Having split their regular season series 2-2, stocked with conference stars and playmakers, and each recovering from grueling seven-game series, the Thunder and Clippers commenced their 2nd round clash earlier this week with neither squad appearing as a clear-cut frontrunner. To amplify the unpredictable nature of this matchup, both teams experienced and found themselves caught within significant off-the-court situations which, thus far, have proved to generate positive effects during their respective playoff runs. So as if the series had not been fraught with uncertainty enough, the added presence of an intangible factor–usually a decisive edge for the one team that possesses it, but only now functioning for both teams–even further leaves the fate of this series as a tossup.
For the Clippers’ situation, which involved much more controversy and outrage, it was the Donald Sterling fiasco that unfolded two days before the start of the team’s fourth game in their 1st-round battle against Golden State. Though suffering a harsh 21-point blowout, the severity of which most likely a result of their minds being preoccupied with the off-the-court instability, the Clips reacted to this precarious circumstance by deciding to bond together as a team; if their owner was not in their corner, then their ensuing plan of action would be to support and stick up for each other in a closer way than ever before. The Clippers, as well as the NBA front office, quickly resolved this dilemma, but most importantly, the seed of unity had been planted in the LA locker room. Following the Sterling controversy, the Clips–with emotions at hand and an intangible force in full effect–surged to triumph in two of the next three games against the Warriors, and advanced to the second round. If this powerful response to any off-court drama–the foundation of which derived from the team’s solidarity–did not sway onlookers enough to believe in an intangible unifying factor, then a stunning 122-105 opening-series rout of the Thunder surely did the trick.
Even prior to this thumping before its zealous home crowd, the Oklahoma City found itself in a state of uneasiness. Concluding the regular season schedule with a 5-4 April record certainly did not dispel the doubt surrounding the Thunder, as to whether they were primed for the looming postseason action, or whether stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could play cohesively in order to succeed in the brutal Western Conference playoff layout. A 1st round date with the Memphis Grizzlies, in which OKC stood on the brink of elimination twice and had to scratch out a seven-game series victory, raised even more concern. Only two days after knocking off Memphis, the exhausted Thunder team–as mentioned before–suffered one of its worst home defeats ever to Los Angeles, and moreover, did so in an utterly discouraging and unresistant fashion.
Yet for a team that appeared disjointed and dejected, the remedy to its woes came from the most unlikeliest of sources: Kevin Durant receiving the 2013-14 MVP award. It’s important to keep in mind that in any sports, and for any type of award–especially one deeming a player the best in his sport–and even more so during or near the postseason, the effect of the award has the popular notion of producing a negative impact; in short, it often jinxes the player and his team, perhaps by diverting necessary attention away from the task ahead. So despite Kevin Durant deservedly receiving this title that he heavily sought after, it would not necessarily appear to be of any good, particularly a day after getting blown out at home.
But it was the acceptance speech Durant delivered, with fellow teammates sitting beside him, that really mattered. Durant, in a display of courage of strength considering the situation, described his life leading up to his NBA prominence and MVP award, focusing on those that influenced him most in the past as well as in the present. Durant touched on how he had to overcome adversity throughout his life, especially in his youth, and identified everyone from his mother, Wanda Pratt, to OKC newcomer Caron Butler as sources of motivation in his life. Durant conveyed that this esteemed trophy was more of a product of working with those close to him than anything, and that without the help of and cohesiveness with others around him, this type of success–and perhaps any for that matter–would be unattainable. At the very least, his teammates sympathized greatly with his journey, and at the most, they even shared a similar one. So while inspiring and heartwarming for outsiders, the weight of Durant’s words had an even greater impact on his team: they made his teammates reconsider what they were fighting for during their current playoff run, and whom they were fighting with. Otherwise, what else could explain their reaction the following day, when an emotional and forceful performance–and above all else exhibiting a newfound sense of unity that so interestingly parallels that of the Clippers and their situation a short while ago–paved the way for a dominant 112-101 Game 2 win?
Once again, the peculiarity of this intangible factor that fosters unity does not originate in the fact that a playoff squad carries it, but in the coincidence that the two teams affected by it now go head to head. And with the characterization of intangibility in sports–something that is not definite and cannot be measured–one hardly predict what could arise as a result from both teams possessing the trait. If anything, it makes the Thunder and Clippers more formidable and empowered than at any previous point in the season, which could only indicate that this series will not settle itself easily, but rather in the most taxing and grandiose of NBA ways: a full set of seven games.