Heisler: Thunderkinder up past their bedtime

Now to let the Young Guns shoot it out. …

If you’re going to hear that a lot the next week or two, some of these guns are a lot younger than others.

By 2007, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had both been in NBA Finals, Kevin Durant had yet to be drafted; Russell Westbrook was an unheralded UCLA freshman who had played nine minutes a game; and James Harden was even less heralded as a high school sophomore.

Durant, Westbrook and Harden were hoop sophisticates next to 16-year-old Serge Ibaka, one of 18 children from a family in the Congo, who had just played his first season for a 20-and-under team in Spain.

If most people think James is still a young player at 27, he’s like the Godfather to the Thunderkinder.

“He is middle-aged, isn’t he?” Durant said during the season, grinning.

“I think I’m one of the younger guys. He’s one of the guys—he’s still young but he’s old, you know what I mean?

“I can’t explain it but he’s one of the guys who’s been in this league a while and done so much. Stuff he’s doing, you only wish you could do.”

Actually, Bron may wish he could do the stuff Durant does, or, at least, had Durant’s supporting cast, whether they’re post-adolescents or not.

If Oklahoma City, which is favored, prevails, it will do so with the second-youngest starting lineup to win an NBA title.

The youngest, Portland, started a team averaging 23.2 years of age in the 1977 Finals with Maurice Lucas (25), Bill Walton (24), Lionel Hollins (23), Bob Gross (23) and Johnny Davis (21).

Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are 23-23-22, but Thabo Sefolosha (28) and Kendrick Perkins (27) pull OKC up to 24.6.

Despite their amazing precocity, the Thunder hasn’t won anything yet—and if this doesn’t turn out to be their year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What it would be is NBA tradition.

With rare exceptions like Portland, NBA championships have always belonged to the veteran teams.

The Thunder’s acclaim is nothing compared to that preceding Orlando into the 1995 Finals with Shaquille O’Neal (23), Penny Hardaway (23), Dennis Scott (26), Nick Anderson (27) and Horace Grant (29) in a lineup that averaged 25.6 years of age.

Expected to roll over Houston’s aging defending champions, the Magic blew a 20-point lead in Game 1 (Google Nick Anderson), went down the chute and was swept, 4-0.

A year later Chicago swept the Magic in the East Finals, Shaq headed West and there went the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, if anything bad happens to the Thunder in the next week or two, my guess is their guys will get over it.

The speed at which they’ve arrived, four seasons after starting 2-24, is mind-boggling.

Surprising, if not mind-boggling, is the fact that Scott Brooks, now a hot coaching property, will also be a free agent July 1, after last season’s negotiations for an extension resulted only in an agreement to see where they are this summer.

If the run to the Finals would seem to insure that owner Clay Bennett makes sure GM Sam Presti offers whatever it takes, Brooks’ name is on the board of every team now looking for a coach, or considering firing the one it has.

In Oklahoma City, getting better is a way of life. The players’ answer to every question includes the sentence, “We’re just trying to get better.”

Everyone says that stuff but the Thunder players do it, making annual quantum leaps from 23-59, to a playoff berth, to back-to-back West Finals berths to 55-28 and the Finals, in four seasons.

They weren’t supposed to be ready for the Spurs. Instead, they turned into the Spurs.

Brooks said watching San Antonio video impressed his players so much, they began trying to move the ball like that.

To that point, the Thunder was known for its unusual low-assist, high-scoring offense with Durant, Westbrook and Harden capable of getting their own shots and putting up big numbers.

Apparently, the most impressed Thunderkind was Westbrook, the (barely) converted point guard, who seems to have thought: “You mean, instead of trying to jump over guys at the hoop, I can just throw it to one of my guys?”

Westbrook’s 1.6 assist-turnover ratio was No. 43 among 44 point guards this season. In the first 10 playoff games, he averaged 4.5 assists. In the last five, he averaged 7.8 and it was sayonara, Spurs.

Get that?

They watched some video and went from doing it on their own to playing together!

This is obviously a team with a future, so even if it’s not now, look for the Thunder to keep getting (shudder) better… eventually… I think.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.


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