2013-14 Exit Interviews - Day One

It was an incredible run, but the Thunder came up six games short of its ultimate goal.

On Sunday morning, Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks and his team were hoping to be preparing for a Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, with the chance to advance to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately after a tough 112-107 overtime loss on Saturday night in Game 6, Brooks and eight veteran members of his squad met with the media as a part of their annual end-of-season exit interviews.

Players were still feeling disappointed about the end of the season, but were proud of the effort everyone displayed throughout the year. With an eye on the future, Brooks and company feel positive about the team's trajectory and its chances to contend once again next season.

Reggie Jackson - 4:30 p.m.

The blood, sweat and tears that are shed for eight straight months are shared, so when a season ends, it’s sometimes hard to let go.

On exit interview day in his rookie and second years, Reggie Jackson was extremely emotional about the prospect of leaving his teammates and brothers in the Thunder locker room and the team staff for four months before the new season begins. Although with more steel-eyed determination this year, Jackson was still wistful when reflecting on all of the fond memories he had this season while also sad about the fact that he won’t be able to go to battle in a game with this group until the fall.

With the NBA schedule and routine, teammates become like family because of the time they spend together, so Jackson doesn’t take for granted the relationships and bonds that have been built in the Thunder’s locker room.

“I joked with the trainers that I was tired of seeing them, but I definitely wanted to see them for another three weeks,” Jackson said. “This day has come a little too early, but it’s easy to wake up and do something you love, especially when everybody else feels the same way.”

“We normally compete to see who can be first to the gym and last one to leave,” Jackson said. “You kind of have your groups that you go to the cold tub with, get massages and lift. You spend so much time around the group of guys and just work day-in and day-out to be the last one standing.”

Every year, Jackson has increased his role with the Thunder and also his skill level. Two years ago, Jackson was playing with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers. Last year, Jackson went from the third point guard to the backup to the starter in the playoffs. This season his role fluctuated between backup point guard and starter due to injury to Russell Westbrook and lineup shifts, but throughout it all, Jackson produced.

Heading into the summer, Jackson’s main goals for himself are on the defensive end and the consistency with which he contributes each night. On defense, he believes with the right mindset he can keep his man in front of him every game. On offense, Jackson hopes to add a midrange game to his already impressive touch around the basket and improving three-point range.

“All the great ones in this game, especially the perimeter guys, find a midrange game and find how to always be aggressive, but when to get off the ball and when not to, and to find the open man,” Jackson said. “I’m going to continue to watch film and find ways to pick and choose spots.”

Serge Ibaka - 4:00 p.m.

His work ethic is unparalleled. The time he spends in the gym is nearly unfathomable to most, but Serge Ibaka always finds a way to get better.

Each summer during his career, Ibaka has managed to make gradual improvements to become a more effective player on both ends of the floor. This past year, Ibaka managed to set career-highs by averaging 32.9 minutes, 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game while also blocking the most total shots in the NBA this season while also shooting his highest percentages from the three-point line and free throw line.

In particular, however, the most notable aspects of the game where Ibaka developed was in his feel and comfort with the ball in his hands for longer periods on the offensive end and his positioning on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, the area Ibaka is most proud of his improvement in being able to distribute the ball to others within the flow of the offense.

“There are a lot of things on defense and offense,” Ibaka said. “I was really passing the ball better this year.”

Depending on the status of his injured calf, which he played through over the final four games of the Western Conference Finals, Ibaka may be joining the Spanish National Team in the World Championships in Madrid this summer. Regardless, he plans to add more wrinkles to his ever-expanding game, but wouldn’t divulge the details quite yet.

“It’s a secret,” Ibaka said. “You’ll see next season.”

Ibaka’s physical sacrifice to play through the pain of his calf strain did not go unnoticed, nor did his stellar play throughout the season. It is the type of attitude Ibaka displayed to help his team even at his own discomfort that will be necessary for the entire Thunder squad to adopt heading into the 2014-15 campaign. If the Thunder can play well-balanced, free flowing basketball with all five men committed on defense, it will feel great about its chances next year.

“Every year we try to make some big steps and get better and better with everything,” Ibaka said. “I’m sure we’ll learn from that this year, especially in the postseason. I hope everybody next year will come back with a different mindset, like Perkins said a sacrificing mindset and play more team basketball.”

Derek Fisher - 3:15 p.m.

