Durant, Thunder still chasing first NBA title
Basketball brought Kevin Durant a summer of extremes.
Weeks after sobbing with his parents after Miami beat Oklahoma City Thunder four straight times to win the NBA championship, Durant was celebrating a gold medal with Team USA in London.
Now comes the task of trying to make up for that championship that was lost. Durant will have to lead an even younger Thunder squad back to the finals if he wants a different ending.
''It was just so tough to lose because I really thought it was our year. I felt we had a good run. We beat Dallas, San Antonio, the Lakers,'' Durant said, listing off Oklahoma City's playoff opponents from last season and the only teams that had won the West since 1998. ''I thought it was our time, but unfortunately it wasn't. Those guys came out and beat us, and it was tough to go through that.''
Television cameras caught Durant's reaction in the moments just after he stepped off of Miami's home floor for what normally would have been a relatively private encounter with his family. Instead, the whole world was able to witness the way Durant reacted, which he said was the same as it was when he was growing up.
''When you lose a tough series, there's no question it's heartache. You feel it for many days,'' coach Scott Brooks said. ''I've been around teams when you lose, the fingers are pointed and you look for blame. The thing that I'm proud of with our guys, I never saw that. Individually, nobody was outspoken. Nobody was behind each other's back.
''We understand that we had a great year but it's time to move on. It's time to focus on this season. Last year was a great experience, but it won't guarantee us an opportunity back there. We have to work for it.''
The Thunder still have the nucleus of the team that made it to last year's finals and to the Western Conference finals two seasons ago. Three-time league scoring champion Durant and fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook will once again be joined by Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha in the starting five with NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden coming off the bench.
Ibaka signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason, following Durant and Westbrook in committing to Oklahoma City long term but also drawing into question whether the small-market franchise would be able to afford Harden. The Thunder will need to go over the salary cap - and pay the luxury tax - to keep him unless they shed some payroll elsewhere.
Harden is at least in the mix for this year's run.
''We're young, we have all the talent in the world. The small things and attention to detail can take us even further,'' Harden said. ''I think offensively, we can score with any team in the NBA. We have just as much firepower as any team in the NBA. I think what's going to put us over to that next level is our consistent defense. We have spurts where we look very good. We have spurts where we look average. I think for championship teams, we need to be locked in every possession.''
Beyond their big six, some of the Thunder's pieces are changing. Veteran Nick Collison remains with the team and backup point guard Eric Maynor will be back after missing most of last season with a knee injury, but three locker room leaders - Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey - were allowed to leave in free agency.
In their places are relatively inexperienced replacements, including free agent center Hasheem Thabeet and first-round draft pick Perry Jones III from Baylor.
Fisher and Mohammed were two of the team's only three players who had won an NBA title. Perkins, who won one with Boston, is now the only one left to speak from experience about what it takes to win it all.
''I think we all understand what it takes to at least get to the finals, but I think the finals was overwhelming to a lot of us,'' Perkins said. ''I think we got caught up in just being in the finals and quit playing basketball.''
The Thunder have progressed - from out of the playoffs to a first-round exit to the West finals to the NBA Finals. Perkins said the bottom line was ''we didn't reach our goal.''
''We don't feel like we just want to be in the playoffs and win games. We feel like at the end of the day, we're going to keep it realistic: We're trying to raise a banner or a few banners here,'' he said.