OKLAHOMA CITY — They began pounding their palms in unison, chanting in the building they call “Loud City,” 18,203 strong, until the referees’ whistle could not be heard, until everything morphed into an assault on the senses, pounding the eardrum like the best team in pro basketball this postseason began pounding LeBron James’s suddenly out-of-steam team.
Ten minutes remained. Louder, the sound reverberating until the Oklahoma City Thunder had tracked down, caught and passed the older Miami Heat on Tuesday night. When LeBron missed from the free throw line and Kevin Durant nailed a three-pointer on the other end, when Durant and Russell Westbrook kept using those Elongated Man arms to stretch the ball toward the basket ahead of their defenders, the fable was still in tact.
Game 1 to the Thunder and the ungodly roar of Chesapeake Energy Arena, which combined to discombobulate Miami in the second half and banish the idea that Oklahoma City’s youth could not withstand the grit and perseverance of the Heat’s playoff experience.
Instead, in the middle of the Midwest, at the start of this high-octane showdown between the NBA MVP and the league’s leading scorer, something is clearly happening — the result of a tectonic shift that began at the start of this decade in, of course, Northern California.
Remember when Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac and their offensively gifted teammates became the world’s stop-and-pop, church-league team, making the Kings’ jerseys the hottest seller in the NBA, handing so many big-market, beaucoup-TV-bucks franchises their lunch with a beautiful brand of basketball that focused on, of all things, moving the ball to the open man?
Yeah, well, meet the Sacramento Kings — the next millennium. Durant jackknifed his way through the lane, drew fouls, rained down three-point shots and poured in 36 points, leading the Thunder back from a double-digit deficit in the first half.
He outscored both LeBron and Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter, 17-14, wearing for the moment the mantle of best player in the game proudly. Westbrook was equally flammable at times, finishing with 27 points and 10 assists. The entire Thunder offense in the second half should have come with a childproof cap.
The local whooped and hollered their way to a 1-0 series lead, repelling LeBron and Everybody’s Favorite Team to Root Against.
The underlying story: It’s actually now considered cool to play in Smallville. Elite players don’t need to call Miami, New York, L.A. or Boston their NBA home to validate their professional existence.
Aside from a bigger shoe contract in a bigger market, all the same amenities, the same fame and fortune, exist in the nooks and crannies of the country. Durant understood this when he signed an extension with the Thunder at the same time LeBron was leaving Cleveland to join forces with Wade and Chris Bosh.
But as the Thunder has kept up its ascension to the NBA pinnacle the past few years, it continued to affirm the notion that a boffo box-office team can sell in the sticks.
San Antonio broke the mold first, beating the Knicks in 1999 for their first of four titles. But the Spurs never penetrated the Rucker League-Barry Farm playground conscience like the Kings and now the Thunder.
Because San Antonio’s best player, Tim Duncan, had the partying personality of, well, Spock, the Spurs just never translated like these kids from Oklahoma City. As the NBA analyst Brent Barry, a former Spur, said in the Thunder locker room after Game 1: “San Antonio was like a tank that just kept going. It never got retrofitted; it just kept going. These guys — they have a flair, an attraction.”
It’s actually one of the reasons Commissioner David Stern and the league owners had a protracted labor stalemate with the union and its players that forced cancellation of part of the season — the fear that smaller-payroll markets would never have the TV money to pay off stale contracts and sign numerous players to exorbitant deals to ensure a good team stayed together.
The biggest fear in Oklahoma City this offseason, in fact, is the potential loss of Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who will command monster free agent dollars.
So many times a team from a small market would become a contender and — boom — there went Stephon Marbury in his prime because he wanted to make as much as teammate Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, where the owner could not afford to pay both.
The hope is they find a way to keep Harden because that would go a long way toward preserving the growing popularity of a franchise that didn’t need to round up everybody else’s best players to be in the NBA Finals.
With no other pro team in town to root for, the crowd was indeed incredible. Louder than Cameron Indoor Arena? Shane Battier was asked afterward. “No, not for a Carolina game. That was like a jet plane,” the Heat veteran and Duke alumnus said. “But for an NBA arena, it’s definitely the loudest I’ve heard.”
That crowd helped its team play an exciting, breathtaking style of ball, just like their small-market predecessors in Sacramento, who came so close but never made it to the NBA Finals. The difference is, the Thunder has the weapons — K.D. and all those scoring sprees — to make this peasants’ revolt permanent, to further imbed the fact you don’t have to sign for big dollars in a thriving East or West Coast metropolis to matter in the NBA.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.