|OKC fans have played a major role for the Thunder, who are perfect at home this postseason. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- If commissioner David Stern wanted to make the 2012 NBA Finals really interesting, he'd flip-flop the home-court advantage. Just do like he did in the nixed Chris Paul trade and make stuff up on the fly.
Decree that the Eastern Conference shall have home-court advantage, even though the Thunder had a better regular-season record than either finalist from the East, Boston and Miami, because East comes before West in the alphabet. Or because of the threat of El Nino at Oklahoma City for Game 1. Or killer bees. Something. Anything.
Otherwise, we have the worst kind of NBA Finals imaginable. We have one devoid of drama, because I have to be frank with you:
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If the Thunder have four games at home, the Thunder will win the NBA Finals. Can't see them losing here, maybe because I never have seen them lose here, and I've been here a bunch of times. If I've ever seen the Thunder lose at home, it's been washed from my memory, perhaps by all the noise, noise, noise from the past week when they were spanking the Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
The facts say the Thunder didn't have the best home record in the NBA -- technically speaking, they're tied with Miami with seven home losses on the season, including the playoffs, one more than the Spurs. But factually speaking, the Thunder played without starting guard Thabo Sefolosha for three of those home losses and without Sixth Man of the Year James Harden for another. At full strength, the Thunder went two months without a loss at home. At full strength, the Thunder are 8-0 at home in the playoffs. At full strength, the Thunder have lost just three times at home all season.
Which is three more than I can understand, because this home-court edge is something special.
Maybe, to be completely honest, my heart is getting ahead of my facts. And the facts say the Thunder have indeed lost seven times at home this season, three times at full strength, and the facts also say that whoever visits Chesapeake Energy Arena next week will be an NBA finalist, one of the best two teams in the league -- more than capable of winning a game on the road, even at a place as loud as Oklahoma City.
But the heart says something else. That this place is special, unique even in the NBA. A game at Oklahoma City offers the best of basketball -- NBA talent, college atmosphere.
And the college atmosphere trumps the NBA atmosphere. NBA crowds are loud, but college crowds are louder. NBA crowds drift in and out of the game, brought back by something startling on the court or by the scoreboard urging them to get loud. NBA fans are good at reading the scoreboard and getting loud.
College fans? They don't need to be told to get loud. They are loud. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Gonzaga, Kentucky -- loud. The loudest arena in my experience is Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, a tiny little place that crams 9,314 people inside and the noise has nowhere to go. It bounces off the low ceilings and tight walls and ricochets around the gym until the game ends, when your ears literally start to ache. It's like an audio version of that deep-sea diving phenomenon known as the bends: The noise shuts off so fast, the pressure leaves so quickly, that the ear drums become a drug addict in withdrawal.
That's the Thunder arena, too. It's so loud, for so long, that when the game ends and the noise shuts off, your ears start to ache. That happened to me Wednesday night after Game 6, and it has never happened to me in an NBA arena. I've been to games at more than half the NBA arenas, mostly for the playoffs, and it's never happened.
The Spurs crumbled in the second half, crumbled beneath the weight of the age difference with the younger Thunder, the speed difference with the faster Thunder, and the shot-making difference with the Kevin Durant-led Thunder. But the Spurs also crumbled beneath the noise, the energy. They scored 36 points in the second half, and as the Thunder completed their rally from 18 points down and kept hitting shots, kept making stops, started to pull away, the Spurs were no longer going 5-on-5. They were going 5-on-18,203, which is the capacity at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder's motto this year is "Team is One," but they know what they have here. They have the best home crowd in the NBA, and they honored that by handing out blue T-shirts before Game 4 that read, "Team is 18,203."
"Best fans in the NBA," Sefolosha said after Game 6. "That first half wasn't good at all, but they stuck with us and in the second half we turned it around and they were there. It was great to give back to them."
It's a reciprocal arrangement here. Two years ago when the Thunder were eliminated at home by the Lakers -- I'll be damned, I was there for a Thunder loss at home -- the crowd gave a standing ovation. It was gratitude for a great season, and I don't mean the crowd stood and cheered on its way out of the building.
The crowd stood and cheered for damn near five minutes.
In the Thunder locker room, the players heard it. And they were a mess.
"They're pretty emotional in there," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "Because of the crowd."
It's symbiotic here in Oklahoma City, unlike anything I've ever seen in the NBA. It's like this: One of the most famous rappers in the world, Lil Wayne, wanted to parachute into town for Game 3 against the Spurs. He just decided he'd like to be there, and because he's Lil Wayne and this is the NBA, he assumed there would be a great seat for him.
There wasn't, and not merely because the game was sold out. Playoff games are sold out, everywhere, but celebrities always manage to find their way into the front few rows because someone in the organization -- a vice president, an advertising executive, an assistant general manager -- sacrifices their seat to take care of the star. Because that's what NBA teams do. They cater to stars.
The Thunder don't cater to anybody but the Thunder, and nobody in the front office was willing to give up a seat to a playoff game. So Lil Wayne was politely told no. Of course he freaked out, played the race card, started rooting for the Spurs. That little incident said a lot about Lil Wayne.
But it said a lot about the Thunder, too.
It said: We are the Thunder. This is our house. And we take this stuff very, very seriously.