What a ride! The Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed the national spotlight this year. More importantly they created pro basketball fans in what was once considered a college football state only.
Now that we are over the agony of defeat, fans should recognize the greatness the Thunder displayed all season long.
They finished second in the Western Conference regular season. They blew the doors off three Western Conference foes during the playoffs. The Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs are basketball royalty and championship caliber teams, and the Thunder slapped them around like weaklings.
Unfortunately, this is how basketball has worked throughout the years. Michael Jordan took a few lumps before becoming the MJ with six rings. LeBron failed miserably in the Finals on two occasions prior to holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The Thunder progressed from first round exit to conference finals loser to Finals runner-up. Now there are no excuses heading into next year.
Is a return trip to the Finals a gimme? Not quite. Other teams in the West will retool to specifically beat the Thunder.
Can the team avoid injuries? They overcame the loss of their backup point guard this season but what if one of their main cogs goes down? Nothing is a given from year to year.
It is possible Thunder General Manager Sam Presti might tweak the roster. If so, do those moves keep the juggernaut moving forward?
One thing you do not need to worry about is team chemistry. "Experts" and "Insiders" who either joined the Thunder wagon late or only watch highlights might try to once again create drama where there is none.
At the end of the anti-climatic Game 5 while the Heat celebrated a hard earned championship, the Thunder starters cheered on the reserved and exchanged hugs along the bench.
These guys have each other's back. There are too many examples to list them all.
When fans showed up for playoff games in OKC they found T-shirts draped on their seats. No one was too cool to wear the shirt.
The shirt given out for Game 2 of the Finals read something super corny: Team is Family.
What does that mean? How does this Midwestish message intimidate the Heat? The postgame press conference after Game 5 somehow gave a little credibility to those shirts. Check out Kevin Durant's comments. Pretty solid, heady stuff from a 23-year-old.
"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."
Durant gave absolute credit to the Miami Heat. Aside from one technical he earned during the San Antonio series he did not let the officials spotty calls affect him.
"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," Durant said.
This is why the team is so easy to root for. This is why Loud City is ... errr ... loud. Our star players make it easy to cheer for. They talk the talk and walk the walk.
"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," said Durant.
Hopefully they will. Even the NBA's three-time leading scorer is not taking it for granted though. Next year's 82-game regular season will seem like an eternity for fans. Can the players maintain focus during the grind as well?
Will the Olympics wear down Durant and Westbrook? Instead of resting they will be competing for a Gold medal alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Weird right?
Then again these youngsters might not have taken much time off if it were not an Olympic year. They are gym rats.
Westbrook may never please all the bench fans. But he certainly passes the eye test. His determination can never be questioned. His postgame comments indicate as much.
"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."
Let's allow Head Coach Scott Brooks to close out the season. His thoughts after a heartbreaking loss.
"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.
"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. (That is) 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."
Losing sucks. The team probably shed more tears than any of us care to admit.
Few of us can fully understand the life of a professional athlete. They make millions of dollars to play a game for a living so in many ways we cannot relate.
On the other hand, some of these athletes are just like us. In this case, they poured their mind, body and soul into one supreme goal. They came up short by the narrowest of margins. It hurts because they/we care.
Take Russ' lead Thunder. Keep your heads up.
Thanks for the ride.
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