Oklahoma City Thunder Wins the NBA's Public Perception Championship

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 16, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 14:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 14, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Miami had just evened the NBA Finals with a desperate performance that brought out the transcendence in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and the athletic freak on the losing squad came dressed for an IT convention.

Two nights earlier, Russell Westbrook arrived at the podium in another bizarre outfit, flamboyant and burnished enough to land planes at an international airport. He would not have been out of a place at a fishing tournament for hippies or an Arcade Fire concert.

While Oklahoma City’s electrifying but trigger-happy point guard may have missed his calling standing on a runway to direct air traffic in an emergency, he did not pass up the chance to shoot more than Kevin Durant or anyone else on the floor.

His endless supply of kooky, striking post-game attire could blind an entire nursing-home population and erase more memories than the neuralyzer in the Men in Black movies.

Westbrook is as hard to miss after the action ends as he is when the ball tips and the sweat glands shift into overdrive.

His hipster fashion sense, coupled with a penchant for over dribbling and shot jacking that approaches Stephon Marbury territory, fits the Thunder’s meteoric rise. He is far from the perfect point guard, but so few seem to care because his squad gets the job done.

During ABC’s halftime show, Magic Johnson described Westbrook’s first 24 minutes of Game 2 as the worst point guard play he’s "ever seen in an NBA Finals.” The Laker great assaulted viewers with the worst form of sports hyperbole, but the essence of his criticism hit the mark.

The explosive UCLA product was out of control and maybe his mind.

Challengers, present company from South Beach included, should quiver at the reality that Westbrook, Durant and James Harden can still improve. What if Serge Ibaka becomes a consistent frontcourt scoring weapon?

What if GM Sam Presti beats the small-market odds, Owner Clay Bennett finds a temporary cure for his luxury-tax allergy, and management finds a way to keep all of the key pieces in the fold for at least a decade?

There is no guarantee the Thunder will hoist any Larry O’Brien trophies in that span, even if that happens. The Heat’s own formidable trio spoke up in Game 2 and stole home-court advantage with the next three contests looming in Miami.

A 27-year-old LeBron James needs a champion's confetti bath for his legacy more than a 23-year-old Durant, and he will come harder than ever for the remainder of this spectacular series to get it.

Here, in these compelling Finals, preeminence and paroxysm have mixed to make quite a cocktail, a potent one at that. TV executives will drool and drool some more.

Miami, though, remains the demonized, polarizing foe, still scorned for the way three basketball buddies showboated after congregating via free agency two summers ago.

The Thunder ousted two teams in the Lakers and Spurs that have combined to hang 20 banners. Yet, Oklahoma City, still in its infancy as a franchise, has already secured the title L.A. and San Antonio never will.

Forget the Dallas Cowboys. The Thunder now owns the designation as America’s team, the one most observers outside of Florida and Seattle can love, or at least, tolerate. Do not count on Durant’s club surrendering the coveted status anytime soon.

Westbrook can show up to an interview session in a button-down shirt festooned with fishing lures, an egregious violation of the league’s dress code, and fans and pundits across the country still buy into the shtick—hook, line and sinker—as if this odd clown show merits idolatry.

Oklahoma City’s stars deliver just the right doses of cute and cutthroat. Durant is a killer on the court, a merciless sniper to fear. In his championship series debut, he poured in 17 and 16 fourth-quarter points in the first two jousts at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Between games? He is as reserved and polite as a steakhouse waiter hustling for a generous tip.

He refused to take the bait Thursday night when reporters prodded him about a late no-call on the missed shot that sealed the Heat’s heart-stopping triumph.

“I just missed,” he said (via Yahoo! Sports).

James fouled Durant on the attempt, and that is not debatable. Even Ibaka could not have delivered a more forceful swat than Durant did after a 100-96 loss.

The runner-up in MVP voting deflected his chance to bark about a common crunch-time officiating injustice and put the onus on himself for laying a brick.

There is nothing choreographed or fraudulent about his honorable, always-a-gentleman persona, and Texas coach Rick Barnes would corroborate that.

It is no wonder then that Longhorn supporters continue to cheer Durant’s NBA successes, even though he spent just one year in Austin.

How can a burnt-orange-clad fan not beam with pride watching this young man tear through the big boys league with the measured attitude of a postman completing his mail route and the humility of a guy selling dress socks?

It is difficult to ever imagine him on a smoke-filled stage, prancing, preening and yawping, “not one, not two, not three.” Durant announced the extension that would keep him in OKC for five more years with a Twitter post. No cameras, no national TV audience and no Jim Gray necessary.

Presti has constructed a program primed to win a lot in a way that most perspective-less hoops followers can appreciate.

Westbrook and Durant still take some shots that would make Sam Cassell shake his head in disgust, and yet, enough of them keep going in, and the Thunder seems immune to the mindless criticism that turned the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich, four-time champion Spurs into a vilified ratings disaster.