Four consecutive overtime games, late leads lost and overcome and injuries on top of injuries piled up for the Thunder this season. Regardless of that adversity, the team stuck together.

Behind leaders like Derek Fisher, the Thunder group in the locker room never wavered in its commitment to one another despite changes to the lineup. Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all missed crucial games throughout the season and postseason, but despite the shuffling that had to occur, the next man stepped up and contributed when called upon. Fisher was proud to see the group respond in that way.

“All teams face injuries, hardships and challenges, but if there’s anything that we learned and grew from this past season was confronting those, dealing with those and facing them,” Fisher said.

“There was a lot of resilience shown, a lot of character and a lot more mental toughness than I think what even some of our own group thought we had, but still not enough,” Fisher continued.

That mental fortitude and physical toughness the team displayed allowed the team to push through two difficult playoff rounds and force a Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals, but ultimately the team came up just a bit short. While the emotion of losing on Saturday night is still raw, Fisher gave some perspective on how the Thunder can get over the top next season.

“The toughest distance to make up is that little bit there at the end,” Fisher explained. “Whatever happens going forward, we just have to figure out a way to get those last few inches.”

“It’s a combination of just continued maturity and growth for our players,” Fisher said. “The expectation levels are extremely high for a group of guys who are still collectively really young.”

Fisher has been a part of five championship teams and played with future Hall of Famers, so he understands what it takes to break through that final barrier. Over the past four seasons, the Thunder has been to three Western Conference Finals and one NBA Finals, with only the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat consistently approaching the same levels or higher as frequently during that stretch. As a result, Fisher feels great about the position the young Thunder squad sits in at the moment and what the future may hold.

“This is the team that is scratching on the surface of the best of all of basketball in recent years and in the history of the game,” Fisher said. “It’s not as far off as it seems in terms of how bad it hurts, but to get across that finish line, it’s a long stride at the end.”

Kendrick Perkins - 2:15 p.m.

After every season, there comes an assessment of successes and failures, a type of evaluation to help the team understand where it can improve heading into the following year.

As one of the team’s leaders and most powerful locker room voices, Kendrick Perkins has a unique perspective on helping the Thunder transition from season-to-season. He believes in the group the Thunder has in place, and despite falling to the Spurs, Perkins believes there are just some minor mental adjustments the Thunder can make to help capitalize on their physical tools and gifts. The Thunder’s roster is athletic, talented and well-balanced, it just comes down to executing on the details of the game that makes the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs.

“I feel optimistic about next year, but obviously we all have a lot of work to do to get better,” Perkins said. “The biggest thing with our team is our mentality. In my opinion, we had more than enough talent to win a championship this year. We just fell short because of the mental things that we did wrong. That just comes from studying the game, watching film and going and getting knowledge from other people who are around.”

Perkins’ role as the starting center has been one he’s held for both the Thunder and Boston Celtics in his career, and has started every postseason game for his teams since the 2007-08 season. This season, he and Steven Adams formed a powerful combination at the center position, and Perkins wants both he and Adams to keep improving over the offseason. This summer, Perkins plans to work extremely hard to be at his peak physical condition in order to be the best he can be next year.

“This offseason is going to be the biggest offseason of my career,” Perkins said. “I definitely have to come back in better shape and try to get back to the basketball that I played in Boston. That’s my goal.”

A long-time veteran, Perkins sometimes doubles as basketball philosopher for this Thunder squad. He has an NBA Championship to his name and has seen some of the best basketball players in NBA history operate at a high level. Heading into next season, he hopes that he and his Thunder teammates can take a leap forward mentally and with their habits.

Building brick-by-brick and playing the right way starting in November all the way through April can pay dividends during the postseason. If the Thunder can make the right basketball play and build total trust on the roster throughout the season, it will be second nature by the time the playoffs come around.

“That’s learning how to play the right way for 82 games and not try to turn on this “on switch” in the Playoffs,” Perkins explained. “What you do in January affects how you play in April, May and June. You have to develop that trust early.”

“We have to come into the season playing agenda-free basketball and it’ll take care of itself,” Perkins continued. “If you’re trying to take it to the next level, being all-in, that’s the key.”

Thabo Sefolosha- 1:45 p.m.

The thrill of joy and agony of defeat can teeter on a very thin edge in the playoffs, but with more experience, players learn not only how to deal with each outcome, but also how to better impact winning.

