Carlson: Why these Thunder playoffs will be unlike anything OKC has ever seen
They put up the playoff banner across the street from The Peake last week.
Just like always.
They brought out the cherry picker on the south side of the Cox Convention Center, and they tacked the banner above the doors. This year, it has Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. It has blue and orange and the words, “WE ARE OKLAHOMA CITY.”
Stand along Reno Avenue across from that banner, close your eyes, and you can almost hear the pulsing music and the chanting fans and the sounds of Thunder Alley before a playoff game.
Just add about 20,000 people, and you’re there.
Of course, you’d also have to add the Thunder.
On the day the Thunder is set to begin its first-round playoff series against the Rockets, we are reminded this postseason is unlike any we have ever seen in Oklahoma City. It’s August, not April. It's work-day tipoffs instead of prime-time starts. It’s bubble ball with the teams sequestered in Orlando, not defending home court.
And it’s weird.
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“We’re in a situation none of us have ever been privy to, right?” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said the other day. “So, I played in 102 playoff games, but I’ve never played in one playoff game in a bubble yet, where your home court is predicated on virtual fans and … the jersey that you wear.
“It’s going to be a new experience for all of us.”
No one will feel it more than Thunder fans. The NBA playoffs have become an annual event in Oklahoma City with window painting and gear wearing and game planning. But like the Arts Festival and the Memorial Marathon and so many other community events during the pandemic, things have changed.
The build up is subdued. Sure, a good number of fans turned out over the weekend for a drive-through playoff party, and the MidFirst Bank building along Interstate 44 is sporting its five-story playoff banner.
But the vibe around town is different.
“I’m having a tough time remembering the games in bubble ... are part of the same season that paused in March,” longtime Thunder fan and Oklahoma City resident Chris Lambert said.
That disjoint has changed the way he feels about the playoffs.
“Excited?” he said. “No. But I am extremely proud of this team. They weren’t supposed to be good or even fun to watch. More than just being a fan, I like this team, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say for a while.”
Offseason trades of superstars Paul George and Russell Westbrook cast doubt on what the Thunder could do this season. But powered by Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder, OKC finished the regular season with a better winning percentage than it had a year ago.
Expectations have already been exceeded.
In some ways, that alone changes the tenor of these playoffs.
“Past playoff series were fraught with expectations, but this one is all gravy,” said Jackson Wyche, an OKC native who now lives in Los Angeles. “If the Thunder win, they’ll be fondly remembered as a team that dramatically overachieved. If they lose, it’s not an upset and Russ gets to the second round.”
Wyche, who says he’s as excited for these playoffs as he’s been in a long time, counts this team alongside the 2011-12 Thunder team that went to the NBA Finals as his all-time favorites.
He wishes the fans got to shower this team with playoff love
“I hope any players who switch teams after this season receive special recognition when they return to OKC the next time fans are allowed at games,” he said. “I know the Thunder don’t usually do that — Russ aside — but it would be nice since the players are missing out on the playoff appreciation.”
The playoffs in OKC are a special time. Thunder fans have been recognized among the best in the NBA, and during the playoffs, they are at the arena early. They are into every moment. They are cranked up to 11.
Not being able to be in that symphony of sound, that cacophony of chaos is a bummer.
Frank Crawford feels that disappointment. He is the co-founder of Crawford & Associates, an accounting firm that specializes in governmental investigations, but when the postseason rolls around, he becomes the leader of a group of costume-wearing, sign-carrying accountants who sit in Section 103 and have become a staple of The Peake’s playoff fabric.
They’ve worn beards for James Harden, red-framed glasses and fishing-lure shirts for Russell Westbrook and cheeseheads with the word SWISS added on the front for Thabo Sefolosha.
They’ve dressed like Wizard of Oz characters and dogs with floppy ears and boxers in silky robes.
And they’ve decided they aren’t about to let the pandemic ruin their fun.
“We are going to go ahead and dress up as usual, make our silly signs and do a Zoom call during the game,” Crawford said. “Corny but fun!”
These playoffs are unprecedented. Never before has the NBA done anything like this, so everything about these playoffs is unlike it's ever been. The vibe is different. The emotion is different. The build-up is different.
It has to be.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.