Posted Dec 17 2010 10:06AM
Building the Thunder from lottery fodder to playoff contender has been a step-by-step process. From putting an ownership group in place, drafting well, making prudent personnel decisions, setting down roots in Oklahoma City, finding the right coach and giving it all time to simmer, it's been carefully mapped out for several years now.
But what the architects of the Thunder's success, general manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks, can't control is the Thunder's sizzle factor.
Kevin Durant and Co. have it. Operating under a virtual exposure blackout for much of the time since relocating from Seattle more than two years ago, the national spotlight has now found OKC. The Thunder's enhanced stature is evident by a date on one of the league's marquee days.
"It's really cool to be a part of the Christmas tradition, being one of the teams playing on national television," said Durant, one in the NBA's new wave of marketable faces. "It's an honor. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a night game so our fans can be home with their families to open presents then come down to the arena and watch our game. I think it's great."
The ESPN cameras are headed to Oklahoma City Arena for a Christmas Night clash with Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets. Denver and OKC are running neck-and-neck atop the Northwest Division, with a slight edge to the Thunder.
And while 'Melo and KD are the obvious headliners, the Thunder are about so much more these days. Russell Westbrook, a USA Basketball teammate of Durant's at the FIBA World Championship, has entered the best-point-guard-in-the-league conversation. Others are on the verge of their own breakouts.
Second-year guard James Harden is a sixth man on the uptake. Big man Serge Ibaka is an athletic freak and shot-blocking machine. Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha would have a role on any title hopeful. Imagine the profile of some of these guys if they were plying their trade in Los Angeles or Miami or New York.
The more they're on a national stage, though, the more the attention shifts from just Durant and Westbrook.
"Have we 'arrived' because we've been chosen for this? I don't know about that, but we are a good basketball team and we're continuing to get better," Brooks said. "And that's what we need to keep doing, just keep working hard and getting better."
The Christmas Day slate features five games on ABC and ESPN, hitting both coasts and plenty of other spots in between.
"It's a great honor to be chosen to play in one of these Christmas games, on national TV," Brooks said. "It's great for our team, our fans and our city. Only a few teams are chosen to do this, so it's special. A tremendous honor for our organization.
"Our guys are excited and I'm excited, but for me -- and I think for our guys, too -- the best thing is that we're playing at home. We don't have to go on the road for Christmas so we can spend some extra time with our families."
Playing on Christmas is obviously not fresh for the Kobes and LeBrons of the basketball world. But for the attention-craving newbies in OKC, they're ready to soak this up.
"It's a pretty special deal, it's gonna be exciting," Green said. "Hopefully we can give the fans a win for Christmas. They'd probably like that for a present. And yeah there's maybe a little more energy, a little more excitement because of national TV, but we can't really think about that. We just need to focus on the game."
It might become a hassle if and when the Thunder are an annual Dec. 25 participant. But for now it's all fresh and new and fun. For many of the younger players who grew up huge basketball fans, it's a date that brings back memories and helped foster dreams.
"I've watched those games on Christmas Day on TV and this year to actually be playing in one of those games, it's awesome," Harden said. "Everyone can watch from around the country and see what Thunder basketball is all about."
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