"You know, around here our goal is to win the big thing and go out on top," Durant said. "But, unfortunately, it didn't happen for us this year, but we still improved -- something we can always learn from."
What's often forgotten is the Thunder's trio of core players -- Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka -- all are 25 and younger. With how much they've accomplished already, it feels like they're older, like there's some kind of closing time-frame that they have to take advantage of. This is a team that's spent the past five seasons in the playoffs, with three of the past four in the Western Conference finals. Like Durant said, their goal is bigger, but the vision isn't lost on them. It's always been about a process for the Thunder, about being a team that, when training camp starts in September, feels like it has a chance to win it all.
Their season was nearly derailed a number of different times, with Westbrook's knee issues forcing him to miss 36 games in the regular season, then Ibaka's calf injury keeping him out of the first two games against the Spurs. They overcame a 3-2 deficit against the Grizzlies in the opening round, got by the Clippers in six games after some miraculous achievements, and almost got the Spurs to a Game 7 despite losing three games by a combined 80 points.
The Thunder were hurt after Saturday's loss. Both Durant and Ibaka walked off the floor with five seconds remaining with their jerseys pulled over their eyes, trying to cover a rush of emotion as reality set in. This is a team that's supposed to be good enough to win it all, with the league's MVP and a running mate who has stampeded his way to being a top-10 player himself. But whether it was roster flaws, coaching or just some bad luck, the Thunder didn't have enough. They didn't make shots they could've, they didn't get stops they should've. It's how every seasons ends for all but one team -- what-if this, what-if that.
When they roared to the Finals in 2012, it seemed as if you could've made hotel reservations for June in Oklahoma City for the next five years. They looked like an unstoppable force set to rampage through the West as long as they could stay together. One piece of that puzzle broke off, heading to Houston in a blockbuster trade, but the Thunder have forged ahead, putting together rosters that were on the cusp. A 60-win season in 2013, then 59 this campaign despite Westbrook's missing almost half of it.
It seems inevitable that their time will come, but if not now, then when? It's going to help that, eventually, odds are the Spurs are going to relinquish the conference from their cold hands. Durant and Westbrook have another experience to learn from and more fuel to add to an already burning fire. Maybe that's why they didn't want to leave the court on Saturday night. Next fall seems like a long way away. But next June seems ever further.