MIAMI — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden stood together on the sideline, watching as the inevitable ticked down.
Their season was ending in disappointment, the dream was dead. Harden had both arms draped around Durant and Westbrook, as the three stood true to form, cheering on the seldom used bench guys. I saw it happen up in my perch in American Airlines Arena, and thought it was a really cool moment. Nothing I could do but crack a small smile and appreciate what those guys did, and represented, this season.
For them to be standing and cheering despite the incredible wave of disappointment that was surely washing over them, was unbelievable. But not surprising.
The TV monitor in front of me was on the game and had like an eight-second delay, and on the screen flashed those three, standing almost in defiance of the moment they were watching. Together. Family. One. And I won’t lie, I almost lost it. I’m almost losing it sitting here writing about it. Fine, I am losing it. I have no idea why. It’s just a damn sports team. It’s nothing more than a bunch of boys wearing blue jerseys with “Oklahoma City” wiped across the chest that happen to get paid millions to ball in my city. But we all know it means something more. And not just because raising a banner in OKC would’ve been the coolest thing in the history of Oklahoma. I think because we wanted to see Durant, Westbrook, Harden and the rest of those guys get to enjoy their moment. To see that hard work all pay off.
Of course basking in the light of a trophy would be a beautiful thing, but there’s a tangible connection between this team and its fans. We love not just the Thunder, but these guys. And to see their hearts shatter apart, did the same in return to me. It was like they were trying to break me up. Durant and Westbrook hugged each player and coach on the bench.
Then in the tunnel, Durant did it all again hugging coaches, Clay Bennett and others before finally falling into the arms of his mom, who has been there in glory, and now the agony of defeat. This team preaches family, because that’s what they are. And for some reason, even though none of us wear a jersey or have a contract, we kind of feel like we’re part of it too.
To think, that championship taste was in all our mouths just nine days ago as the Thunder took a 1-0 lead on the Heat. With the maturation, the development and the pure, raw toughness these guys showed off in ripping through the Western Conference, it felt like it was time. Yeah, yeah, they’re young. Inexperienced. Haven’t paid dues and all that crap. Forget that. This Thunder team had the chops, the talent, the stars and the ability to win a ring. It just all went horribly wrong somehow.
You want to place blame? Fine. You want to point fingers? Go for it. But it doesn’t matter right now. The wounds are far too fresh and the pain too new. I don’t care if Scott Brooks completely blew it with his rotations. I don’t care if Harden didn’t show up. I don’t care if Westbrook went 4-of-20. I don’t care. There’s plenty of time to talk about all that. Right now, I care that they lost, that they failed, that I have to wait five more months until I get to watch them play again.
There’s this supposed promise that this isn’t it for the Thunder, that they’ll be back for many years to come. I believe that to be true. But even if it’s not, I know that the 2011-12 season was a special one. I watched a team take another step, grow up a little more and play with all the heart and effort they possibly could in search of their goal. Hell, down 22 in the fourth quarter and forced to watch Miami drain miracle 3-pointer after 3-pointer, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were flying around the court trying to engineer an impossible comeback. That’s why we root for these guys. That’s why we love them. That’s why it’s more than a team to us. They never quit, they never die. Even in a blowout Game 5 loss, they didn’t quit. They just watched a Heat team that was feeling its time pour it on. Somehow, despite just playing a sport for money in our city, they make us that much more proud to be an Oklahoman. And if you’re an Oklahoman, you already know we have a crazy stupid amount of pride in where we live. And if you’re just a Thunder fan from somewhere else, I think maybe you kind of feel like an Oklahoman by extension of this team. If that makes any sense at all.
The way Durant and Westbrook sat at the podium postgame and handled the agonizing pain of falling short said one thing to me: They will be back. Their hearts are broken because this season didn’t end well, but they know this wasn’t their one shot. They know they have even more room to grow. Any season that doesn’t end with you putting on the oversized shirts and spraying champagne will hold its disappointment. The Thunder are a championship caliber team that didn’t win a championship. Losing sucks. It just… sucks.
