An estimated 500 fans greeted the Oklahoma City Thunder at a private hanger at Will Rogers World Airport just after 1 a.m. Thursday following its season-ending loss in Game 5 at Dallas against the Mavericks.
It was the team's largest airport arrival party to date. For nearly 10 minutes, fans screamed their appreciation for players and also coach Scott Brooks, who was greeted with chants of "Scot-ty! Scot-ty!"
"Our fans are the best," Brooks said. "Last night, that was overwhelming. That's not common. We have a great situation here. The players love it. There's a definite connection on and off the court with our fans. It was amazing. It was really cool that they came out and supported our guys."
Asked what he thought of the gathering, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook shook his head and said: "Oh, man, how great this city is, regardless of what's going on, they always lift you up. That's the best thing about Oklahoma. The people definitely showed that last night when we got back. We were down (emotionally), and they were screaming and clapping for us. It definitely shows the commitment they have for us."
Thunder players had exit interviews with Brooks and general manager Sam Presti on Thursday at the team's practice facility. All-Star Kevin Durant was asked if Presti said anything to him about whether or not he would try to keep the team intact for as long as possible.
"Nah, he said he was going to trade three or four of us," Durant joked, drawing laughter from reporters. "No, the great thing about Sam is he lets us do our job, and we let him do his. He puts the team together, and he does a great job. I don't know what you think, but I think he does a very good job of putting this team together. He doesn't interfere with us running pick-and-rolls or thinks we should take shots here or there. He lets us play. We don't question what he does."
CUBAN PRAISES HARDEN ...
On the court after Game 5, Dallas owner Mark Cuban greeted Harden and shared a hug. "He just said, 'You had a great season and you're a great player. Good luck with the rest of your career,' " Harden said.
... AND CONGRATS OKC
Cuban sent out a congratulatory tweet to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.
Cuban applauded both Oklahoma City and the Thunder franchise via his Twitter account for making it to the Western Conference Finals and being classy.
"Congrats to OKC Thunder on a great season," Cuban wrote. "Great Team. First Class Organization. First Class City. First Class Ownership.
During the regular season, Brooks at times would use a smaller lineup to play catch-up. In Game 5, he opted to go "small" lineup of Nick Collison, Eric Maynor, Durant, James Harden and Westbrook to begin the fourth quarter while trying to maintain its four-point lead against the Mavs.
The tactic worked until OKC was done in by seven turnovers in the period and another late-game comeback by the risk-taking, hard-charging Mavs.
"It was really out of a win-or-go-home mentality," Brooks explained of going small in the elimination game. "We were desperate. Not that I don't trust the other guys, but I just wanted to throw all the quickness that we have on the floor to give Dallas trouble matching up with us, and it worked. Kevin can play the 2, 3 or 4, so we have a lot of flexibility with Kevin. Russell can play the 1 and 2. Let's face it, he's a dynamic player. He's a special 1 (point guard). I think he's a good 2 (shooting guard), but I'd rather have the special 1 with Russell."
As for going small in the future, Brooks said: "I don't see myself doing it often, but in situations like last night, I thought they gave us a chance to compete. I thought we played good."
Brooks was named NBA Coach of the Year last season, and his team won 55 games and the Northwest Division crown this season, yet he has come under heavy scrutiny lately by national media, much like Westbrook.
Asked how his confidence is holding up, Brooks smiled and said: "I'm comfortable with what I do. I challenge myself every day with ways to get better and find ways to get our team better. I don't use the time off as just time off. I need to get better to figure out ways to improve our team, and we've done a great job with that the last three years. Those improvements were made because of our players' commitment to getting better. That makes our job easier – not easy, but easier – than most. The chemistry on our teams is as good as I've ever seen on any team I've been around."
In Game 4 on Monday, the Thunder relied too heavily on jump shots in its late-game collapse. In Game 5, OKC attacked the basket more frequently in the closing moments, but the ball was either striped or blocked or the Thunder failed to draw a foul.
"We didn't get to the free-throw line," Brooks said of his team attempting just four free throws in the fourth quarter compared to 13 for the Mavs. "Kevin played (31½) straight minutes without getting a free throw. That's very unusual."
MORE 'O' FOR THABO
Guard Thabo Sefolosha is in the Thunder's starting lineup for his defensive prowess. Asked if he would like to take on a bigger role offensively, Sefolosha said: "Yes, a little bit. Not on the individual level but just also for the team, especially being in the starting unit, I think taking a load off of KD and Russell sometimes would be good to get something a little bit different than KD and Russell having to do most of the work all of the time. They are great players, and they really carried us, but I think I could do a little bit more to help the team offensively."
Durant's commercials with Nike, Gatorade and the NBA have been extremely well-received. He does not know if any new commercials are scheduled in the near future, however.
"I have no clue," Durant said. "I'm going into hiatus for a few weeks after this, but I guess I have to talk to my agents about all of that."
— John Rohde