By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
The Grand National Quail Hunt has just concluded its annual event here in Enid and deer hunting season has opened across the state. But there is another hunt that is currently in full swing.
It’s open season on the Oklahoma City Thunder and Thunder fans should be happy about that as it solidifies the Thunder’s status as championship contenders. But the road to a return trip to the NBA finals this season will be a little more difficult now that the upstarts from OKC are no longer considered upstarts, but wear a collective target on their backs. And the other contenders clearly are gunning for the defending Western Conference champions.
Last season was a bit of magical ride for the Thunder and their fans as everything seemed to fall into place. Kevin Durant continued his development as one of the league’s premier players, draining clutch shots and seemingly lifting the team on his shoulders. Guard Russell Westbrook, while still driving fans a bit batty with his inconsistent play, also demonstrated the ability to be a game-changer, and then there was James “The Beard” Harden who captivated fans with his facial follicles and his play was solid enough off the bench to earn Sixth Man of the Year honors.
The Thunder seemed to have the entire state of Oklahoma in love with them as Oklahomans were getting their first taste of championship-level big league sports and times were good. Watch parties sprang up everywhere and fans streamed into places such as David Allen Memorial Ballpark here in Enid, where the video board lit up with images of the Thunder in the NBA finals against the dreaded Miami Heat.
The finals did not go well and after five games, LeBron James and company were celebrating at the expense of the Thunder. Still, the Thunder were greeted as returning heroes when they came back from Miami, where around 5,000 fans greeted them at Will Rogers Airport
Ah, but the reality of NBA economics came crashing down on the Thunder, and their fans, when OKC dealt away the beloved Bearded One before the start of this season. It didn’t help when Harden went off for 37 points in his first game as a Houston Rocket. But it’s a long season (longer than last season since we are talking about an 82-game slate as opposed to last season’s labor-strife shortened 66-game season – did anybody really miss those 16 games anyway?) and players like Kevin Martin, acquired in the Harden trade, still are gaining a comfort level
The Thunder really are facing a bit of a triple whammy in getting some new players comfortable, while dealing with elevated expectations and life as the hunted, as we saw this past Wednesday when the Memphis Grizzlies — who have suffered playoff losses to the Thunder in recent seasons — defeated OKC 107-97 in an acrimonious contest. The Griz are using the Thunder as a measuring stick for their own progress and showed they are intent on ascending the NBA ladder and knocking the Thunder from one of the top rungs.
During the game against the Grizzlies, the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins and the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph, who has a bit of a reputation for rough play, squared off verbally and each wound up being ejected. A total of five technical fouls were called in the contest and the bad feelings between Randolph and Perkins allegedly continued into the locker room, where some OKC beat writers reported OKC police had to separate the players, while reporters in the postgame interview area heard yelling in the hallways and banging and thumping against the walls.
Both players downplayed it afterward, but Randolph’s postgame comments left no doubt the Thunder are in the crosshairs. “This is one of the best teams in the West,” Randolph said. “We’re trying to get where they’re at.”
The ride to the top this season is already proving to be a bit bumpy, but if the Thunder succed in making a return trip to the finals, it may be even more satisfactory, having survived Thunder hunting season.
Ruthenberg is sports editor at the News & Eagle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.