Listening to the radio for the past two days, I've been told numerous times that the OKC Thunder will enter Game 5 against the Dallas Mavericks just looking for a reason to quit, after their disappointing meltdown late in Game 4 and considering some of their minor internal strife. Kevin Durant's distraught press conference after the game was used as evidence. I suppose that we all define "quitting" a bit differently, but this is preposterous to me. Young players have emotional ups and downs, but they are resilient. Desperation to avoid elimination will be a stronger impulse than depression. And I don't see how anyone can watch Kevin Durant and his barely legal teammates over the past two seasons and conclude that they're anything but winners.
This may be semantics, but I can see a different emotional dynamic hindering the Thunder Wednesday (and Thursday and Sunday if applicable). Their playoffs began on April 17 and started without a lot of mental or emotional wear and tear, as they dispatched the Nuggets in five games. But the initial excitement of the playoffs were followed on May 1 by their rollercoaster seven-game series with the Memphis Grizzlies and then the highs and lows versus Dallas.
This run reminds me of the Mavericks' 2006 trek, which began with a sweep of the Grizzlies that included some close games but was generally not taxing. It also included a grueling seven-gamer with their rival Spurs in the second round. While the emotions that players and fans experience during the playoffs are different, as spent as I was after that series, I can only imagine what Mavericks were feeling. Their six-game victory against the Suns in the conference finals was less physical but was no easy win, with a frustrating Game 1 loss and then Dirk Nowitzki's 50-point performance turning the tide in that series.
It was all exciting and new, but for a young team in their first path this deep into the playoffs, I know the back of my conscious brain was asking, this still isn't over?!?! The beginning of the NBA Finals felt like it actually was over, that this final stage was just the coronation deserved by the warriors who withstood the veteran Spurs and finally triumphed over Phoenix. Then the the body punches came. the Heat surprised them with an out-of-nowhere run at the end of Game 3. Pat Riley made adjustments that they could not solve. The referees didn't give them any breaks against Dwayne Wade.
Do the Thunder feel somewhat like the Mavericks did near the end of that series? They've achieved more than they ever had before. They have a bright future in front of them. They showed the guts necessary to outlast a game opponent for seven games. They went to Dallas and won a game. But the roller coaster just keeps going up and down even though you give every ounce of yourself every night. Even when there aren't internal problems, the press wants to create them. Then, internal issues do start cropping up after losses. After a while - and my guess is that it's around four-to--six weeks - of intense, constant pressure and strain, the senses aren't quite as sharp. The body may not respond like it usually does. Quick By no means do I consider that quitting, but I do wonder if the Thunder will be up against that however much longer they last in these playoffs.
By contrast, while the 30-something Mavericks will fight physical fatigue the rest of the way, their quick dispatch of the Lakers not only rested their legs, it spared them the emotional exhaust that a long series in the second round can cause. A win tonight would be huge for them, as they would clear the conference with about as little strain as possible, notwithstanding their own crumble in Game 4 of the first round.