x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The good, the bad and the no-brainer

Regardless of James and 'The Decision' there are plenty of reasons to cheer on Oklahoma City Thunder against Miami Heat.

The circus surrounding LeBron James, left, has made Miami Heat easy to dislike while ‘good guys’ such as Russell Westbrook, right, help endear Oklahoma City Thunder to NBA fans.
The circus surrounding LeBron James, left, has made Miami Heat easy to dislike while ‘good guys’ such as Russell Westbrook, right, help endear Oklahoma City Thunder to NBA fans.

A sure-fire formula for popular American television dramas is presenting conflict between clearly defined good and bad guys. Cops versus criminals. Spacemen versus aliens. Superheroes versus villains. You get the idea.

The same applies to sports. Interest and viewership soar when otherwise neutral fans perceive one side as virtuous, the other as wicked.

Thus explains in part the hysteria over the NBA finals.

The Miami Heat might as well be wearing black hats or robbers' masks, as much as they are loathed because - well, for no good reason, other than Lebron James's tone-deaf, overly staged signing and the subsequent rally at which players harmlessly but ill-advisedly promised multiple titles.

The Heat seem like decent dudes, hard-working and humble. Still, the sporting public need not justify its labels. If they see baddies, so be it.

More easily explained is the affection for the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose players are too young to have built up much enmity. (The exception: their ancient guard Derek Fisher, but who can dislike the president of the players' union for his role in preventing cancellation of the lockout-threatened season?)

This franchise, in their fourth season in Oklahoma City, have not been breathing long enough to have worked up a healthy hate against it. Unless, of course, you live in scorned Seattle, the birthplace and residence of the Supersonics since 1967 until they were sold, renamed and shipped east.

Only there, other than in south Florida, might you hear chants of, "Let's go, Heat".

The James Gang aside, there are reasons galore to root for the Thunder.

Small-town charm. Oklahoma City is not exactly a two traffic light town. But, as the country's 43rd largest city, situated in the amorphous Midwest, it barely registers alongside the NBA's metropolises. Good luck finding it on a map.

Yet, the Thunder nearly always play to a full house. Even with a tiny fan base, they became the fifth team to sell out season tickets this season, and the capacity crowd for Game 2 marked the 66th successive home game without a spare seat to be found.

As for charm, more good luck finding a spectator not wearing the blue T-shirt handed out at games or someone not holding hand to heart during the National Anthem.

Building a better way. The locals were even supportive during a 3-29 start in the get-to-know-you season. It ended at 23-59, after which management continued to ignore the quick fix of signing veterans and stayed the course with the draft.

The hoop gods, in turn, have showed them some love, allowing Portland to draft the chronically hobbled Greg Oden in 2007, leaving Oklahoma City with ...

Kevin Durant. He wears a schoolboy's backpack to and from games and hugs his mother at the side of the court after them. What is not to like about the purest scorer since ... when?

Clutch, too. In Game 1, he amassed 17 points in the fourth quarter, reprising an 18-point outburst in Game 4 against San Antonio, including all 16 by the Thunder in one stretch. Mama mia!

Fear the beard. With his volume of facial hair, James Harden, deserving Sixth Man of the Year, looks twice his age of 22. (When did he start growing that thing? Third grade?) Harden has caused a run on fake beards at local costume stores, with fans sporting them at games. A Facebook page and Twitter account called James Harden's Beard have sprung up. Oklahoma City are avoiding close shaves on and off the court.

Russell Westbrook. As a shoot-first guy - launching poor shots, at that - he used to violate most bylaws in the point guard playbook. He still guns, but so did Kobe Bryant at that age (23). Recalibration is coming with age.

And how about the supergeek look - no-lens goofy glasses and goofier polo shirts - at news conferences? Not taking yourself seriously, that is the ticket.

The foreign legion. One starter, Serge Ibaka, plays defence as if his life depends on it. Perhaps other lives do. He grew up in the Congo with no electricity or running water and has 17 siblings.

Another starter, Thabo Sefalosha, is a native of Switzerland with South African and French parents. (Find another human with that combination and win a prize.) At 28, he is the old man among starters. A finals against the Celtics would have been a veritable fathers versus sons matchup.

Instead, huggable Oklahoma City got the hated Heat, and no way could the NBA have rigged a starker good guys/bad guys scenario for big television ratings. Just you watch.


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