After that absolutely ridiculous comeback, J. A. Sherman over at Welcome To Loud City dropped some questions for me, and I returned with a few questions of my own. He was kind enough to answer eloquently and promptly, I might add. If there's one thing I'm learning from this series, it's that Oklahoma City is my second favorite team not just because they are thrilling to watch, but because their fans are pretty awesome, as you'll see discussed below.
Despite watching their lead slip away, Thunder fans in the arena were still passionately chanting in support of their team. How do you think Thunder nation is looking at game five? Delaying the inevitable, or a real chance to come from behind and take the series?
Your question highlights an amazing observation. I think that, as reality was dawning on everyone in OKC Arena of what was about to happen, the support the OKC fan base gave to their team is as about a touching moment as you can have in this jaded pro sports landscape these days. It underscores the special bond that the team and fans have intentionally forged together. What further validated the collective gesture is what Rick Carlisle said in his post-game comments -
"We need our building to be as loud as this building. It's as simple as that. This is a fantastic place to play a playoff game because of the level of enthusiasm, noise - I mean those were getting beat and they were going to lose and the place is yelling ‘O-K-C! O-K-C!'. The fans are beyond belief.."
I think the OKC fanbase knows that the Thunder was twice bested by a superior team on their own court, and sometimes, there simply isn't anything that can be done about that. You simply hope that your team goes down fighting with courage and honor, and I think the Thunder did. They didn't resort to cheap shots in the end like some teams and players have been known to do (/looks toward the City of Angels). Yes, the team fell apart, but it was not due to lack of effort. They fought to the bitter, depressing end. That fight is perhaps the best thing that the Thunder can bring to Game Five.
As for how to look to Game Five, I can only speak for myself, but I hope that the team realizes that there is an honor and a pleasure in simply fighting together until the end, even if that end is in a loss. It is difficult not to resort to some war analogy, which is always a bit hyperbolic and inappropriate, so the best example I can dig out of the recesses of my brain is to look back at Sonic history and remember the 1996 Finals. If you recall, this was the season when the Bulls did their "Sherman's march to the sea" and burned up everything in sight. In the Finals, against a very talented Sonics team, the Bulls roared out to a 3-0 lead. And I remember Gary Payton, the tenacious point guard for Seattle, give an interview where he was asked if they could win the series. Payton essentially said (paraphrasing), "No, we probably can't. But I think we can still win some games, so we'll still play hard." And I thought that was a most admirable thing. Reality was inescapable, but there was still great honor in a team, having battled through 100+ games together, still desiring to play hard even though the outcome was all but certain.
How damaging was Harden's fouling out? Do you see him changing anything next game?
We can probably hearken back to your previous question about the Mavs' needing to game plan against Harden to understand his importance. If you recall, Harden had just done a number on the Mavs in Game Two, and Dallas responded by being much more aggressive against the super-sub, severely limiting his scoring opportunities in Games 3&4. That was good on them. However, aside from scoring, Harden brings something else to the floor as well - he brings an element of competency that as of right now only Nick Collison seems to possess. Harden is rarely out of control, rarely makes a bad decision, and understands well how to run plays, create passing lanes, and find the open man. Losing Harden completely altered the outcome of the game. As I'm sure you're aware, once he was DQ'd due to fouls, the Mavs outscored the Thunder 26-6 through regulation and OT.
Of course, after stating that Harden rarely makes a mistake, it is important to note that it was his very costly mistake - a foul in the backcourt 80 feet away from the rim, that both DQ'd him and essentially gave the Mavs two free points without losing any time. I think that it has been a challenge for Harden because Dallas is throwing wrinkles at him and not letting him just be a guy out there, but rather a key player. So like Durant suddenly facing traps 40 feet away from the rim, so too Harden is facing greater defensive pressure than he's faced all season. I think he needs to respond to that pressure by having better discipline to not pick up cheap fouls and continue to work as a facilitator in the offense. As we have seen in this series, his presence in the 4th quarter is as important as both Westbrook and Durant.
And finally, can you talk a little about the body language of the Thunder players as time ran out? Defeatist isn't the right word, but they sure looked down. Are they resilient enough to come back to Dallas and take another road game?
The body language of the Thunder players, both during the game as well as afterward, was disheartening, to be sure. Of course you would like to see a team that is confident, defiant, and eager to get on to the next game. The reality though was, that was what the Thunder were after Game Three. After Game Three, the players knew that the team who was down by 20+ points early on was not their true identity, and so afterward they were ready and willing to prove to the world and themselves that their identity was something much greater.
The difference between their collective psyche after Games Three and Four (if I may play Dr. Phil for a moment) is in what the losses told them about themselves. In #3, they saw it as an anomaly, and it was. They were eager to shed the stink of that game. In #4, however, that reality cut them much closer to the truth.
Think about it this way - we've all been in relationships, be they romantic or platonic, where the worst in us comes out. Perhaps it is a temper, or a lack of compassion, or biting cynicism. And our significant other calls us out on it, and at that moment, there is simply nowhere to hide. You know you've been busted, and you've been busted by someone who knows you enough to know that there is no hiding it. You're laid bare.
So it was with Game Four. The Thunder have struggled all season long and into the playoffs with these types of 4th quarter let-downs. Until now, they had excuses to brush it aside, or at least bury it. But not this time. On the biggest stage they've faced, in front of their beloved home crowd, their Achilles Heel was exposed, and there was no place to hide. Worse yet, they had to come face to face with it themselves and come to terms with what they really are at this particular moment: a team that is not quite at the same level as where the Mavs are from a totality of basketball standpoint.
Here is my guess as to what you will see in Game Five. The Thunder will come out feeling the emotional weight still bearing on them from Game Four. By mid-way through the 2nd, they are going to be forced to make a choice - they will have to decide whether it is worthwhile to fight, even if it leads to a loss, or to simply lose. They will have to realize that the honor in losing only comes if they first decide that losing is not an option.
As always, many thanks to the team over at Welcome To Loud City.