By Michael Kinney
For three straight games Oklahoma City had it in their hands. Needing only one victory to wrap up a second appearance in the NBA finals, all they had to do was find a way to close the deal one more time.
But after losing two straight games, it all came to a head Monday night in a climatic Game 7. With the winner moving on and the loser going home, the Thundercame up on the short end of a painful stick with a 96-88 defeat at the Oracle Arena in Oakland.
“We fought. Everybody fought hard every single minute they were on the court,” Kevin Durant said. “It sucks to lose. It sucks, but it was tough. It was a tough series.”
It will now be eight straight seasons Durant and Russell Westbrook have gone ringless since arriving in Oklahoma City. In that time they have watched LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson all hoist up the gold ball while they could only watch from home.
What makes this year even tougher is that Oklahoma City held a 3-1 lead in the series and were fully healthy. There are no excuses the franchise can use for being knocked out except their inability to make the right plays in the fourth quarter of games or find an answer to the Warriors long distance shooting.
“You know, it hurts losing. It hurts losing, especially being up 3 games to 1,” Kevin Durant said. “But Games 3 and 4, they missed the shots that they hit Games 6 and 7, and that was our plan. They beat us in the three-point line the last two games. We beat them everywhere else, they beat us from the three-point line, and that was the series.”
The 3-point shooting Durant focused on was overwhelming in Game 7. While the Thunder made 7 of 27, the Warriors connected on an astonishing 17 of 37. That’s 30 more points from behind the arc, a tough number to overcome.
But Oklahoma City had discovered the formula and were in command before its three-game collapse.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and for us to overcome that early deficit and claw our way back and the way that we did it with everybody having an impact, bench guys, starters, on the defensive end, obviously we made shots,” Curry said. “It was just a very cool moment to enjoy that fan noise and understand we were on the brink of doing something very special and coming back from down 3-1, and that was it.”
Now an offseason of uncertainty is about to begin for Oklahoma City. A decision keeping the team intact or not will have to be made by General Manager Sam Presti. But both Durant and Westbrook liked the growth of players such as Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters.
“Those guys, man, they put in work every single day,” Westbrook said. Coming in early, staying here late, watching film, improving their games throughout the season, and you can’t do nothing but be proud of those guys. Look forward to them coming back next year and being better.”
But obviously the most important one is Durant. He will be the biggest prize in the free agent pool this summer, with every team looking to lure him away from Oklahoma City.
It didn’t take long after Game 7 ended for questions about Durant’s future to begin.
“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”
When the postseason began, no one outside the Thunder locker room or most avid fan thought the team would even make it to a Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. So in many regards, it was a heck of a season.
But in the aftermath of being eliminated, remembering where they started and what they went through is sometimes hard to do.
“There are no moral victories in our locker room after the game. We’re all upset,” Durant said. “We wanted to get a chance to play for a championship in The Finals, so that hurts. But when you sit down and look back at what happened throughout the season, you can be proud of not just the players, but everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom. I’m just proud of what all we’ve been through this season. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”