Recently the Oklahoma Thunder upset the Los Angeles Lakers 91-75, but lead 80-47 after three quarters. It was a tremendous win for a young core of players who are set to make their first playoff appearance this year. They out-worked, out-shot and out-played the reigning NBA Champions.
However, only the most ardent Thunder fans would be so bold as to say the Thunder, lead by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are better than the Lakers. The Thunder, with a record (as of this writing) of 44-28 and a +3.5 scoring per game differential, are a solid playoff caliber team and are clearly improving each year.
In comparison Los Angeles Lakers, a.k.a. last season's NBA Champions, have a 54-19 record along with a +5.8 scoring per game differential.
So what gives? How did the Oklahoma City Thunder not just beat, but destroy the Lakers? Clearly the superior team from the tip-off to the game ending buzzer, the answer must lie not in talent, but in motivation.
Any teams performance in any game can be roughly approximated by what I call the "Performance Model". The Performance Model says that on any given night, a team plays at a level that is a combination of their intrinsic skill (Pau Gasol is a better center than Hasheem Thabeet) and effort (Dennis Rodman played harder than Kwame Brown).
And on this night we had Thunder, a young and hungry team, at home, facing the defending champions. It was a measuring stick game.
Not just the team but the entire city is preparing for their first plunge into the playoffs together. They were focused and energized.
The Thunder will likely finish the season somewhere between 8th and 5th in the Western Conference standings. Virtually every day their place in the standings changes and the seedings along with it.
The Los Angeles Lakers touched down at Will Rogers World Airport riding a seven game winning streak and on the second game of a five game road trip. Most importantly, they had a five game lead over the (then) second place Denver Nuggets.
They were cruising through the last quarter of the season, playing well but not prepared for the madhouse they were about to enter.
So while the Lakers had the skill advantage, the Thunder had the energy. The Performance Model justifies the rightful victory of the Thunder over the less focused Lakers.