Published November 20, 2014
The stroll back to the visiting locker room must have been a somber one Thursday night for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
One can only guess what superstar Kevin Durant was saying to the newly-crowned LeBron James when the two NBA icons embraced at the scorer's table following Miami's convincing win in Game 5 of the finals.
Most likely it was congratulatory words from Durant since he's more of a gentleman than a sore loser. Durant, though, was visibly upset when he met his family in the tunnel and the angst in his voice was noticeable during the postgame press conference.
"It hurts. It hurts, man. We're all brothers on this team and it just hurts to go out like this," Durant said. "We made it to the finals, which was cool for us, but we didn't want to just make it there. Unfortunately we lost, so it's tough. It's tough, man. That's the only way I can explain it."
Save perhaps a few moments in Game 3 and Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Durant played an exceptional series and averaged 30.6 points per game on the biggest stage of his life. The three-time scoring champion, who notched 28.5 ppg in 20 postseason contests, tried desperately to shift the series back to Oklahoma City with his third 30 plus-point effort in the series, but could only watch the South Beach celebration begin in the waning minutes.
Of course the ultimate goal is to win when sports immortality is on the line, but the Thunder should have no regrets on how they played during the lockout- shortened regular season and the playoffs. Oklahoma City averaged 52 wins in two seasons before prevailing in 47 of 66 games in 2011-12.
"As a whole I'm proud of the guys on how we fought all season. During the lockout we came together as a group and worked hard and we'll continue to work hard," Durant said. "I wouldn't want to play with anybody else. I wouldn't want to play for any other city. I'm just blessed to be a part of this organization and hopefully we can get back."
Durant shouldn't have to hope too much in reaching the apex of the NBA playoffs because there are few teams in the Western Conference that can match the Thunder's talent, speed and athleticism. San Antonio will be another year older and already blew a 2-0 lead to OKC in the conference finals. Who knows what the Lakers will consist of even though they have the NBA's best player in Kobe Bryant? The Clippers, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Mavericks will all be there again, only to play second fiddle to the up-and-coming Thunder.
There's a big IF to that notion, however. The futures of James Harden and Serge Ibaka, two instrumental figures in OKC's run to the finals, are in question for the foreseeable future. Can the small-market Thunder cough up enough cash to keep them together with Durant and Russell Westbrook? Also, will Scott Brooks be drawing up the X's and O's for them as well? It will be critical for OKC to get the 2009-10 Coach of the Year locked up.
That's the downfall of keeping players, and even coaches, intact for long periods of time. It may not be about how many zeros come before the decimal point, but in the end money always talks.
Harden, meanwhile, had a bit of a disappearing act in the finals, but that still won't take away what he accomplished this season. The Sixth Man of the Year is up for a contract extension, leaving many to wonder if Oklahoma City has enough shillings to go around after already laying enough scratch down for both Durant and Westbrook.
When speaking with reporters following arguably the biggest loss of his career, Harden didn't mention contract talks or personal goals, and was all about the team and the bonds that were formed during OKC's great run.
"It was definitely a learning experience for us," Harden said. "We're a family here. Obviously, individually we work hard, but as a team, we stuck together through tough times. I just tip my hat off to these guys. We're family. We're brothers here and we're gonna continue to get better."
The bearded Harden added that building and work ethic are key to Oklahoma City's success, and learned that every possession in the NBA finals counts. It's a long journey to still be playing basketball in June and the Thunder know that first hand in each of the last two seasons.
Perhaps a third time around for a proud franchise that feeds off family and solidarity will bear more fruitful results.