Flopping, Duncan’s incessant complaining after questionable whistles and a propensity for creating muck-it-up, low-scoring affairs—those were always lame, inexcusable reasons to loathe San Antonio.

Derek Fisher can still act a level that should get the Academy's attention. The squad that sought the 37-year-old veteran's leadership to help it reach the Finals finished in the top five in technical fouls in the regular season.

The cuddly Thunder can do mean.

Two words: Kendrick Perkins. Remember him? Have you seen his goatee?

Viewers tuned in to watch Shaquille O’Neal barrel and shove his way to the rim in dominant displays that were far from graceful. Love him or hate him, a game involving Kobe Bryant still pulls massive numbers.

James represents the ultimate attraction at a three-ring circus or a freak show. How many Americans have flipped over to a Heat game just for the chance to watch him pursue Michael Jordan and Bryant, and up until now, fail?

James is a different but still domineering player, worthy of his own chapter in the NBA’s evolving, extensive history book, free from the burden of becoming something he will never be.

The Thunder has derailed and even eclipsed that sideshow in many ways. The Peake isn’t the only place where people yell “OKC, OKC, OKC.”

Many members of the Red Rowdies, a group of die-hard Houston Rockets fans given free tickets in exchange for raucous chanting and cheering, have taken to posting “Thunder Up” on their Facebook statuses before games.

Most of them would never type the words “Go Spurs Go” in this situation, even if a hypothetical Eastern Conference opponent featured several convicted felons.

They see San Antonio as a hated rival, even though the franchises have met in the postseason once in 17 years. MVP David Robinson entering the Houston locker room to congratulate Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 after his Rockets counterpart upstaged him isn’t contentious.

If there is any bad blood, there shouldn’t be.

Duncan has been a humble superstar for the duration of his career. Competitors whine about foul calls during games. Get over it.

Durant never sounded more like Duncan than when he refused to blame the officials for the Thunder’s loss Thursday night.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been dazzling crowds and befuddling foes with blistering drives, magical passes and scintillating finishes since 2001 and 2003, respectively. They have been every bit as breathtaking as Harden and Westbrook are now.

There is so much to love about Oklahoma City, and yet, there is also a lot for some fanbases to envy.

Thunder faithful put on the free shirts draped over their seats, and they get credit for whiteouts and blue-outs that does not extend to Miami or San Antonio.

Oh, look, a blue-and-white checkerboard in the OKC stands.

Make no mistake: The Peake is as loud as it gets. The decibel level in that arena reaches ear-splitting, deafening heights.

Miami is a dismal sports town where tanning on the beach beats sitting in a brand-new ballpark or at American Airlines Arena. The Heat did not sell all of its season tickets the year after its inaugural title.

That said, the Alamodome and AT&T Center in San Antonio have hosted clamorous crowds worthy of the commendation OKC gets.

The Spur and Thunder models are different, but the principles are the same. Execution is where the Thunder now wins in a landslide.

Maybe more folks not donning silver and black on a regular basis would applaud San Antonio if the head coach and franchise player didn’t so often make themselves so distant.

Popovich knows how to treat a sideline reporter like the annoying pet that just peed on the expensive carpet. In this, ahem, brief exchange with Craig Sager just prior to the fourth quarter of Game 1 in the Western Conference Finals, he pulled off an astonishing feat.

He responded to a pair of Sager queries with a grand total of four words.

“We competed. Same way.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks is rarely as short when pundits ask him questions. Durant does not repudiate pre-game interviews the way Duncan has since his rookie campaign.

Presti is more accessible than Spurs GM R.C. Buford.

This goes back to Westbrook, and how his marvelous talent and goofy press-conference demeanor outshine his faults.

He began Game 2 by missing 8-of-10 shots. He was eager to fire away, no matter the angle or the distance from the rim. His barrage of imbecilic misfires helped Miami run off to an 18-2 start.

He may make some bad decisions with the ball in his hands, but does anyone without a significant rooting interest in this series hate Westbrook? Why should they?

Durant and company make it so easy to focus on what the organization does right.

Even disgruntled, disillusioned Seattle Sonics supporters can admit they detest the way they were robbed of 41 years of history, not the OKC fans or players. They harbor a special kind of distaste for Howard Schulz and David Stern, and they should.

The Thunder has become America’s team in a few short years, and this all could have happened under the lights at Key Arena.

The series shifts to Miami now and so does the pressure.

James will come hard, along with Wade and Bosh, seeking that elusive title. Never underestimate the power of desperation.

The Heat could win the next three games, or three of four, or three of five. It will not matter. The Thunder is America’s team, America’s champion.

Westbrook could land planes with his outfits, but for now, he’ll have to settle for his team landing in the hearts of so many casual fans.

Thunder Up, as if anything associated with this emerging, thriving franchise could ever go down.


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