.

I begged. I pleaded. I screamed, "RUN!!" You know how you do it even though you are 600 miles away. Of course no one heard me and the Sooners lost their best shot at their first ever hoops title, 83-79 and my 25" TV bore the brunt of my wrath and plummeted to an untimely demise off my 2nd story balcony.

When I mentioned that loss yesterday in one of our daily WTLC staff discussions, J.A. Sherman said there was no shame losing to the best player in the country that year, And it's true, that is exactly what Manning was...

Naismith College Player of the Year (1988)
John R. Wooden Award (1988)
NABC Player of the Year (1988)

and of course...

NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (1988).

(grrrrrrr..... twenty-four years and it still gives me a case of the red ass)

...and Sherm would be absolutely right if Tubbs hadn't thrown away the road map that led him to victory over Manning twice already!!

Manning was the best player and went on to play in the NBA for 15 years, but OU had the best team with 3 players that went on to play in the NBA:

"The General", Harvey Grant, 11 year career.

Stacey King, 8 year career

and Mookie Blaylock, a 13 year career including:

NBA All-Star (1994)
2× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1994-1995)
4× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1996-1999)
2× NBA steals leader (1997-1998)

The narrative that night was about how hard it is to beat a team 3 times in one season, but the truth is, if OU actually ran, Kansas might beat them once or twice out of ten tries. That's the primary flaw with March Madness and why the NBA way of determining a champion is better.

Barring catastrophic injury, a seven game series pretty much eliminates excuses. The best team generally comes out on top. Not always, because there are exceptions, but it is much better test than the one and done format we witness every March.

There is justifiable doubt about this Oklahoma City Thunder team going into the playoffs, and another loss after taking a lead into the fourth quarter against the Rockets for the same reasons that have plagued the team all season didn't help.

The Sooners made it to the Final Four this season for the first time in 14 years and were plastered, completely, by Villanova, 95-51. Judging the two teams strictly by this score one would say that Villanova is undeniably the best team. While that may be true, the Sooners handed the Wildcats a 23 point beat down less than 3 months ago.

Did that lopsided victory in December play into what happened to the Sooners on Saturday? Was OU overconfident? Who knows, but if you taped the entire game, take a look back at the player intros. Every Villanova player came on the floor with a controlled hard look in their eyes. No gyrations, no smiles, no compromise. They simply marched stoically into the biggest game of their lives like soldiers about to go into battle and I don't think I can remember a team playing a more perfect game from start to finish...ever.

I saw that same look when the Sooners took the field in Miami in 1979, and I saw that same look in the eyes of the Jayhawks 24 years ago today. I didn't see that look in the Sooners eyes the other day, and when the Wildcats took a 12 point lead in the first half, I turned off my TV and moved on. It wasn't going to happen, not that day. I checked the updates from time to time, they were shocking, but I wasn't all that surprised by that point.

I saw that same look with the Rockets when Houston took the floor yesterday but not on the Thunder end, and the Rockets are now in much better control of their own destiny. I did see it when the Thunder played the Raptors not long ago, and I also saw what the Thunder are capable of when the ball moves, the defense has teeth, and everyone is involved. Yesterday we saw what happens when none of those things happen.

There are only 5 games remaining in the regular season, and the stagnation issue is looming larger and larger every day. Even after the win in Toronto Serge had this to say:

"You play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you're going to be out there in the corner for 4, 5, 6, sometimes 8 minutes and you don't touch the ball."

And even though he quickly followed with...

"Russell and Kevin are doing a better job moving the ball... making us to feel a part of the team."'s out there now. There's a problem.

Kenny Smith had this to say about the Thunder's situation:

"When you have arguably two of the top five basketball players in the world on one team, when they get the ball as great players as Charles Barkley did, as Shaq did as well, every time they feel they have the advantage....

(another Barkley quip interrupted Smith at this point no doubt but based on what he said next I think it is safe to assume he was going to say "they took it")

However, for continuity of the game, your advantage sometimes is a disadvantage because when you don't allow guys to be participating, then they shy away from moments."

