MIAMI – The Oklahoma City Thunder have been the model for fresh-faced owners, drafting well, sparing themselves expensive free agents and delivering a rapid rise to prominence. Yet young is young, and there's a reason teams so short on experience seldom ever win championships. For the Thunder, it shows itself in ways that can still be their undoing in these NBA Finals.
For all the precociousness of the Thunder, there's a belief within the franchise that getting out of Oklahoma City for Sunday's Game 3 provides a benefit. They dug themselves immense deficits to start the series' first two games, and within the locker room there was a belief the Thunder's inexperience caused them to try too hard in a city overcome by NBA Finals hype, to want to knock out the Miami Heat in one roundhouse right. No one's beating the Heat that way, not Magic, Worthy and Kareem – never mind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
"That's been the pattern," Thunder guard Derek Fisher said. "For as much as it is about new stars and up-and-coming players, teams that have won championships in recent years have been those with veterans, with experienced guys. We're in the process of trying to rewrite that."
So they come to Miami for Game 3, and Westbrook stands defiant of his 20-for-50 shooting in the series, and Fisher and Kendrick Perkins had to play the part of tough-guy veterans to ease the frustration of Harden after he got only six shots in a Game 1 victory, sources said. Fisher and Perkins reminded Harden the Thunder had won a Finals game and nothing else mattered. Coach Scott Brooks is still apart with management on a new contract, and two of the front office's top executives, Troy Weaver and Rob Hennigan, are in demand for general manager openings.
For all the talk that the Thunder have years of chances to win titles, there's the foreboding knowledge that free agency could whisk away Harden or Serge Ibaka sooner than later. Oklahoma City is deeper than these Heat, but there's a desperation that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have that has to be matched in these Finals. There's an understanding of the preciousness of every possession, every pass, every shot. That's why veteran teams win, and that's why, as Fisher says, the Thunder have to rewrite the blueprint with the 23-and-under core of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
For Brooks, everyone is clamoring for dramatic change now. They want Harden moved into the starting lineup, and he's wisely not doing it. He understands his young team pressed at home, that the Thunder were caught up in the euphoria of a city that had never imagined hosting the NBA Finals so quickly. To lose Game 2 and then shift Harden into the starting lineup would exude a measure of panic that is the furthest thing from what these Thunder need now.
What's more, Brooks is still working to solidify his own future as Oklahoma City coach. GM Sam Presti wants him back when his contract expires at the end of the Finals, but league sources say Presti has offered a three-year deal worth just under $11 million that Brooks and his agent weren't willing to accept in the past. They've set aside talks for the playoffs, and compromise could come with a guaranteed fourth year. The Thunder needed to see Brooks take one more step with this young team before committing too far into the long term, and Brooks delivered with a conference final victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
It isn't beyond possibility that Brooks tries to use the Portland and Orlando jobs as leverage at season's end, but it's hard to imagine him walking away from this Thunder core – with or without a title. And for all the Thunder's bluffing, let's be honest: Who are they going to hire? Presti is controlling in the way he runs the Thunder, and there are a lot of strong-minded, opinionated coaches who'd never fit into his culture.
Eventually, the Thunder and Brooks will find their way to a long-term commitment. Between now and then, Oklahoma City is trying to rewrite history's blueprint and obliterate the premise that young doesn't win titles in the NBA. This a telltale week for the future of the franchise, three games in South Florida to define so much who the Thunder are and what they'll be in the annals of the NBA.
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