Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Storm season arrives for OKC Thunder

Where's the love for the Oklahoma City Thunder?

I'm speaking mostly to myself here. I don't know, maybe a lot of you have gone down to Ford Center to watch this team play. I haven't, and I'm kicking myself.

I'm a basketball fan. Not the biggest NBA fan in the world _ in fact, I don't think I've watched a game on television from start to finish this season. I'm happy to catch Charles Barkley's halftime antics on TNT, then I usually return to regular programming.

But the Thunder? C'mon?

This team is getting ready to take on the almighty Los Angeles Lakers in a first-round Western Conference playoff series. The defending-champion Lakers. The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers. The team with the guru, Phil Jackson, on the bench.

The Thunder is the No. 8 seed in the West and 8 vs. 1 is usually a throwaway series. But there isn't a lot of difference in the records of the teams: Oklahoma City was 49-32 going into its final regular-season game Wednesday night; the Lakers 57-24.

LA did win three of four regular-season meetings with the Thunder, but the Lakers have limped to the finish as Bryant finally begins to show the slightest sign of wear and tear.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has the most exciting young star in the league in third-year player Kevin Durant. We knew Durant was special during his one season at Texas. We didn't know that he would escalate into a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate in the NBA this quickly.

Durant leads the league in scoring with 30.1 points per game. He'll shoot from anywhere, but has become a more complete player this season. He's a decent rebounder and shot blocker, too.

Oklahoma City sells out the Ford Center every night and it's because the Thunder is an exciting young team with a legitimate superstar and perhaps another in the making.

Point guard Russell Westbrook, whom Durant says is the team's MVP, averages 16.2 points and 8.0 assists. Forward Jeff Green adds 15.1 points and six rebounds while rookie James Harden is finding his niche and veteran Nick Collison, from Kansas, adds stability off the bench.

And how can you not get behind a team with the trio of Nenad Kristic, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha?

But I haven't gotten behind Oklahoma City, even though most of their games are on cable television. I watch bits and pieces, but I don't think of the Thunder as a local team the way I think of the Chiefs and the Royals in Kansas City.

Why is that?

The Chiefs and Royals have been around for years and built a loyal following in Wichita. Their games aren't only on television, but also on radio. The Kansas City teams have won championships and it's an easy drive up the turnpike to get to Arrowhead or Kauffman.

But, actually, it's a little closer to get to the Ford Center, which is right at 2 1/2 hours from my front porch. It's a few seconds less than that from my driveway.

So why aren't I ga-ga for the Thunder?

It's the NBA. The league has a bad rap and I haven't been able to get past the notion that it's just a bunch of millionaires having fun until the playoffs begin and they actually start to try.

That's a shallow way of looking at the NBA and I'm sure — well, mostly sure — it's not accurate. Still, when I watch a game I get easily bored. It doesn't seem intense, especially after watching as much college basketball as I do.

You would think that I would have gone down to Oklahoma City and written about the Thunder. I haven't.

You would think that I would have joined with my friends for a roadie to see the Thunder. That we would have met up for some pre-game socializing and walked over to see an NBA game. I haven't.

The playoffs start this weekend, thank goodness, and the NBA finally will come into focus for me. I watch the playoffs because something is on the line. Players give maximum effort (there I go again, questioning the regular-season spirit of the league's players).

The Lakers-Thunder series especially intrigues me. I can imagine a first-round upset. I'll be watching.

My friend and Eagle cohort Paul Suellentrop has followed through on his vow to pay close attention to everything NBA this season. He even took his mother, who had never been to a professional basketball game, to see the Thunder a couple of weeks ago.

It's not like Paul isn't busy, yet he found time. So will I, next season. There's a playoff-caliber NBA team and an MVP-caliber player just 150 miles to the south. And I should have been there. I should have been there.