Posted Jun 22 2012 6:59AM
MIAMI -- That long walk through the falling confetti and those deafening cheers from the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd are sights and sounds Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will replay in his mind over and over again during what will no doubt be the longest summer of his 23 years on Earth.
The tears Durant shared with his mother and father as he stopped in the tunnel on his way to the Thunder locker room after their Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat will be another lasting image from the Thunder's inexplicable collapse in The Finals.
"It hurts," Durant said after the 121-106 blowout. "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 ... I didn't think I'd get that emotional. It was a tough game, a tough series. I could tell in my mom's face and my dad's face, I was tough for them just to see us lose."
After running through 13 years of Western Conference dominance in their march to The Finals -- the defending champion Mavericks in the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals and the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals -- the Thunder actually entered this series favored by plenty of folks.
But champions have to be vetted before they are deemed worthy of walking off with the Larry O'Brien trophy. It's happened countless times before, from the "Bad Boy"-era Pistons of the late 1980s to the Jordan-era Bulls of the 1990s to the Shaquille O'Neal-and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers of the 2000s, the throne does not come without a fight.
The Heat learned that the hard way last year, getting worked over by the Mavericks in a series most assumed the heralded Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would win easily.
These past nine painstaking days have served as the Thunder's vetting process. Their youth and inexperience, qualities they leaned on every step of the way before now, became the trap that cost them in the end.
A team that dethroned the Spurs in the conference finals with four straight stunning and statement-making wins turned around and lost four straight to the Heat in The Finals, and they had to rally late to win Game 1.
The absence of humility in the Thunder's words and actions after each and every defeat prior to this last one served as a reminder to those of us who have witnessed these moments before. Sometimes what a team -- its coaches, players and all involved -- doesn't know can and will hurt them in The Finals.
It's not enough that Durant, the league's reigning and three-time scoring champion, and his All-Star counterpart Russell Westbrook can play at otherworldly levels for extended stretches. It takes more than just your superstars playing at the highest level on the biggest stage.
It would have helped if Sixth Man of the Year James Harden had showed up at all. Big men Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, the runner-up to Knicks center Tyson Chandler for KIA Defensive Player of the Year, didn't exactly establish their dominance in the paint either.
It takes a complete team to win a championship. It takes contributions from everywhere. And you have to have them at the right time for it all to come together. A group that believes they have championship fiber won't know for sure until they are tested on this stage.
And strange as it may seem, failure at this juncture can forge the sort of bond and resolve necessary to take that next step. That said, there are no guarantees, something the always-conscious Durant recognizes.
"I wouldn't want to play with anybody else," he said with Westbrook by his side at the podium after Game 5. "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."
The same thing that cost them this time around is the same thing working in the Thunder's favor going forward. If they can reach this point at such an early stage of their time together, the future could be filled with championship opportunities.
Durant and Westbrook are both 23. Harden and Ibaka are just 22.
Scott Brooks, the 2010 NBA Coach of the Year, is one of the league's best young coaches and has a temperament that first this group perfectly.
They have one of the league's best executives in general manager Sam Presti, who has built this team in short order with deft work in the draft and pin-point accuracy in trades and free agency.
All the pieces are in place for future success at the highest level, provided the Thunder continue on the path they have traveled the past four years. Even the Heat realize that much.
"They're going to be a team to be reckoned with for a lot of years because they are young and they're going to use this experience as motivation," James said. "You know this is not the last time we'll see Oklahoma City. I wouldn't be surprised ... this won't be the last time we'll see them in The Finals."
But the difference this first time around was the trials and tribulations the Heat endured the year before and the fact that they absorbed them all and returned wiser and better prepared this time around.
There are not wasted efforts in The Finals. Every possession of every game requires the ultimate sacrifice mentally and physically.
"It definitely wears on you," Harden said of the series and Game 5 in particular. "I think now we know that every possession in The Finals matters, it counts. There were several possessions we just gave away ... every possession matters in The Finals. We just gave too many away."
The Heat took more than they gave. And that's another lesson that will become clear to the Thunder as the sting of the being so close to it all and coming up short fades in the coming weeks and months.
When OKC goes back to work this summer, shoring up its own weaknesses and identifying the improvements that need to be made, it will see what everyone else saw from the moment they lost their way at the start of Game 2 -- their slow start at home led to their first home loss of this postseason and ultimately their unraveling in The Finals.
"We definitely have room to improve," Brooks said. "That's what the summers are for. That's what we've always positioned our organization for, respect the game, respect what you do and be consistent in that work and approach every day as a day to improve. And we've got a group of guys that believe in those things."
Despite what it looked like at times during this series and what has been speculated about in the past regarding the Thunder's internal dynamics, this is a team that firmly believes in itself. Each and every one of them believes they will be back in the position to win it all again.
As the seconds ticked off the game clock, there was as much hugging and handshaking, albeit with somber expressions on pained faces, than there were on the ecstatic Heat bench.
"We're not frontrunners," Durant said. "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. And that's every guy down the line, coaches and everybody that worked with us every single day. We just thanked each other for this season. But we all know this hurts."
It's supposed to hurt when you get this close but come up short.
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