One of the Thunder players who has had his hands on the Thunder’s success over the past five-and-a-half seasons that he has spent in Oklahoma City. One of the defensive leaders on the club, Sefolosha has often been charged with defending the opposition’s best perimeter player while also trying to help spread the floor as an outside shooter.

Despite his role changing throughout the season and postseason, Sefolosha stayed positive and continually worked as hard as he could after practice to stay sharp and ready for when his name was called. Despite his and his teammates’ best efforts, the Thunder fell just short against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, but Sefolosha believes that the experience gained and strides made by the team as a whole puts the group one step closer to achieving its ultimate goal.

“The closer you get to that trophy, the harder it is to be eliminated,” Sefolosha explained. “That’s how it feels for me. It’s really tough this year to be really close. I feel we have a team that was built to win a title and to fall short it’s disappointing. It hurts and it should hurt.”

“We keep improving and the experience that we gain is a huge plus,” Sefolosha said. “We keep getting better at moving the ball. Offensively we were doing things at a high level, especially the last two months or so. It’s great. We have a lot of positives to look to.”

Sefolosha has made an imprint on the culture and put his mark on a team that has risen together as one unit. He’s been with the Thunder through hard times, to winning the Western Conference Finals and all the steps in between.

Heading into this summer, Sefolosha is an unrestricted free agent. So while it remains to be seen whether he will return to the Thunder next season, the organization has gained tremendously from his play on the floor and he has enjoyed the time he’s spent with teammates, coaches and staff.

“The organization, the teammates and friendships that I’ve built here are nothing but positive things,” Sefolosha said. “Looking back, we’ve done some amazing things. Going from winning to 20-something game to more than 50 games and being able to have the opportunity that Sam gave me to be a part of this group, it’s been a great time.”

Nick Collison- 1:00 p.m.

There’s no one who has a better pulse on the Thunder locker room, culture and what the team needs to do moving forward than Nick Collison.

During this postseason run, the Thunder displayed poise and composure to win Games 6 and 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies and overcome a seven-point deficit with less than a minute remaining in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Against the San Antonio Spurs, the team came up just short in executing in the series-ending Game 6.

Both the wins and losses highlighted the importance of focus and being sharp for every minute on both ends of the floor. While the Thunder made strides in that department this season, Collison recognizes that the team can take an even bigger leap in its situational play next season.

“We realize the importance of possessions and how important each possession is,” Collison said. “You learn when you lose too. We still have a ways to go. We had a good year and we moved along and we improved, but we still have some work to do for sure.”

“It’s a fine line when you get to the end and there’s four teams left,” Collison explained. “Most of the games come down to the end and it’s a fine line between winning and losing. For us it’s just to be able to try to be better in those moments. Our habits have to be good all season. Our mindset has to be right and our focus has to be right in those moments.”

The most tenured player on the roster, Collison sets the tone with his work ethic and quiet but firm commitment to all of the finer aspects of the game that can make the difference between winning in losing. Comfortable in his role, regardless of the number of minutes, Collison hopes to continue finding his ever-evolving niche on the team.

Expanding his abilities shooting corner three-pointers can help him see more time on the floor, but he also knows that his rapport with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, among other members of the Thunder’s core, can help the team find success next year.

“I’ve been here forever and I have a comfort level with what I do and people have a comfort level with me and know what they’re going to get from me,” Collison said. “With experience and being with the guys who have been here and being able to help young players, I think I bring value in that. That’s what I want to do, which is do whatever it takes to help us win.”

Russell Westbrook - 12:15 p.m.

He averaged 26.7 points, 8.1 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals during the 19 playoff games the Thunder played this postseason, but even those impressive numbers don’t tell the full story of Russell Westbrook’s impact this season.

The emotional leader of this Thunder squad, Westbrook found ways to impact the game on all levels during the playoffs, in addition to continuing to help the team grow throughout the regular season. Despite missing 36 regular season games due to injury, Westbrook’s confidence and attitude never wavered, and he helped lead a young but experienced Thunder squad through a challenging and trying playoff run. His passion sparks the rest of his Thunder teammates, but it also propels him to new heights as a player, where his defensive intensity helped create offensive opportunities for the team.

“I thought I did a good job of just trying to find a balance,” Westbrook said. “There were definitely different times where it could be tough. I tried to find a good balance of trying to do everything to help us win, based on each series and based on what I was able to do to help us win games.”