Shying away from the moment. Was that what we saw when Durant kicked the ball to an open Serge Ibaka when the Rockets game was still within reach with 1:16 remaining? I'm not so sure. On a previous possession with 2:47 remaining, Serge was wide open and in a perfect position to receive a lob dunk, but Westbrook opted for the contested floater. He made it, but it wasn't the best option.

Next possession, Thunder were still down by 4. Serge circled around the defense and was totally ignored. Again he was in position for the easy lob dunk, but Westbrook passed it to Durant. This only served to open Serge even more but KD opted for the contested floater, another bad decision, and this time the shot was blocked.

The Thunder got the stop at the other end with 1:30 remaining. Rather than sprinting down the floor, Serge jogged. Rather than working back to the position near the basket for the easy lob, Serge just hung out near the 3 point line. Westbrook dribbled out the shot clock until he was finally able to get the ball to Durant with 5 seconds left on the shot clock. Houston sent the double team and KD kicked the ball out to Serge for an open 3 point shot with 3 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Serge didn't shoot. He passed the ball to Waiters for the corner 3 with only 1.7 on the clock. Waiters pump faked and tries to drive, then passed to Westbrook, and then the shot clock expired.

Waiters may have shied from the moment, but not Serge. I think he denied the moment intentionally and for good reason. He was 0 for 4 from beyond the arc, and after being ignored when he had position for the high percentage lob it is my opinion that he basically shot KD and Westbrook the old Congan finger for being thrust in a position to fail and passed the ball to Waiters... and you wanna know something... I DON'T BLAME HIM!

His defense late in the Houston game was outstanding, and he put himself into positions to help the team on the other end, but was ignored on back to back possessions. Both of those possessions should have been money, and with 1:16 remaining and only 3 on the shot clock maybe Serge takes that three with confidence and makes it. He was due after all and then the Thunder are up one rather than down four with time running out.

The question has been asked: what is wrong with Serge? Donovan has rested him in two recent games, so he must be fatigued. Close, Serge is tired alright, but not the bone weary kind of tired, he is the sick and tired kind of fatigued. Sick and tired of seeing the same crap he has been putting up with for five long years.

In all fairness and in KD and Russell's defense, I think, at times, they are trying to break the cycle, but they have to do it when it matters most and not just when it's easy. They have to trust their teammates enough to let them fail and get comfortable when it is their time to take the big shot and they only have 5 games left to convince anyone that is ever going to happen.


Wasting 15 to 20 seconds of shot clock just to pass the ball 5 feet to Durant when he is 30 feet from the basket is a complete waste of time and manpower. Bring the ball up the court, if Durant is covered, there are 3 other options, MOVE THE BALL. The result will be an active and engaged team and not just two guys taking on five. Every time, first quarter, fourth quarter, no exceptions. Up four, down four, no exceptions, MOVE THE BALL.

I've argued for Anthony Morrow to get more minutes, but the truth is, it doesn't matter if it is AMo or Scooby-Doo out there if KD and Russell don't consistently share the ball for 48 minutes, but especially at crunch time. It's not fair to expect a role player to simply turn it on and turn it off on a whim or in a moment of desperation and much easier to develop when a season isn't on the line.

It all goes back to what Kenny Smith was talking about and grooming one's teammates for the moment. I've seen what this team can do when the Thunder super-duo share the ball. So has the entire basketball world. They have the road map to success. Billy Donovan has handed it to them. Signed, sealed and delivered. It is entirely up to KD and Russell to decide if they are going to force opponents to beat that working formula 4 times in seven meetings...or not.

Golden State has already proven three times this season that they can beat the Thunder's two man game in the fourth quarter. They have never faced the five man version. At this point there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. But there are only 5 games left to prepare. It's sink or swim time.

(this post will self destruct on April 13th, it won't mean much after that)