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Sekou Smith

Perhaps Russell Westbrook and the Thunder aren't as ready for prime time as was thought.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Thunder need toughness, help from reserves to survive

Posted Jun 21 2012 8:04AM

MIAMI -- Oklahoma City Thunder veteran Derek Fisher did his best to oblige the crowd without offending the sensibilities of so many who simply do not understand the dynamic he and his teammates are facing right now.

Fisher has been on this stage before, more than anyone else in uniform for either the Thunder or Miami Heat in these Finals. So he has a complete understanding of the dynamic that a team must deal with on the favorable side of a series after four games as well as the perplexing dynamic that same team has to deal with on the flip side.

And it's clear to the five-time NBA champion, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, that there are simply easy answers to what ails the Thunder on the eve of what could be their final game of this season.

When a team faces a 3-1 deficit in The Finals with a win-or-go-home Game 5 staring them in the eye, the easiest thing to do is backtrack and try to find the instances where things went awry.

Maybe it was the soul-crushing defeats in Games 3 and 4, games where the Thunder had openings and couldn't find the their way through or had leads they couldn't hold on to.

Maybe it was giving away Game 2 on their home floor, surrendering both the momentum and the home-court advantage in the series all in one unfocused night.

And then maybe it's just that the Thunder, even with young and spectacular superstars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge, are not who we thought they were after seeing them steamroll the mighty San Antonio Spurs by taking four straight games to win the Western Conference finals and make it here.

Perhaps the young Thunder, like so many others before them, were not as ready for the prime time that is The Finals as it seemed just a few days ago. Because they've buckled under the pressure since rallying to win Game 1, losing three straight tightly contested games due as much to what the Heat have done as to what they have done to themselves.

"So much depends on the individual players, the coach, the makeup of the team. I don't think it's an age thing that makes it automatic," Fisher said of what marks a team that's ready to win it all. "I don't think it's an experience thing that says that team is more ready than another. There are too many variables, I think, to describe it. I think as a team you find a way, you don't get here and all of a sudden become not ready. You're here for a reason. You have to find a way once you are here that doesn't necessarily come down to age or experience, per se. It's more about your attention to detail, your ability to figure out ways to win on this stage. It's not because you're 23 or 33, it just depends on where you have been in your life and experience in your career. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But we haven't veered too much into that part of it, had we done that ... we probably would not have made it here."

The Thunder are undergoing a similar fact-finding mission about themselves to the one the Heat underwent a year ago, when their collective inexperience playing together on basketball's biggest stage derailed their championship dreams.

Vanquishing foes like the rival Celtics along the way did not prepare the Heat for the challenge they faced in the Dallas Mavericks, who had run through their own gauntlet in the Western Conference on their way to claiming their Larry O'Brien trophy.

The Thunder entered this series the same way the Heat did last year, full of confidence in each other and convinced that their time was now. They had just vanquished the Mavericks, Lakers and San Antonio Spurs to set up their date with the Heat. Most of the so-called experts looked at the way they rallied from that 2-0 deficit to win four straight over the mighty Spurs and instantly made them the favorites to defeat the Heat.

Then those variables Fisher spoke of kicked in. A Heat team that could call up experiences from their recent past had a clear-cut understanding of how to handle themselves in the pressure cooker that is The Finals, while the Thunder appeared to crack a bit under the weight of such enormous expectations.

KIA Sixth Man of the Year Award winner James Harden hasn't been able to locate his game in this series, leaving the Thunder with a Big 2 for long stretches against the Heat's Big 3.

The Thunder big men have struggled for four games to deal with Heat bigs Chris Bosh and Shane Battier, guys built like small forwards but capable of playing anywhere on the court in the Heat's offensive scheme.

All that depth and balance the Thunder boasted all season has come up woefully short against a Heat team that has proved to be every bit as resourceful when it needed to find some depth (Norris Cole in Game 4) and balance (Mario Chalmers in Game 4 and Shane Battier every minute he's played since the series began).

Even Durant and Westbrook, unstoppable as they are, have endured their own struggles under these bright lights. They've piled up their usual numbers but don't have the wins to show for it.

Again, those variables Fisher spoke of have to be factored into the equation.

Yet, when asked what it'll take for this series to make it back to Oklahoma City, Westbrook answers in simple terms.

"Toughness, man," he said. "Just got to come out and play with toughness. Any way we do it, we've got to find a way to get a win. That's all it is."

Sure, they'll insist that all they have to do is win Game 5 and send this series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 and then Game 7, where all of the pressure would shift back to the Heat and their desperation effort to redeem themselves for last year's failure.

"We'll see what happens," Durant said. "We're not going to give up. We're going to keep fighting to the end, and hopefully we can take this thing back to the crib."

They're saying all the right things.

But history is not on their side. No team has ever climbed out of the Thunder's current hole to win the title.

Whether they realize it or not, the young Thunder are getting educated in the fine art of how to operate on the big stage, a course Fisher mastered during his time with the Lakers and the same course the Heat took and failed a year ago.

"It's basketball at the end of the day," Durant said. "That's what it is. Everybody else brings the hype around it, all these people here, all these cameras, media. But at the end of the day, it's basketball."

If only it were that simple.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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