Thunder enter NBA playoffs respectful of everyone but fearful of no one

OKLAHOMA CITY — On the eve of his playoff debut, Chet Holmgren couldn’t wait to take the court.

“I’m very anxious,” the Oklahoma City Thunder star said Saturday, ahead of Game 1 Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans. “I’m ready to play, ready to get it on. I’m excited for it. I wouldn’t say nervous. But I’m anxious, for sure.”

Holmgren and the Western Conference’s top-seeded Thunder had six days off after closing the regular season last Sunday. Rest helped. Holmgren’s focus remained. He called the time off refreshing but said he didn’t stray far from the team’s practice facility.

“I wasn’t just sitting around,” he said. “I was still in here doing what I love to do.”

Finally, after a fantastic regular season that bordered on dominance, the time has come to see how it comes together in the postseason. No one can be sure how far the Thunder will journey this postseason. After crafting a top-five offense and defense, they certainly have the makeup of a team capable of making a deep playoff run. What remains to be seen is how they’ll overcome the potential perils of youth and inexperience popping up within a seven-game series.

With an average age of 23.4 years, the Thunder are the youngest No. 1-seeded team in NBA history, according to StatMuse. Only six Thunder players have playoff experience: Gordon Hayward, Bismack Biyombo, Mike Muscala, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Isaiah Joe. They’ve combined for only 2,623 postseason minutes over 134 playoff contests.

For comparison, Pelicans starters CJ McCollum and Jonas Valančiūnas alone have combined to play 1,047 more postseason minutes than the Thunder’s roster and only 17 fewer playoff games.

And yet Holmgren, 10 days shy of his 22nd birthday, sounded like a leader on a team of battle-tested players who’ve been here before. He spoke calmly as he discussed everything from his playoff memories growing up to the playoff mentality he’s carrying into Game 1.

“The playoffs are a time of huge swings,” Holmgren said. “And you can’t let the swing of things allow your emotions to run wild in one direction or the other, good or bad. If you win one game, the series isn’t over. If you lose one game, the series isn’t over. So it doesn’t matter what fashion you lose or win with. A buzzer-beater, a blowout, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get ready for the next game because no team’s going to roll over and give you anything.”

After seizing the West’s No. 1 seed, the Thunder are no longer a team of the future, although there’s ample runway for endless possibilities with the team’s core and the way the franchise is positioned for the long term. But Oklahoma City has arrived. Sunday is the first chance for the players to prove it, and a dominant playoff opener will only raise their already sky-high external expectations.

The Thunder are back in the postseason for the first time in three seasons and, whether this season or any subsequent season in the foreseeable future, the bar is a championship. Oklahoma City has journeyed to the NBA Finals. An appearance would be applauded, appreciated even. A sea of fans would greet players at the airport in the middle of the night as the tradition goes here. But the mission wouldn’t be accomplished.

At some point, all the Thunder promise for tomorrow must materialize into a parade. Here, there’s unfinished business from 2011 and ’12. There’s regret from 2014 and, of course, the ghost of 2016. The same people who still wear those scars have now poured their hope into this year’s baby-faced group.

“We’ve had expectations around us the whole time, whether they were super high or super low,” Holmgren said. “We never try to pay attention to those and let that determine what success is to us. We like to determine our own success and come in here and just be the best versions of ourselves. Whether that’s the expectations other people have for us or not, that’s what we’re going to do.”

It’s impossible to ignore the league’s changing landscape and how the young Thunder again are at the center of the transformation. After three consecutive seasons of improving their record, their climb to the top of the West is reminiscent of 13 years ago.

After relocating from Seattle in 2008, the Thunder built on a 20-win season by winning 23, 50 and 55 games in their first three seasons in Oklahoma City. Like today, those Thunder teams were considered ahead of their time. They plowed their way to the Western Conference finals in 2011 before losing to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Then they pushed through to the NBA Finals in 2012, only to lose to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

James, the winner of four of the past 12 championships, and his Los Angeles Lakers could be headed for a first-round exit against the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Stephen Curry, who owns another four of the past 12 titles, and his Golden State Warriors did not make the playoffs.

The door is open for a new challenger to the NBA’s throne.

“Well, I mean, I don’t think those guys retired,” Holmgren said. “I’d definitely just say credit to them for all the success that they’ve had and credit to us for being hungry for success in the future and in the now. There’s no knocking anybody or giving too much credit to anybody. I’ll just say that.”

The Thunder are walking into these playoffs respectful of everyone but fearful of no one.

“The age is just a number,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “There’s a difference between youth and maturity.”

And there are possible benefits to being a historically young top-seeded team.

“I feel like it helps with our chemistry,” Thunder guard Cason Wallace said. “Everybody being able to be themselves. Be goofy. Be free. And we all feed off each other’s energy.”

With a home crowd that historically has been one of the NBA’s loudest, Holmgren was asked Saturday if he could envision what Game 1 will look like.

“A sea of white, man,” he said. “Lots of people standing up cheering. Deafening sound from everybody cheering. And a whole lot of excitement.”

(Photo of Chet Holmgren: Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)

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