Thunder Understands Road Playoff Challenge

Although it’s only a quick 45-minute plane ride or a three-hour jaunt down I-35 South, there’s a big difference between playing in Chesapeake Energy Arena and what the Thunder will face in Dallas on Thursday night. In Game Three of its opening round NBA Playoff series against the Mavericks, the Thunder knows what type of challenge it faces, and accepts it with open arms. After Wednesday’s practice, only hours before the team traveled to Dallas, Head Coach Scott Brooks talked about his team’s road mentality.

“Our guys love playing on the road. It takes mental toughness, there’s no question,” Brooks said. “It’s always fun to be on the road. You’re on the road and you’re together as a group. You’re on the bus together and you’re in the hotel together. Everything is right there. We always have each other’s back. I kind of like the spirit of our team when we’re on the road.”

During the regular season the Thunder went 21-12 away from home and in addition to last season’s 25-16 road record, the team has picked up some lessons along with the way during its continued growth over the last few years. That development of a strong mental resolve paid dividends in the Playoffs last season when the Thunder won road games in Denver, Memphis and Dallas. Veteran guard Derek Fisher, who has seen his fair share of postseason series, said that while certainly some skills carry over from regular season road success, in some ways road Playoff games are an entirely different animal. “I do think the things that you learn during the regular season about how to play on the road, how to be successful on the road, that can carry over into your road game approach in the playoffs,” Fisher said. “At the same time, there are no guarantees. You could be the best road team in the league in the regular season, and it just doesn’t happen for you in the playoffs. We have to expect that things are going to be difficult. They’re going to play better than they did in the first two games here in Oklahoma City. So it’s especially up to us to play better than we’ve played in order to give ourselves a chance to win.”

While this young Thunder team still has plenty to learn about Playoff basketball, it is now in its fifth postseason series in the last three years, and has gleaned a thing or two about the style, intensity and focus required to be successful. Fisher said that despite not having played with the Thunder in a road Playoff game yet, he’s seen some good signs in these first two wins against Dallas.

“We faced some adversity here at the first two games at home and we didn’t let down,” Fisher said. “We didn’t give up on the game. There were times that the momentum the Mavericks had could have put us in a negative mindset. We just kept playing, kept believing and figured out a way to win. That’s what the postseason is about. People don’t remember field goal percentage and how many turnovers you had, and who made however many shots. They just remember who won and who lost. That’s what we have to continue to think about.”

Both of the two games so far in the series had 16 lead changes, showing just how evenly the two teams have played. The Thunder used a 23-6 run to take a 16-point lead and the Mavericks used a quick 7-0 burst of its own out of a timeout to punch back. Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who has averaged 25.5 points per game so far this series, says that in order to play well on the road, it’s all about the team playing as one and letting their togetherness make them strong.

“We have to stick together and keep our composure no matter what because of course the home team is going to make a run,” Durant said. “But we have to stick together and stick to our principles. We know it’s just us on the bench on the road, so we know we have to stick together in tough situations and that’s what we’ve been doing all season and hopefully that’s what we do tomorrow.”

There’s no magic formula to winning on the road, but as both Fisher and Durant mentioned, there’s a problem-solving aspect to the game that the Thunder will need to find. With countless Playoff series under his belt, Fisher waxed poetic about the type of innate heart and soul-deep determination required to come out on top in a hostile environment.

“There’s a resolve, mentally and in the pit of your stomach that you just have to have to win playoff games on the road,” Fisher said. “You’re going to face everything there is to face in this game. You’re going to get what you feel to be bad calls or questionable calls. The home team is going to go on a run, they’re going to make shots. The crowd is going to be into it. You may not play as well as you’d like to play, but there just has to be a belief deep within that no matter what, you’re going to figure out a way. We have an opportunity tomorrow night to take a crack at it.”