NBA playoffs: Thunder trumps Spurs’ underdog appeal among the favored final four


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Columnist May 17, 2014

Unless San Antonio or Corpus Christi is considered home, most people have three reasons they root for the Spurs.

1) They are Tim Duncan-old and usually root for anyone whose career (17 years) dwarfs the lifespan of their domestic animals.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

2) Hard to explain, but they still hate LeBron James with the burning-hot fury of a Knowles family elevator ride, and thus they consider the Spurs the Rebel Alliance to Miami’s Evil Empire.

And 3) They like that there is one coach remaining in the universe who isn’t afraid to publicly hurt his players’ feelings. They like that “Pop,” Gregg Popovich, preaches old-fangled, move-the-rock basketball where five operate as one, equally taking part in the game’s lost art, the sublime choreography of teamwork.

So it is again this mid-May that somehow a team with more wins than anyone, a 62-win juggernaut with home-court advantage throughout the rest of the postseason, continues along this endearing (if completely unrealistic and unjustified) plot line as America’s Easiest Team to Root For.

Oklahoma Thunder forward Kevin Durant was named the NBA's most valuable player Tuesday. He gave an emotional speech during the award ceremony. (The Washington Post)

But as usual we are geographically looking in the wrong place for our NBA underdog, who we will get to in a moment.

First, after all the somewhat worthy proclamations of best playoffs ever — a record five first-round series that went to Game 7 (since the league went to seven-game first rounds in 2003); Damian Lillard dumping Dwight Howard and James Harden with the most money of series-ending shots in Portland; the Wizards’ exhilarating run; and thousands watching outside the arena in the streets of . . . Toronto? — the NBA is predictably again down to the Favored Four.

The conference finals that begin Sunday — Spurs-Thunder in the West and Heat-Pacers in the East — follow a long-standing tradition of star power always showing up in the Association’s postseason.

It’s statistically improbable that since 1980 the league has had just nine franchises win championships. Think about that. Nine cities have had parades in 33 years. Meanwhile, there have been 19 different World Series champions in that time and 16 different Stanley Cup and Super Bowl champions since 1980.

Be it Magic, Larry, Michael, Kobe or LeBron, something about an uber-team with the greatest player of his generation works for the NBA — especially if that player stars in a big market like Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago. It gives off the appearance of built-in villains for little outposts like Sacramento to vanquish (Shaq and Kobe), a historically great team to chase (Michael’s Bulls) or players so transcendent that whether they fail or succeed, we have to watch.

That’s why it’s time to move on from the Spurs and root for the genuine underdog left in this postseason — the Little Team That Could from Oklahoma City.

Given Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki’s history, after all, teams led by MVPs can be playoff underdogs.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the coach no one talks about, Scott Brooks, have their work cut out for them like no one the next few weeks. They found out Friday their best role player, Serge Ibaka, will miss the rest of the postseason because of a calf injury suffered against the Clippers. Durant has forged his MVP season in a year when Westbrook’s right knee, operated on three times already over the past two seasons, forced the three-time all-star to play a little more than half the regular season.

The Spurs are not even the smallest market in the conference finals. Miami-Fort Lauderdale (the 16th-largest U.S. television market) and Indianapolis (25th) are larger than San Antonio (37th), but the Spurs come in eight cities ahead of Oklahoma City (45th), meaning that the Thunder theoretically has less available TV revenue to pay its players’ salaries.

It’s hard not to root for a team that came within seconds of stunning the Heat a year ago. But the Spurs with Duncan have won four titles already, more than anyone but the Lakers and the Bulls in the past 20 years. Oklahoma City hasn’t won yet. The Thunder is in that Sacramento-Minnesota boat of more than a decade ago — a window with a great team that may eventually be pulled apart by bigger markets who want their stars.

Plus, Brooks is a pay-your-dues former player who’s just as good a teacher and in-game technician as Pop or Erik Spoelstra, but somehow his job has been up for debate lately as if he’s Vinny Del Negro. And I’m not just saying that because I played against him in junior college and covered him once with the Knicks.

LeBron needs a real rival, someone to consistently challenge his greatness in the Finals like Magic and Larry had each other. K.D. has that potential.

Finally, this long-running theme that the Spurs just seem like good guys from a folksy little hamlet in South Texas who go to work and get the job done — as opposed to other big-market, filthy rich NBA teams who don’t need to practice because they really jump high and have a lot of talent — needs to be dispelled for obvious reasons.

Now, it’s true that among the remaining four teams the Spurs do spend the least ($63 million payroll next to $80 million for Miami, $70 million for the Thunder and $67 million for the Pacers).

But, look, there are remarkably good guys on every team, none more vulnerable than Durant, who lost tears often while paying tribute to his mother (and the rest of humanity) after the MVP announcement — easily the most authentic, emotional scene of this season.

If the Spurs play the right way, so too do the Pacers, Heat and Thunder, at their best, sharing and caring for the basketball (although Westbrook sometimes does value possessions like a Buddhist monk).

And as for the “old” hook, well, it’s hard to not root for players like Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, who have combined for 106 years of age and 2,989 NBA games. In this way, we root for the Spurs like we rooted for Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open at the end, or Brett Favre or Kurt Warner or George Foreman. Anyone past their own prime can identify with geezers who have something left.

I’m still pulling harder for the Thunder, minus Ibaka, from the smallest market, with an unfairly embattled coach, with no championship to speak of yet — the true underdog left in these playoffs.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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