The Conference Finals showdown between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs gets underway Sunday evening. It's a power packed series with almost everything a basketball fan could ask for - two Conference foes with explosive offenses and tough defenses, loaded with clutch, play making All-Star (and Hall of Fame) talent. The only thing missing is bad blood.
But does that mean a rivalry can't exist between these two teams?
Fans in the two hosting states are well aware of old state rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas; The epic battles between the Longhorn and Sooner football programs, the ongoing argument of who has the best BBQ, and really just about anything that can be turned into a whizzing contest. So a professional sports playoff series between the two states should naturally be rough and testy, right? Eh, well... maybe not.
Despite the ancient butting of heads between the states, the bad blood between the two clubs is non-existent. Even the two fanbases seem rather cordial to one another and it doesn't take much to figure out why. Absent are the memories of cheap in-game shots, inflammatory comments, heated playoff series (unless you roll back to the early 2000's series against Seattle), and chronicles of mutual disdain between the two clubs. In truth, the absence of any juicy headline-making animosity makes this Western Conference Finals almost feel like a goodwill series. And when you consider the strong feeling of respect between the two clubs, it's hard to label this fight for the NBA Finals as a rivalry.
But then again, the match-up between these two teams is about as close as you can get to a sibling rivalry in the NBA. Under Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti, who started his NBA career in San Antonio, the Thunder have modeled their young franchise in the image of the Spurs; draft well, build deep, and develop together. Both are small market teams, built upon one self-effacing mega-star, an emotional scoring point man, and a uniquely dynamic sixth man. They find role players that fit their system well and never rock the boat. There are no shots at the front office, back handed remarks about the coaching staff, or whining to the media. Both teams are humble and focused while still being quirky and goofy in their own unique ways. Even the more-rural-than-urban cities are mirror-images of each other: low key, one top-tier sports team, touristy water canals, big rodeo/livestock destinations, developing energy business sectors, etc., etc.
Personally, this seems more like a fight where the two contenders go out for drink together after the final bell. A healthy fraternal rivalry that, at times, seems to almost unite the two fanbases. I feel safe in saying that the fans of the losing team will be rooting for the winner to take it all. And not just because of the old "because they beat us" factor.
But maybe there will be something in this series that sparks that burning hatred for the other side. Perhaps another high elbow or a distasteful remark. Or maybe just being eliminated from the final dance will be enough to get things boiling. But regardless of whether this is a rivalry or not (or ever), this series should be one terrific show.
How about it, Pounders? What makes up a rivalry? Does it exist between these two teams? How do they begin? Does there need to be bad blood?