Just over two weeks ago, the Miami Heat were being roundly ridiculed and dismissed after losing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at home, 94-90, to the Boston Celtics. Just about the lone dissenting voice was a young fan who yelled, insistently and comically, “GOOD JOB! GOOD EFFORT! GOOD JOB! GOOD EFFORT!” as the Heat players exited through the tunnel. Predictably, his earnest exhortations were mostly used as a mocking symbol for the Heat’s futility.
Now the Oklahoma City Thunder are the losers. But instead of a 9-year-old telling them everything’s going to be OK, they’ve got an entire nation of basketball fans and writers doing so. Reading the coverage of last night’s Game 5, Finals-clinching Miami victory, you’d think that the Thunder were an outmanned VCU-style mid-major Cindarella whose luck finally ran out, rather than most experts’ pre-Finals favorite to win the championship. The Thunder had home-court advantage; they had just railed off four straight wins against the regular season’s best team, the Spurs; they employ the NBA’s leading scorer; they have a guy who would be the best player on most teams in the NBA coming off the bench. For a team that just turned those assets into an uninspiring five-game series loss, they've largely avoided criticism. (When Miami got beat in six games by an underdog last year, their hearts, souls, and right to exist were challenged by every man, woman, and humanoid lizard/Skip Bayless in America.) Even ESPN.com’s normally on-the-ball pundits were quite upbeat when discussing the Thunder this morning, as if getting thoroughly run out of town (by a team that’s not going anywhere, mind you) was an uplifting step toward an inevitable triumph, rather than the kind of towel-toss that the Lakers were (rightfully) attacked for turning in in 2008’s game six against the Celtics. The Thunder are said to have no reason to hang their heads, as if it were a pity that one team had to lose such a titanic battle. No way: when you are the longest, most athletic team in the league and MIKE MILLER, a man whose contract can only be explained as cap-filler in the deal Satan swung for Pat Riley’s soul, lights you up for 23 points on 7-8 three point shooting, you better hang your head. If watching Miller clownishly adopt a super-intense self-congratulatory defensive crouch for the first four or five seconds of your shot clock after canning yet another wide-open three doesn’t inspire you to guard the guy on the next possession, your competitiveness can fairly be called into question.
The Thunder haven’t become an unlikable team. Kevin Durant is still both incredible and unassuming. His teammates seem to genuinely like one another and enjoy playing together. They’ve got some of the game’s best fans. But that’s exactly why I don’t feel like letting them off the hook. It’s not that they lost – it’s that they were out-hustled and outsmarted and GAVE UP halfway through the third quarter of a deciding NBA Finals game. With five minutes left to go in the third, their strategy had already devolved into the kind of resigned, indiscriminate three-point jacking that’s more commonly seen in February garbage time. Their defensive strategy was admittedly a bit craftier, attempting to draw the Heat into an existential crisis by offering them the choice between open threes and open dunks. It was a shame not just for Thunder rooters but for anyone who saw the potential for an all-time great series between the two teams.
The Thunder seem to have internalized the questionable but seemingly universal belief that they are destined to win a title. But injury and infighting and simple bad luck have kept even the most promising young athletes from championships—think of Dan Marino, who lost a Super Bowl in his second season and never made it back, or more recently the great Trail Blazers and Kings teams that never made it over the top. I hope the Thunder make many appearances in the NBA Finals. But I hope they start treating each one like it’s their last.