The Oklahoma City Thunder were gravely disappointed as they sat in the locker room at American Airlines Center Wednesday. For the second straight game they had seen a late lead slip away and a chance to stun the veteran Mavericks and continue a magical journey through the postseason.
Kevin Durant was not having any of that thought. He was not thinking at that moment about the successes of the season before. Rather, he was lamenting the opportunity that was missed. Conference finals do not come very often. You certainly cannot bank on them every year.
The disappointment of the end of the season surely filled the hearts of the very appreciative and enthusiastic Oklahoma City fans. The city has had the Thunder for only three years, and you can feel the passion and gratitude for the mere presence of the team every time they take the floor at Oklahoma City Arena. You may hate the circumstances of the Thunder franchise leaving Seattle and you may hate Clay Bennett, but you cannot dislike the passion of Oklahoma City's fans.
That appreciation shone through when the Thunder returned home. A spirited crowd greeted Oklahoma City's plane at the airport chanting, shouting and cheering their appreciation for this run through the postseason.
This certainly does not feel like the end for Oklahoma City though.
The national fans were probably upset that the young Thunder, the "it" team from the beginning of the year, failed to live up to expectations. The discussion throughout the Western Conference Finals and the entire Playoffs seemingly centered on the apparent power struggle between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Everyone wanted Durant to take over and for Westbrook to take the back seat. It did not stop Westbrook from averaging 20.2 shots per game in the playoffs and posting a 34.4 percent usage rate.
The real problem for Oklahoma City was that Durant and Westbrook were the only two players who seemed to consistently create against Dallas' defense. The Thunder were right there, as Royce Young of Daily Thunder notes:
"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."
And it really was for the Thunder. As Young notes, it was three years ago that Oklahoma City was one of the worst teams in the league. This is still a roster with an average age of 25.4, the youngest team in the conference finals since 1986, according to Young. Durant and Westbrook should still be playing in college.
Just consider that for a moment.
With so much youth and so much talent and now all this playoff experience, you figure Oklahoma City has a bright future even after this breakthrough. That is certainly why everyone thought the Thunder would have their breakthrough this year, if not eventually.
Conference finals losers though struggle getting back or recovering.
Both 2010 conference finals losers greatly disappointed -- the Magic lost in the first round and the Suns failed to make the postseason. The 2009 losers disappointed too -- the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round after earning the best record in the league and the Nuggets fell in the first round. Both the Pistons and Spurs, the 2008 conference finalist losers, lost in the first round.
For whatever reason, losing in the conference finals seems to be a sure sign for disappointment the next year.
Oklahoma City is young and will surely find the pitfalls of a growing team and learn from plenty more losses. As Young puts it:
"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."
Likely though, Oklahoma City will take a step back before taking that big step forward. This is a young team with still a lot to learn. Unlike the Mavericks or Heat, this is a team that has not seen any of its core players hit their prime. There is no Dirk Nowitzki playing at another level or LeBron James at the height of his powers. This is a team full of players still learning who they are going to be as NBA players.
The Thunder is rumbling off in the distance. And their storm might be coming much sooner than we expected.
Photo via DayLife.com.