|Thunder are growing up and closing out. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's a moment when you watch a great team play where it hits you.
These guys have it.
There's something to this young Thunder team. Something intangible, something incredible. They don't quit, don't stop, don't go quietly.
Game 1's 29-point victory seems a thousand miles away as the Thunder trailed the Lakers by seven with 2:08 remaining. Oklahoma City's offense has devolved into isolation hell as the Thunder settled for contested jumpers, couldn't get anything easy in transition and was forced to play at the Lakers' preferred pace. With the way things were going, it didn't appear that there was a road back. The Lakers were closing in on what they came to OKC to do -- get one win to take back to Staples.
It started with a James Harden driving layup. Then Kevin Durant extended one of his Stretch Armstrong arms to steal a pass from Kobe Bryant which led to a dunk. Four points in 15 seconds. With the way the second half had gone, getting four points in 15 minutes seemed like quite the task.
Another stop, another Harden layup. Just like that, the Laker lead was down to one. The Thunder found another stop and now the game rested in the hands of Durant with 25 seconds to go.
At that point, you knew where the ball was going. Durant was about to Doodle Jump the Lakers.
"I wish it was my magical words," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "But all I told them was, 'Guys, we are down seven, you don't have to play perfect basketball, but we are going to have to be pretty close. You have to be solid, you have to really get focused on the defensive end.' " Then we got some steals, we got some breaks. But we earned those breaks by playing good defense."
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"We got lucky that he missed that shot," said Brooks.
Said Kobe: "I don't know what Metta saw. Once I turned around, I just saw the ball in the air and at that point I tried to get in a good position to get a rebound."
But it shouldn't have come to that. The Lakers went scoreless the last two minutes. Two turnovers, three missed shots. And 12 total points in the quarter. Credit where it's due though: The Thunder shut the door.
Some back story: This is a Thunder team that blew two fourth quarter leads to the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals last postseason. This is a group that nearly lost to the Grizzlies in the second round because they couldn't close out. That same group of kids though has grown up to become a batch of never-say-die closers. They pulled this stunt on the Mavericks in Game 1 of the opening round. Then Game 2, they battled it out for a tough win. And now, against the wall facing The Black Mamba, the Thunder closed on a 9-0 run to snatch victory from the Mamba's jaws.
"Just kept fighting," Durant said. "This team is tough on defense and on offense. We kept pressing and kept our composure."
The playoffs present a number of different situations and circumstances, things you can't prepare for in a shootaround or training camp. The pressure of the moment is tough to manage. Trying to run offense, set good screens, handle assignments and execute is a lot easier on a clipboard than it is on the floor.
Which is why it doesn't always come to that. The way the Thunder scored those nine points wasn't in the halfcourt. Their offense had died mid-way through the third. The Thunder were 7-27 in the second half at one point. But it was Harden attacking, Durant creating a turnover, Harden attacking and Durant improvising. That's the way you get it done. It's sort of like what John Hammond said in Jurassic Park: Great teams find a way.
You can definitely see it in this Thunder team -- they’ve grown. They’re tough as nails. To find it within to pull out games like these, while somewhat disconcerting see as, say, the Spurs won’t be as forgiving, still is extraordinarily impressive. They’ve built up pressure equity, where they believe as a group they can pull it off no matter the circumstance. They know someone is going to make a play. They know someone is going to get it done. They believe in self, and each other. It’s an incredible quality to have in a team, and the kind of intangible that’s necessary in a playoff run. These boys have grown up.