— Lightning usually occurs before thunder is experienced. In Oklahoma City, the NBA’s Thunder created those phenomena simultaneously.
It seems that way, at least, on several levels. Not long after the team was first viewed in a flash on the horizon, the Thunder suddenly made noise by reaching the 2012 NBA Finals. Kevin Durant and LeBron James, perhaps the two most brilliant players in the game, are pitted against each other in a raucous game of thrones. After enough glimpses of dazzle, the general public, in a flash, now echoes the names James Harden and Serge Ibaka with household-word frequency.
And then there’s the Thunder’s actual game — personified by Russell Westbrook, basketball’s version of Usain Bolt — which is so speedy that it sometimes causes slow-motion replay software to crash.
What probably won’t be preposterously quick is the Thunder’s reign in the West. That figures to be a rather long, drawn-out process that lasts for years to come.
The “Tropic Thunder” Finals begin Tuesday night with Game 1 in Oklahoma City. The Miami Heat survived a seventh-game test against the battle-weary Boston Celtics to arrive at this point. Yet the Thunder got here much like a dragster moves — a period of engine rev (Games 1 and 2 vs. San Antonio), followed by a blast and a blur, leaving only tread marks behind.
These Finals will mostly be about LeBron, at least from the short-term perspective. He’s “The Decision” maker. He’s the guy who doesn’t come through in the clutch, except of course for Games 6 and 7 of the recent Eastern Conference finals. He’s the greatest player on Earth with no rings, having been skunked in previous Finals tries with Cleveland in 2007 (a 4-0 sweep by the Spurs) and last year with Miami against Dallas.
But most hoop anthropologists are fascinated more with the Thunder. Culturally, the populace is usually taken with the young and the talented. Not that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are ready for white shoes, leisure suits and early bird dinners. It’s just that the Thunder is such a rare assemblage of burgeoning talent that it’s impossible not to think to yourself, “Are you kidding me?” when gazing upon their future.
Only two regulars — Nick Collison (31) and Derek Fisher (37) are in their 30s. The starters and remaining core players are still coming into their own. Durant, the three-time scoring champion is just 23. So is Westbrook. Ibaka and Harden are 22. Backup point guard Eric Maynor (out because of an injury) is 24. That makes defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha (28) and forward Kendrick Perkins (27) the veterans of the twentysomethings.
Durant is the new Kobe. He has no fear when it comes to taking a big shot, and more and more the rest of the NBA has no doubt when he takes it. He's also a humble superstar who is a perfect fit for Oklahoma City’s small-town vibe. Also, he seems to be happy there. Chances are there isn’t a press conference in his future to announce to which city he will defect.
Westbrook is a spectacular point guard who is often unstoppable in transition, either for layups or short pull-up jumpers. And eventually he will mature so that his decision-making increases in quality and his emotional outbursts decrease in frequency.
Harden and Ibaka are the wild cards, only in terms of their futures. Both are eligible for contract extensions this summer. But if both get one, the Thunder will have some serious luxury tax issues to consider, since both Durant and Westbrook are locked up to long-term deals. If the Thunder can keep the high-scoring Harden and shot-blocking wizard Ibaka, it will endure in the West much like the Lakers and Spurs have for several years now.
One of the great misconceptions about potential championship contenders is the idea that if a team has the pieces in place, it will automatically thrash all comers. Whoa there. There are factors that might thwart the Thunder in the coming seasons, which threaten all clubs in that position.
An injury to a key player, of course, is the obvious one; just look at Chicago with Derrick Rose. There are personnel changes that sometimes might seem small but make a large difference — Sefolosha has two more seasons on his current deal until he’s a free agent, for instance.
And then there is the mental grind of vying for a title year after year. It’s fun and games when you’re hungry and competing for that first one. It’s a grueling survival course when you’re the target and everybody is attacking to seize what you have. That explains why most teams have trouble repeating.
The Thunder isn’t worried about all that at present. Durant & Co., under the outstanding direction of head coach Scott Brooks and general manager Sam Presti, are fixated on creating a blend of sound and spectacle that reverberates across the land for years.
Alas, the city of Seattle has had more than its share of roars in the clouds and bolts of bright light. But none since 2008 has involved professional basketball. The citizenry there can only look on with envy as the Thunder establishes OKC as a premium brand. That came about after some shenanigans and lawsuits, but what relocation in major professional sports hasn’t involved shenanigans and lawsuits?
No, the Thunder is there (in Oklahoma) to stay, and here (on the national stage) to stay. Other teams in the West will challenge, of course. The Grizzlies and Clippers are young and on the rise, while the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks have championship intentions embedded in their DNA. Perhaps Minnesota, Portland, Houston and Denver will join the party, too.
But this moment in history is reserved for the Thunder, at least the Western half. You don’t have to worry about blinking and missing it. It’s a work of art, and masterpieces tend to remain on display for a while.