NBA Playoffs Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

Refused - The Shape Of Punk To Come (1998)

there is no prestige in your title / we are after your head / the destruction of everything is the beginning of something new

When Refused played a friend’s basement in Virginia not even halfway through their 1998 American tour to promote The Shape of Punk to Come, they all knew the end was near. When the police pushed their way to the front of the crowd to pull the plugs from their amps and end the show, they knew the end had arrived. This was the destruction of everything for Refused, and they didn’t realize it yet, but it was also the beginning of something new. How they would ultimately feel about the legacy their band and that record would leave behind would surprise them.

At the close of the 2010-2011 season the Oklahoma City Thunder offer a bard’s tale of the evolution of a young basektball team, one full of sound and fury, signifying blah blah blah. Since being stolen from Seattle, the Thunder suffered through a miserable innagural season followed by a remarkable and exciting turnaround in the 2009-2010 season. Expectations were extremely high leading in to this season. Kevin Durant, last season’s MVP runner up, was expected to be crowned MVP in the wake of LeBron’s image-destroying “decision.” And the team was expected to improve upon its 50 wins enough to land atop the Western Conference.

Why shouldn’t the Thunder be considered among the conference leaders leading in to this season? Their turnaround the year before was surely remarkable, especially on defense. The team went from awful to one of the league’s strongest defensive teams last season with the addition of Ron Adams as assistant coach. And the Thunder took the Lakers to a thrilling game six in the first round of the playoffs, holding their own with the defending champs. They looked tough to beat. They looked like they were the future of the NBA. Their savvy and forward-thinking front office and the young talent on their roster was a glimpse at what was to come.

Refused started out in Sweden as a pretty run-of-the-mill chugga-chugga hardcore band. Run-of-the-mill or not, they were still the darlings of Sweden’s not-insignifigant hardcore scene. They played to larger and larger crowds there, and they took the band and themselves extremely seriously. Their music was charged with all of the left-wing political causes the hardcore scene of the nineties embraced. Each record they put out saw them tinkering with their musical style. From shouting lyrics to screaming them, from chugga-chugga to thrash and grind. From hoodies with band names on the sleeves to hair products and white belts. With each successive change, Refused were both apeing and defining the fads and sensibilities of their scene. And they were growing in popularity. The expectations on the band heading in to recording The Shape of Punk to Come were high. They knew it, and they relished it. As the title suggested, they set out to record a record that would define the direction of hardcore.

The Thunder didn’t relish the high expectations placed on them by fans the same way. They didn’t spend the offseason chasing LeBron James (or any other big-name free agents). Sam Presti instead chose to focus on what helped them turn around the season before: youth and fundamentals. He used cap space to sign extensions with key players and built in space to pick up other contracts as the season progressed. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why tinker with a good thing?

One problem he didn’t anticipate, however, was that his defensive savant Ron Adams would bolt and head back to Chicago. And he must have taken the defensive playbook with him, because in the first half of the season the Thunder dropped pretty dramatically in every defensive category. Meanwhile the Bulls’ defense improved considerably on his return this season. The Thunder tried to play the same defense they played last season, but it wasn’t working. They were suffering on defense and were letting games get away from them that the otherwise should have won on impressive offensive efforts.

it could all be so simple / we would all stand baffled by the precision and accuracy / our jaws would hurt from dropping so hard, fast, and unexpectedly / it would be the perfect metaphor / be the perfect song we’d be singing

And the Thunder had offense to spare. Kevin Durant was scoring better than ever, nothing flashy just efficient. Westbrook was developing as a slash-to-the-basket threat. The team was hitting shots at a high clip and putting up big numbers on opponents. And while a lack of defense was costing them some games they should have won, their offensive efficiency was allowing them to continue to win. Despite the lack of defense, the Thunder were still kicking ass. It got a some people in Oklahoma wondering, what if we had a big guy in the post? What if we could play defense under the rim? We’d be the total package. We could go all the way.The expectations were rising about as high as they could rise. A championship. In Oklahoma. It could happen.

Refused recorded a damn good album. And they knew it was damn good. They started to believe that they really were at the vanguard of rock and roll. They were sure that once people heard this record nothing would ever be the same. They planned an American tour. They imagined big crowds turning out and the band putting on a sublime performance. They imagined that people would talk about this record and the time they saw Refused play for years and years to come. Even their lyrics, all Situationist-styled revolutionary platitudes and grandiose rock and roll proclomations, seemed to reveal how hyper self-aware the band was about their own importance. They packed up this hubris with their instruments and headed off to the United States. All that was left ahead of them was a dozen shows and eternal greatness.

Then they got to Atlanta. And North Carolina. And Virginia. From bar to basement, they more often than not found themselves playing to handfuls of people who were either indifferent or unimpressed. The tour was turning out to be a disaster. The band was miserable, angry with one another, homesick, at-odds, and holding back their resentment and contempt for one another. The revolution would have to wait. The Refused were imploding.

The record they made was a good, if not great, record. The songs were well-written and the music was tightly produced. The craft was there, but the music built on influences. Their latest iteration of hardcore gimmickry and trend-setting involved Nation of Ulysses-styled imagery and attitude, Born Against’s energy and anger, Ink & Dagger’s ambient electronic interludes, and Antioch Arrow’s wail and chaos. The output was something heavy and sharp, with all the screaming and stop-start timing that was the signature of late 90s hardcore. They created something entertaining, something that worked, albeit something not alltogether original. And while their tour would do them in, the record would fulfill its own prophecy. And just as Sam McPheeters would express regret at influencing Refused, Refused would likely disown their own role in influencing bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, or at New Noise being used in the movie Crank or as baseball players' entrance music.

we’re all scared of dying, so sick of not trying / scared that we might fail, we’ll accomplish nothing -summerholidays vs punkroutine

The important lesson for the Swedish rockers was not that the world wasn’t ready for their revolution. It was that theirs wasn’t a revolution at all. They weren’t doing anything new. They were recycling the better stuff from everything everyone liked in the 90s, and they were doing it efficiently, they were doing it well. But at some point they mistook being a good band for being important and iconic. Their tour to promote their record brought them back down to Earth. The disappointment that came with the realization that they weren't at the vanguard of teeming rock masses would bring them down even further still.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a young team, an efficient team, a good team. Somewhere along the way this season they no longer were content with merely being good, sticking to the plan, and patiently developing their key parts into better and better players. Somewhere along the way this season they decided that they could go all the way and win a championship. At the trade deadline they brought in Kendrick Perkins to play at center. So far the trade seems to have worked out well on both ends of the court, and the team has been on a roll. The question remains, were they right to not stay patient and stand pat? Will they spark a revolution in the NBA and shock the world with a championship? And if not, will the Thunder let the disappointment bring them down?

David Hill is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He once owned a hoodie with the band name on the sleeve. He likes Denver in six.
Follow him on twitter here. And click here to read more of our playoffs previews.

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Anonymous said...

This was interesting to me. Prophecy or just a comparison with no real similarity... we will see.

Kirk Krack said...

Blog post contains: missed opportunity for "Shape of Dunks to Come" pun

Anonymous said...

Perkins is just as young as the Thunder "core" so I don't really see how this is a big deviation from their plan...

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