I defined ultimate (realistic) success back in October as this: “The Thunder wins a gritty 7-game series in the quarters, then in the Western Finals, comes up just short against the Lakers in six. It’s another huge step in the direction of winning an NBA title and though the team didn’t get there, everything we hoped for this season happened. And going into 2011-12, we have serious playoff experience under our belts and are ready to legitimately challenge for the crown.”
I actually used movies to rank expectations for the season and I had that scenario at the top as The Dark Knight. Well, I guess you can say Christopher Nolan directed the Thunder’s 2010-11, because that’s almost exactly what happened. (The question is, who’s Harvey Dent? Russell Westbrook? Oh nevermind.)
Now, after losing that Western Conference Finals series to the Mavs in five games, do I feel good about it? Do I feel like we can hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner across the arena formerly known as the Ford Center? Absolutely not. Considering the way the series went down, something just feels missing. The Thunder had an opportunity and it slipped past them. For the series, OKC led 123 minutes to Dallas’s 111. In the fourth quarter of the series, the Thunder won 133-130, but were outscored 34-8 in the last five minutes of the last two games. Again, they were right there.
Which is why it feels like this is a letdown. But it’s not, trust me. This was some kind of special season.
Let me be the billionth person to remind you where this team was three seasons ago. 3-29, 23 wins, four years away from the playoffs, blah blah blah. But that’s the truth. The progress has been remarkable.
I’m a big believer in perspective and once you start gaining some with this Thunder team, it all starts sinking in. Their average age is 25.4, making them the youngest team to appear in the Western Finals since 1986. Their four best players – Harden, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka — are all under 23. This was their second postseason and first trip out of the first round. Again, while getting to the Western Finals is an opportunity that doesn’t come along every year, was it really all that reasonable to expect them to actually win this whole thing? I mean, really?
And think about this: We’ve had this team three seasons in OKC. Twice we’ve experienced the postseason. Already once, we’ve experienced the Western Finals. The Charlotte Bobcats have never won a playoff game. The Raptors, Grizzlies and Hawks have never been to a Conference Finals. The Wizards haven’t been since 1979. The Warriors since 1975. Here were the Thunder, three years in, already in the Western Conference Finals! Spoiled doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Things changed a bit at the trade deadline when Sam Presti made a statement that this franchise is serious about winning. Core member Jeff Green was traded and in came a big, bad man in the middle to toughen up the Thunder defensively. But not just that, Serge Ibaka was now a full-time starter, which is probably the most important thing to come from that trade. No longer was it just about just being happy to take a step, it was about doing things. Forget youth, forget development. This team was good and it was time to start moving ahead.
And they did. Winning two playoff series and coming within a couple rebounds, turnovers and fouls of the NBA Finals is a pretty terrific leap forward. It’s not the conclusion we all had dreamed up, but with the way this roster is structured, the Thunder shouldn’t just have another opportunity, but hopefully three, four, five or maybe more chances to learn and progress.
Not only that, but they’ve got some real stuff to take with them now going into next year. The heartbreak of this playoff failure will be the drive to not let it happen again next season. More than that though, these guys had to persevere, endure and stick together. We saw the inner workings of a team tested because of media hyperbole and overreaction. The Thunder’s fabled chemistry was put to the test. Things are elevated in the postseason, especially the deeper you go. Every shot deserves judgment. Every bad pass requires examination. Every mistake, every loss, someone is to blame.
Everyone wants to badly win when you get to these points. But figuring out what it takes to move on is part of it. If you’re not disappointed for it to come to an, then your heart wasn’t truly beating for this team. But if you’re realistic and can keep that almighty perspective, you’ll understand that 2010-11 was truly a magical season. It might take you a week, two weeks, two months to come to grips with it, but you will.
But hopefully, it’s just another stepping stone towards the ultimate goal. The bar has been raised once again for this team. Last season, it was raised after 50 wins and a tough first-round playoff loss. People wanted to win more games, win the division, win a playoff series. Check, check and check. Now expectations go up a little more. Now, the Western Finals aren’t good enough anymore. It’s the nature of the beast. More, more, more. We all want it. We all want that big trophy and that big moment.
I think they’ll get there. And 2010-11 will just be another part of the path to it.