The Future is Now as Thunder Rolls Into Conference Finals

The future has arrived a little sooner than we thought. NBA experts have pegged the Thunder as an up and coming team, a team of the future. With the success the Thunder is earning now, the future has quickly become the present.

In the spotlight of the Western Conference Finals, the 3-29 start to the 2008-09 season seems like ancient history, but there’s no question the adversity of that season is the bedrock upon which the Thunder has built its foundation.

“Maybe we don’t have that fear of failure anymore,” Thunder forward Nick Collison told reporters after Game 7 against Memphis. “You’ve been embarrassed and it’s very embarrassing to be 3-29 and the worst team in the league. Maybe it just gives us that ability to go out and play, see what happens and realize we’ve been through worse.”

That as much as anything probably explains the Thunder’s incredible record in bounce-back games. With Sunday’s series-clinching win against the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City is now 25-6 in games following a loss. The record is even more impressive at home, where the Thunder is 14-1.

“We just don’t want to lose two games in a row,” Kevin Durant has said many times in explaining the record.

Now Oklahoma City is one of the last four teams still alive in the NBA Playoffs.

“I think for us it just shows how much we’ve grown as players and as men in this league,” Durant told a crush of reporters this afternoon. “It’s a testament to our front office and our fans and the guys we have here who come into work every day, never gave up, always fought and now it’s started to turn around for us.”

Sports fans in Oklahoma have grown up watching battles against teams from Texas and now Oklahoma City and Dallas will go head-to-head to determine whose team will play for the NBA Championship.

“I just tell them to embrace the moment,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who earned a ring with the Boston Celtics. “I know it’s not The Finals, but it is the Western Conference Finals and you’ve worked hard all season long and all playoffs and now there’s only four teams that are still playing, so you embrace the moment, but take advantage of it.”

In order to do that the Thunder will have to win at least one game in Dallas since the Mavericks have the home-court advantage. Dallas was 2-1 against Oklahoma City in the regular season and the Thunder’s only win came inside American Airlines Center on Jan. 6. That’s the last time these two teams have played and much has changed since.

“We’re totally different and they’re totally different,” Durant said. A couple of things that haven’t changed will be the zone defense Durant believes the Mavs will continue to use, “we expect them to do that again, but we’re confident in the shooters we have and in the movement that we use. We think we can do a better job against that now than we did during the regular season.”

And nothing has changed with Dirk Nowitzki.

“It’s going to be tough to guard him,” Durant admitted. KD will draw some of the defensive assignment, but he will share the duty between almost every other frontline player.

“Serge (Ibaka) definitely will start off on Dirk,” said Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks. “We will have to throw multiple guys at him -- and we will. Nick (Collison), Perk (Kendrick Perkins), Naz (Mohammed), KD, James (Harden), I think you have to throw everybody at him because they run so many different plays with him.”

But the Mavs will have some defensive headaches of their own. Dealing with Durant for one and speedy point guard Russell Westbrook going up against 38-year old Jason Kidd.

“We have to take advantage of Russell’s speed,” Brooks said. “He attacks and gets to the basket and makes the defense collapse. He makes plays for us and he has to do that (against Dallas). They’re going to throw different schemes at him, but Russell is at his best when he’s attacking the basket and making plays.”

The same can be said of the Thunder. When its players attack and force the opposition into things they don’t want to do, the Thunder can be difficult to deal with.

Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is set for 8 p.m. Tuesday inside American Airlines Center. You can watch all the action on ESPN or listen in on the Thunder Radio Network.