But out of 30, only one team gets to win. And I don’t know if you know this, but it’s hard to do. Is it a lesson? Were they not ready? Motivation for next year? I have no idea. I’m pretty sure they were motivated to win this time around. I just know it’s really tough to win, and they didn’t do it this year. Their last three seasons have finished with the eventual champion sending them out. A first round exit, then a Western Conference finals exit, now an NBA Finals finish. Natural progression… ? One can hope. It just all seems to far away. This trip to The Finals was so much work, had so much go into it, that getting back seems like 10,000 miles away.
It might be now, it might be five minutes from now, it might be five days from now, five months or even five years. But eventually, you’ll appreciate this season. Because come on, you can’t feel too sorry for yourselves rooting for this team, watching these guys play. The pain will eventually go away.
That sting you feel every time you hear the word “Thunder” or that overwhelming urge to change the channel every time you see an NBA Finals highlight on SportsCenter will subside. We had our hearts broken last season and while this one feels different, it’s another season in a long journey.
Thanks, Thunder. It was a good one.
- KD: “It hurts. It hurts, man. We’re all brothers on this team, and it just hurts to go out like this. 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. But 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 will continue to work hard. 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.”
- KD: “Their defense is really good. Those guys are really good over there. I didn’t want to admit it during the series, but now that it’s over, those guys are really good. Last team standing, so you’ve got to tip your hat. It was unfortunate for us, man, we wanted it so bad. But we’ve all got to keep our heads high. I’m a positive guy, so I am going to continue to keep my head high.”
- KD on hugging teammates and coaches: “Well, we’re not frontrunners. We’re not guys that are just happy when things are going well. It’s the toughest time we’ve ever been through, and we want to do the same thing we would do if we won the game. We hug each other, tell each other how much we love playing alongside each other, and thank them for what they’ve done all season, every guy down the line, coaches, everybody that worked with us every single day, and we worked together and worked hard every single day. We just thanked each other for this season. But we all know this hurts. We’ve got to continue to keep working.”
- Westbrook: ‘ Just thanking everybody, man, for the support, just going down the line and making sure everybody stayed positive, just making sure everybody knew that we worked hard, and we know what this feeling feels like. We’ll remember this feeling, and that will push everybody in the summer, just try to keep everybody going and keep everybody’s heads up.”
- KD on getting emotional with his family: “I didn’t think I would get that emotional. It was a tough, tough game, tough series. My mom and my dad have been there from the beginning. So like I said, win or lose, they’re going to always be there for me. You know, I’m not going to just hug them because we won a game. We lost the series, lost The Finals, I’m still going to thank them for all their support they’ve showed me. They hurt like I hurt. That’s what you want your parents to go through. It’s tough for me, and I could tell in my mom’s face and my dad’s face, it was tough for them just to see us lose.”
- KD finished by thanking the media: “Thank you guys for everything you did this season, good or bad. We appreciate it.”
- KD on LeBron winning: “You know, it was a storybook season for him, MVP, I’m assuming he got Finals MVP. Hopefully we can get a gold medal together this summer. That guy played phenomenal basketball all season, and congrats to them.”
- Scott Brooks on the season: “Just looking back quickly, this just happened, but the last three years we lost to each champion, the Lakers, the Mavericks and the Heat. So we’ve done something good to put us in a position to come back every year to get better and advance a little further in the Playoffs. That doesn’t guarantee that the next step is a championship. It’s hard to get here. You have to really play well and have some good fortune.”
- Brooks on what happened on the bench: “It was a lot of emotion. We have a group of men that I enjoy leading, and it’s a family. You know, it’s not easy to not accomplish your goals, and I think we’ve all kind of overlooked, even myself, how incredible these guys are. These guys are ‑‑ they’re just a great group of guys that give everything they have. They play the game the right way. They act like men off the court. Something that everybody should be proud of, not just me but the people that love the game of basketball and love NBA basketball. We’ve got a great group of guys that believe in team, believe in work, and I’m proud to coach them, and I love what they’re about.”
Next up: Next season.