That was my take entering the season, and there is every reason to believe it still.
The Los Angeles Lakers just revived themselves at the expense of the Thunder on Sunday at the Staples Center, and winning actually meant so much to the Lakers because of how much they believe in the Thunder.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni referred to the result as a victory over “probably the best team in the league.”
Lakers guard Steve Nash went further, going fully adverb-free: “The fact that we beat the best team in the league is important for our psyche.”
Although most of the sheep out there who’ve followed all the bad this season with the Lakers couldn’t have imagined them stepping up and beating the Thunder, it was predictable for two reasons:
One, the Thunder were playing the last game of a six-game trip. There are inevitably losses on every team’s schedule—even the very best teams’ schedules—which are attributable to the schedule itself: the second night of a back-to-back set, the grind of a long trip, the look-ahead element for a winning team that gets a little complacent.
Great teams minimize the effects of those issues, largely because they are just so talented. But they also execute well enough when their minds aren’t fully locked in that many times they can succeed anyway.
And the Thunder were still right there with the Lakers down the stretch Sunday despite the second reason: The Lakers wanted it way more.
As cliché as it sounds, being motivated on a particular day to win does dictate the result of a lot of NBA regular-season games. The Thunder had little to gain from a third victory in three tries over a Lakers team that was finally pretty healthy and definitely pretty hungry to show it could beat a great team.
Remember when every team’s Super Bowl would come against the Lakers?
Now the small-town Thunder are in that class after their 2012 NBA Finals appearance and with an accepted mainstream superstar in Thunderstruck movie star Kevin Durant.
That finals loss to Miami was an immediate disappointment, but an undeniable motivator toward this next championship. While the Heat have to navigate how egos always grow as credit is sought from all corners of a defending champion, the Thunder got a further injection of will to win.
Consider what Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks says about the Thunder this season:
“Everyone came back a little bit better.”
That’s why all the doomsayers dwelling on the trade of James Harden, as magnificent in individual offense as he is, are missing the rationale for why the Thunder dared to make that move.
The Thunder’s top players—including Serge Ibaka, who was the choice over Harden to be re-signed and bolster the defense with size—got better in the offseason in order to make up all the ground that was lost in the exchange of Harden for Kevin Martin.
“Our guys work, and they believe in each other,” Brooks said.
And yes, Brooks did single out Ibaka for getting better, too—in part because people forget he experienced the valuable education of surrounding himself with the best of the best at the Olympics over the summer, too.
Ibaka, who got a four-year, $48 million contract extension from the Thunder before the NBA season, played for Spain and did very well in the gold-medal game against Team USA. Frankly, he should’ve had a bigger role for the Spaniards, who always leaned toward longtime anchors Pau and Marc Gasol.
Ibaka remains raw in some respects for sure, but he has expanded his game to the point that Brooks feels completely comfortable putting him on floor-stretching forwards this season. As dangerous as it was to get someone as soft as Martin for someone as hard as Harden, the logic is sound: Ibaka, if he continues to grow, can be fill a uniquely valuable role for a Thunder team that will always have plenty of offense with Durant and Russell Westbrook.
And when you look at this season, with the help of some good luck without injuries, the Thunder have made clear that they are a team of guys who understand their roles better than anyone else in the league.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.