That defensive end of the floor is where Westbrook personally will try to take the most strides forward heading into next season. The fire and focus he showed on the defensive end in the playoffs is something he wants to bring on a consistent basis for all 82 regular season games next season, as the team builds habits throughout the year in hopes of being in position to advance to the Finals again next year.

Westbrook is confident in the group the Thunder has in place, and believes the team has everything it needs to contend for a title in its locker room already. Advancing further comes down to execution, and Westbrook said that in order for he and his teammates to capitalize on postseason opportunities next year, they will all have to bring an even higher level of mental focus and basketball IQ.

“We have a lot of guys on this team that are capable of making things happen,” Westbrook explained. “Our organization has done a great job of putting us in a position to be able to win a championship every season. Once we get to that point, it’s all up to us to make it happen.”

“It’s just to come back smarter,” Westbrook said. “Coming back smarter and wiser is key for us as a unit. As players we have all the tools to be able to do what we needed to do offensively and defensively, but mentally is what is key for us and that’s the key moving forward.”

Kevin Durant - 11:30 a.m.

One of the two leaders of this Thunder squad along with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant demonstrated all season not only why he is the best player in the entire NBA, but also the consummate teammate.

From his passionate Most Valuable Player acceptance speech where he singled out each teammate and staff member who helped him along this journey to his incredible run of 41 straight games scoring 25-or-more points, Durant was sensational in every way throughout the year on and off the court. He exuded confidence and intensity, patience and aggressiveness while staying true to his team. That leadership helped the entire team succeed in 2013-14, and despite the disappointment of the season coming to an end, Durant feels proud of the strides the team has made and is excited for its future.

“Everybody grew individually and of course got more experience,” Durant said. “We learned a lot. We went through a lot of adversity throughout the season. We learned how to persevere through it. We’ve grown a lot and I think our future is bright.”

“I like our core group of guys that we have,” Durant said. “I like what we have. We have guys who want to be here and play with each other and want to win with each other.”

Durant has the MVP award under his belt, but that won’t stop what seems to be his habit of spending all summer continuing to mold his game. Each year, Durant seemingly finds ways to add wrinkles to his offensive arsenal or devote attention to a particular aspect of his overall game like defense or rebounding. Heading into the summer, Durant will attack his workouts with the same intensity and passion that he has during every single offseason throughout his career.

“I’m sure there’s some different type of move or shot I’ll try to master, but overall I’ll just try to get better and work on every single part of my game and bring it back to the team. I’ve grown as a leader as the season went along and I can be better next season.”

Head Coach Scott Brooks - 10:30 a.m.

As a part of the process of closing the book on the 2013-14 season, Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks meets with his staff and players, but he also took the time to share his thoughts on the season.

Despite all of the adversity that the team faced throughout the season, the Thunder managed to stick together through it all, and much of the credit goes to Brooks for his strength and management of the team during the year. Winning a fourth-straight Northwest Division title and advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years is no easy task. Despite the disappointment of seeing the hard-fought season come to an end, Brooks is proud of his players and staff for the year they put together.

“We won 59 games, we won our division and improved in a lot of areas,” Brooks said. “There’s no question that last night was a disappointing finish to our season but we’ll look back and know we had a great year.”

Over the course of the season, the Thunder made strides not just as individuals, but collectively as a group. A large part of a team’s development is players themselves getting better, but the true mark of growth is when the team elevates its play as a unit. Defensively, the Thunder once again finished as one of the best in the league thanks to adding some wrinkles and finding ways to be more flexible. On offense, the Thunder tried to be more dynamic and to share the ball at a higher level, and it hopes to continue to take steps forward in that area moving forward.

“We did a few things defensively that we haven’t done in the past that we’re going to continue to explore other ways to improve our defensive mindset and our defensive schemes.”

“Offensively we moved the ball. Three years ago we were last in assists. This year we were 13 or 14. I think we can get to the top ten. We want to be a better passing team. We’ve improved in that area.”

Over the summer the Thunder staff will evaluate areas of concern and opportunity, but Brooks believes in the core that exists in the locker room. With leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with multi-talented and athletic players like Serge Ibaka, the Thunder knows it has one of the strongest groups in the entire NBA. With continued work as a group over the summer and in training camp, Brooks feels confident that his team can continue climbing higher up the playoff mountain.

“Our future is bright,” Brooks said. “I love the group that we have. The group that we have is a working group that continues to improve year after year, and not just our younger players.”