OKLAHOMA CITY — At the beginning of the video the Oklahoma City Thunder play before their starting lineups are announced, there’s a message on the scoreboard.
RESILIENCY. IT DEFINES OUR TEAM.
That was especially true during the Thunder’s comeback from an 18-point deficit Wednesday night to beat the San Antonio Spurs and clinch a spot in the NBA finals. But that’s only the final step in a remarkable turnaround.
It was only three seasons ago that Oklahoma City’s new team was 3-29 and just hoping to avoid the worst record in NBA history.
“You can look at it as a negative, but I think as a group and as an organization, we’ve seen some light, and we’ve seen that one day we’d be at this moment, and one day we’d have an opportunity to win a championship,” said Russell Westbrook, who may best personify the transformation by turning himself from a rookie struggling with turnovers into an All-Star.
Back when Scott Brooks was hired as coach around Thanksgiving 2008, his first task was trying to get the team to be competitive in the fourth quarter. Now, opponents can’t seem to put the Thunder away when it comes to crunch time.
“Even back then, we weren’t losing games. I was telling the guys we were learning how to win games, and there’s a big difference between that because we had guys that worked every day and it gave me hope that when we were down they were still practicing, still working hard,” Brooks said.
All that hard work paid off with the franchise’s first shot at the title since 1996 as the Seattle SuperSonics. The team’s only NBA title came in 1979 back in Seattle.
The Thunder will host Game 1 of the finals Tuesday night, against either Boston or Miami.
“I’m not as excited as I thought I’d be,” said Nick Collison, the only holdover who played in Seattle except for Kevin Durant.
“I think we all know we have more work to do. I don’t think any of us dreamt about making it to the finals. I think we all dreamt about winning it.”
Oklahoma City has gotten this far with a youthful core featuring homegrown first-round draft picks Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka that has blended with a trio of veterans who already have championship rings — Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed.
To get to the finals, Oklahoma City had to go through the only three teams to win the West since 1998 — Dallas in the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals and then San Antonio.
“It’s almost like a Hollywood script for OKC in a sense. … Those three teams represent 10 of the last 13 championships, and now they’re going to go to the finals and play either Boston or Miami, and that’ll be 11 of the last 13 championships,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
“I don’t know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through a playoff playing those kinds of teams. It’s just incredible, and I think it’s pretty cool for them.”
The Thunder have made a steady progression since rallying to finish 23-59 that first season in Oklahoma City. After adding Harden and Ibaka, who was kept overseas for an extra year of development, the club made the playoffs and lost in the first round to the eventual champion Lakers.
Last year, the Mavericks knocked out Oklahoma City in the West finals before also going on to win it all.
“We’ve been through a lot, not just this year but first getting here, moving to Oklahoma City and losing and then the way we lost in the playoffs,” said Durant, who has won the past three league scoring titles. “We’ve been through a lot. We don’t call each other family just to say it. We really believe in that.”
Along the way, the Thunder have never let their youth be an excuse. And all the talk about them being too young to win it all, it’s only driven the team to prove any doubters wrong.
“I coach them hard. I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt because they’re only 22 years old and 23 years old,” Brooks said. “They’ve got a job to do. We all have a job to do, and you have to do it every day.
“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you can’t play hard, you can’t practice hard, you can’t have a great attitude for your teammates, and our guys have done that.”