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NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder Has Youth On Its Side


The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat play game two of the NBA Finals tonight. The Thunder won their first meeting after falling behind by 13 points. They've been coming back throughout the postseason, showing veteran poise, even though their four best players average 22 and a half years old.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the kids of Oklahoma City, who seem to be turning on its head the old sports adage: When games matter most, it's experience that counts.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Our story about OKC's youth movement begins, fittingly, with a video game. In a noisy hotel bar in downtown Oklahoma City, former NBA player Kenny Smith is MC'ing an event promoting a new interactive game where you dribble a basketball to the beat of the music. It's pretty cool, but the real reason I showed up was to ask the master of ceremonies about an Oklahoma City team having so much success so young.

KENNY SMITH: Kenny 'The Jet' Smith, TNT Sports.

GOLDMAN: Smith is part of the popular TV studio crew along with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Ernie Johnson, that is alternately hilarious and wise about all topics NBA. Smith says the Thunder's four core players, 22-year-olds, James Harden and Serge Ibaka and 23-year-olds, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, take their cues from three-time NBA scoring champ Durant. He's a supremely gifted player, Smith says, who has earned the right to strut and separate from the rest, but doesn't.

SMITH: I mean, he is a prototypical we-not-me, guy.

GOLDMAN: In a recent interview, Durant said something Smith thinks is profound, considering today's star-driven NBA.

SMITH: He goes, yeah. The reason I play with Oklahoma and stay here - yeah. I like the city. You know, the typical answer and then he said, then they also told me that I'd be one of the main guys. He didn't say, it would be your team. One of the main guys.


GOLDMAN: Thunder practice yesterday was focused and spirited. Assistant coach, Rex Kalamian, ran the offensive drills. He's been with the team three years, in the NBA 18. Talking to him, you get the sense there may be something structural, something in the Xs and Os of Thunder basketball that allows the young 20-somethings to thrive and to stay calm in pressure situations. Despite its offensive explosiveness, OKC considers itself a defensive-oriented team and head coach Scott Brooks has given his young players a comfort level, Kalamian says, by never wavering from the Thunder's defensive philosophy.

REX KALAMIAN: Our guys keep hearing the same message, whether it's from the players on the floor to the coaches. We're all saying the same thing and they bought into it.

GOLDMAN: Continuity, Kalamian says, allows Brooks to make quick corrections if the team falls behind.

KALAMIAN: At half time, they come in. We watch film, we talk about four or five different things that are hurting us, and every time he asks them to jump it to another level defensively, they found it.


GOLDMAN: They found another level Tuesday to the disappointment of veteran Shane Battier and his Miami teammates. Battier isn't all that impressed about the Thunder's youthful success. It's a young league anyway, he says, compared to when he joined the NBA 10 years ago. Battier instead likes to recall what Hall of Fame coach Hubie Brown always said in speeches or at coaching clinics.

SHANE BATTIER: Write this down. Don't miss it. And he went over to the overhead projector and said, if you do not have good players, you will not win. I'm going to repeat that in case you missed it. If you do not have good players, you will not win.

GOLDMAN: The problem is, for Miami, the Thunder's kids are really good, too. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.