Thunder out but time on their side


OKLAHOMA CITY -- The game had ended some two hours earlier. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in overtime 112-105, advancing to a second straight Finals, while ending Oklahoma City's season short of it. The postgame clean-up crews were scrubbing the arena, television reporters were doing their wrap-ups, and the production team was packing up all the cords and cables.

But Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still out on the floor. It was the last night they'd be on it for some hundred days until they were back in the fall, and they didn't want to leave it. Their season was over, their dream of a title put on hold for at least another year. They couldn't force a Game 7 and instead will watch with envy as the Spurs get to take on LeBron and the Heat.

The way it happened for the Thunder seemed kind of fitting. Only five players scored, with four players combining for 107 of their 112 total points. Durant and Westbrook combined for 65, but 14 turnovers as well. They were relentless and reckless, aggressive and audacious. They played to their identity to the end, overcoming themselves with sheer force, talent and athleticism, were up two with 32 seconds left. Durant had given them the go-ahead bucket on a sweet finger-roll, and they were a stop and a couple free throws away from a winner-take-all Game 7 on Monday night. They couldn't finish, though, as the Spurs got it to overtime and made the plays that the Thunder didn't.

Those extra five minutes never went as planned for the Thunder, with Durant going scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting, and Westbrook with four points but on 1-of-7 shooting. Durant had a clean look from 3 with 16 seconds left to tie the game, but maybe without any legs left, hit front iron. The Thunder fouled, and it started to wash over him in that moment. He clapped his hands together and looked toward the rafters. He wasn't going to be hanging anything up there this season.

"We fought as hard as we could all night," Durant said. "We left it all out there. They made plays down the stretch. We didn't."

As the league's MVP, the expectation for Durant was to respond, to lift his team to a higher place with them backed into a corner. He struggled at times, while still flashing his brilliance. He turned the ball over five times in the third quarter alone, but scored 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting in the fourth. It wasn't his best performance, or really anything close to it. He battled through a nasty roll in the second half, and couldn't find the ball in overtime as Kawhi Leonard denied him off the ball.

The outside world is going to say it's a monumental failure, that the Thunder spoiled yet another chance, something they can't afford to be doing with the kind of preeminent talent they have. They disagree, though.

"They should [see the season as a success]," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I know we still have a ways to go. We're not where we want to be, and our guys know that. Kevin and Russell, they should be proud. They've led us to places that we want to get to, and I'm proud of what they've done. I'm proud of who they are, and I'm sure our fans feel the same way."

"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 last five seasons in the playoffs, with three of the last 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 that 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 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 farther.