Posted May 26 2011 8:43AM
DALLAS -- Kevin Durant couldn't hide it.
The disappointment, the shock and the sick feeling in the bottom of his stomach after realizing that what for the last month was the Oklahoma City Thunder's dream ride, had finally come to an end.
The young Thunder, with four of their top seven players 22-years-old or younger, found out the hard way that what you want and what you can handle don't always match up in the NBA playoffs.
"It's kind of shocking that our season is over with, you know what I mean?" Durant said after the Thunder's 100-96 Game 5 loss Wednesday night at American Airlines Center, their second straight defeat in this series in which they surrendered a solid fourth quarter lead.
"It's a different feeling. To be honest, all of us expected to go far. We had high expectations for ourselves coming into this year, and we knew we worked hard enough. After a good first round and a hard-fought second round, we put ourselves in good position to fight for a [NBA] Finals appearance and thought we had a good chance."
That was before Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler and the rest of those veteran Mavericks showed up and smacked little brother back to reality.
It's a learning experience almost every championship team in NBA history has had to learn at one time or another, but usually on the ascent to true contender status. The Thunder learned their lesson the hard way during this postseason, and especially during this series. And in the long run, this could serve as ground zero for their decade-long Mavericks-like pursuit of championship glory.
The Thunder have a solid core, the second-lowest payroll (Chicago's was lower this season) of any team that made the postseason and players, like Durant and fellow All-Star and All-NBA pick Russell Westbrook, that have only scratched the surface of their immense potential.
"Next year when they are 23, they're still going to be young," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We're not going to use it as an excuse. We all signed up to play this game as NBA players, and you have to take pride in what you do because it's not a hobby. It's our life. This is what we do. This is what we believe in."
The Thunder's youth, off-the-charts athleticism, energy and relentless determination to play their way into championship-contender territory is something anyone can believe in.
That's what carried them from the depths of a 23-win season three years ago to last season's 50-win campaign and first round playoff date against the Los Angeles Lakers. All those factors fueled their encore run this season, which included a second straight 50-plus win season, a top four playoff seed and entry into the league's elite.
Brooks has already been named Coach of the Year once. The Thunder are way ahead of the franchise blueprint that would have seen this team compete a championship in a year or two, not now, with the core group of players making just the second postseason appearance of their young careers.
And this is a cohesive bunch, a group of "gym rats" as Brooks often refers to them, guys who have to be chased off the floor at their practice facility some days for fear that they won't leave.
"They're really committed to each other," Brooks said. "[I've] never been on a team, other than my high school team, where we had a closer group of guys, and they're all the same age and they're all fighting to get better. They get along. And that's very rare."
Yet even with Durant, the two-time scoring champion and a first team All-NBA pick, and Westbrook (and don't forget sensational sixth man James Harden), the Thunder simply did not have the goods to survive a series against the much more seasoned Mavericks.
The 23-point lead they lost in the final five minutes of regulation at home in Game 4 was the surest sign that bright lights had gotten to them. The final blow came Wednesday night, when the Mavericks erased an eight-point lead with just over seven minutes to play and exposed the Thunder's inexperience at winning time and ended their season.
"I think we learned that we're talented enough to play for a championship but we have to learn how to play basketball better," veteran forward Nick Collison said. "And that's difficult. That's the hardest part, learning how to make plays down the stretch at this stage of the season. It's good for us and we got experience. We're one of the fortunate teams to have the talent to compete at this level. Now we need to play better."
They need to play much smarter as well. They need to use the experiences, the highs and lows that occurred over the past five weeks, as the launching pad for the next stage of their development.
"It's nothing about our talent or our togetherness on this team. Sometimes it's all about our mentals," said veteran center Kendrick Perkins, who joined this group at February trade deadline from Boston, where he won a championship (2008) and played for another one (2010). "We have to have greater mental toughness going into next year. And one thing we have to understand is that even though we didn't win a title this year, there is going to be a target on our backs. Because I feel like we're one of the elite teams in this league. Every night we have to prepare for teams to come out and give us their best. We have to learn from this."
Still, it wasn't easy for Durant to walk off that floor knowing that he'd struggled in what to date is the biggest moment of his NBA career. Not even the game's biggest names are guaranteed to play this deep into the playoffs every season.
He need only look to the other locker room for proof. Nowitzki's Mavericks had been bounced in the first round of the playoffs in three of the past four seasons before this one. He hadn't so much as sniffed a conference final since making it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2006, where the Mavericks came up short in six games against the Miami Heat.
But Durant, ever the competitor, wasn't interested in showering praise on those who spoiled his dream.
"I'm not happy at all," Durant said. "I'm a competitor, man. I don't really care about what [Dirk] went through the last three or four years. I know it's been tough for him. I'm sure he's happy now he's going back to The Finals, but I'm not happy for him at all because I wanted to be there."
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