You’re Doing Fine, Oklahoma (City).

It was wall-to-wall, morning-till-bedtime pro basketball this past weekend, with four consecutive exclusive national windows each day to showcase the 16 teams that have emerged as the combatants in the NBA playoffs.  But it took until the waning moments of the weekend’s final Game 1, one between two of the smaller market and less playoff-experienced teams to offer some truly compelling action.

The level of intrigue in the Western Conference series between the #8 seed New Orleans Pelicans and top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder is captivating.  Neither one of these seeds is truly considered to be representative of their respective regular seasons.  The Pels had been a division leader for much of 2023-24 and were on pace for home court advantage before a couple of crucial losses dropped them down to #7 and the play-in tournament.  And then, with their second straight game in three days against the Los Angeles Lakers being that first play-in game, despite a herculean 40-point/11-rebound effort by the much-injured Zion Williamson, the Lakers again emerged victorious as they did in the regular season finale.  And to add injury to insult, it was learned that the “left leg soreness” that forced him to miss the final minutes of that loss would prevent him from playing in the do-or-die game against Sacramento.  The Pels staged a true team effort to oust the Kings and earned their showdown with the Thunder, a team and a city that serves as both inspiration and mirror.

Oke City, meanwhile, somehow snuck into the number one seed on the season’s final day after defending champion Denver somehow stumbled, and a series of tiebreakers earned them the conference crown.  They have regenerated themselves at an even quicker pace than the Pelicans have improved.  While New Orleans has improved their won-loss percentage for five consecutive years to top out at .598, the Thunder, after going on a post-COVID bubble youth movement, went from sub-.300 in 2021-22 to just under .700 this year, winning 57 games in the process, doing so with perhaps the unlikeliest cast to do so, as ESPN’s Andrew Lopez explained:

Entering the playoffs, the Thunder were the youngest NBA team to secure a No. 1 seed since seeding began in 1984.  Seven of the 11 Thunder players who took the floor Sunday night were competing in their first playoff game. The relative inexperience showed itself at times in the fourth quarter, but the team also came through when it most needed to. 

As THE OKLAHOMAN’s Joe Mussatto described:

It felt like the old days. Looked like the old days. Sounded like the old days.  Except for the barking. That part was new.  For the first time in five years, to the exact April 21 date, playoff basketball was back in Oklahoma City.  The Thunder beat the Pelicans 94-92 in a Sunday night slugfest at Paycom Center, seizing Game 1 in the best-of-seven series. 

It’s weird to say the Thunder stole a home game, but that’s what it felt like. 

OKC was sloppy down the stretch. The ever-smooth Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was suddenly shaky, with as many fourth-quarter turnovers (three) as buckets.  The Pelicans had four 3-point attempts in the final three minutes, any one of which could’ve been fatal. They missed all four. 

Three came on one possession, in a span of 30 seconds.  In a tie game with 1:22 left, Pelicans wing Herb Jones missed a 3-pointer, but Larry Nance Jr. grabbed the offensive rebound. Then CJ McCollum missed a 3-pointer, and then Jones grabbed the offensive rebound. Then Brandon Ingram missed a 3-pointer, and Nance grabbed another offensive rebound.  Nance tried a six-foot push shot which Chet Holmgren swatted. 

That led to a driving, off-balance, falling-sideways SGA and-1 jumper — a heroic shot that helped avenge some of his miscues.  “I just caught the ball at the elbow, and just tried to be aggressive and make a play that I’ve made before,” said SGA, whose description didn’t give justice to the shot. 

It certainly shook a lot of the cobwebs out of my exhausted eyes, and heightened my appetite to see more.

The youth, exhuberance and grit that the Thunder showed nearly made up for the tepidity of the majority of the previous seven weekend games and, yes, I’m even including the Knicks’ holding off the 76ers and their valiant but ailing big man Joel Embiid.  There’s much more unpredictability that seems to lie ahead in this series.

And let’s not forget a good deal of the reason that the Thunder exist in their current form at all was the impressive support they showed for two seasons for the New Orleans franchise, then called the Hornets, during the two seasons post-Hurricane Katrina as the city was rebuilding.  The league’s willingness for the relocation of the Seattle Supersonics, a city with far more media upside, was heightened by the kinds of crowds that showed up at that time and have continued to do so even amidst the kind of tanking that took place between 2020 and 2022.

Oh, and that barking?  Let Mussatto elaborate:

Jalen Williams and (Jonas) Valanciunas got tied up going for a rebound, with neither willing to relinquish the rock when a jump ball was called.   After finally relenting, Jalen Williams called on the dogs. 

“Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.” 

The building formerly known as The Peake became The Pound. 

J-Dub barked. Thunder fans barked back. 

Must have been prairie dogs.

Courage…

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