Notes and observations from Wednesday’s 100-96 Game 5 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
- I wish I could describe for you how heartbreaking it is to see an opposing team celebrating the clinching win of a series that secures a trip to the NBA Finals, a trip that could have been yours. I can’t. I’m not a part of the losing team, nor am I a fan of it. In this job, I have to maintain objectivity. But when the final buzzer sounded, and my eyes caught Mark Cuban scuttling across the court with his arms raised high, even I could feel a part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s pain. The only loss that can possibly hurt more than this one is one that eliminates you in the next round, the final round.
- The Dallas Mavericks are moving on to the NBA Finals after sending the Thunder home following a 4-1 series win in the Western Conference Finals.
- Last year’s Game 6 loss to the Lakers was tough to stomach, but seeing the Thunder walk off the court Wednesday was agonizing. As Thunder players slowly exited, Mavs players pulled on gray T-shirts and black baseball caps and hoisted the silver trophy commemorating their Western Conference Finals championship. The scene made last year’s first-round exit seem like a regular season loss.
- This was an incredibly successful season. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. The Thunder reached a point in the playoffs few figured it could reach. And the team has grown individually and collectively to the point that it is now a true championship contender.
- Every player in the postgame locker room was fully aware of how far this team has come.And it seemed everyone was on the same page for what the goal should be for next season. Next year, all the questions that fill media day about expectations will be answered in one word: championship. “Now we’re competing for something different,” said Nick Collison after the game. “We’re trying to get a championship.”
- This postseason was an incredible aid to the Thunder in its quest for a title. The team went through so much so soon that the foundation for future success has now been well established. There’s not much this team didn’t endure during this run. And when these same scenarios show up down the road, the Thunder will now have experience to draw on.
- For now, the Thunder’s inexperience showed. It was a factor that we knew going in would be tough to overcome against a veteran Mavs squad. But in the end, the Thunder couldn’t get out of its own way. OKC made silly mistakes down the stretch of games and struggled mightily at times to get a high-percentage shot when the game was in the balance. No one summed up those growing pains better than Collison: “We learned that we’re talented enough to play for a championship. But we got to learn how to play basketball better. We need to learn how to win games better, and that’s difficult. That’s the hardest part, learning how to make plays down the stretch at this stage of the season.”
- Here’s perhaps the most significant silver lining of this series. Even though the Thunder’s offense stalled out, the defense remained dialed in. For a team that seeks to have defense as its staple, that’s an incredibly encouraging sign. Young teams are not supposed to know how to execute offensively down the stretch of playoff games. But as long as the Thunder maintains that commitment to defense, the franchise is taking steps forward — no matter how hideous the offense might look at times.
- Consider that in the fourth quarter tonight, the Mavs got 22 of their 28 points off turnovers or at the foul line. That’s a clear sign of inexperience. But, again, the defense was there unless the silly mistakes were making things tough.
- Is there any question James Harden will be the starting shooting guard next season? After tonight, there had better not be. Harden was absolutely brilliant. He was aggressively attacking the rim and working his way to the foul line. But more significantly, he showed how much of a surgeon he is with the ball in his hands. Harden carved up the Mavs’ defense in the second half, using simple ball screens to slice through Dallas’ defense and create for everyone else. He became the point guard and ran the team. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has never put the ball in Harden’s hands as much as he did tonight. And hopefully this performance serves as the final confirmation Brooks needs to do it more often.
- Here’s something I find sort of contradictory. The Thunder takes a great deal of pride in having one of the new-age hybrid point guards in Russell Westbrook. But the team then tries to make him play a more traditional point guard’s game by bringing the ball up on most possessions and initiating a set. It makes no sense. If he’s a true hybrid point guard, let him be a hybrid. Don’t be afraid to take the ball out of his hands sometimes and allow someone else to put pressure on the D. I realize much of this year’s insistence was about having Westbrook learn and grow at the position. But the time has come to utilize the entire team’s strengths, not just Westbrook’s.
- With that said, Russell Westbrook will not be moved to shooting guard next season. When folks got a look at how Harden was creating and Westbrook was playing off the ball, it led to a series of silliness about how Westbrook should be moved to the 2. It’s not happening.
- Several Thunder players took up for Westbrook and the harsh criticism he’s had to endure throughout this postseason run. I’ll have more on that later. But the short version is everyone thinks it was unfair. Said Collison: “It’s kind of hit everybody by surprise because for us it didn’t seem like anything was different. We love Russell and we love what he brings. And we realize without him this year we wouldn’t be a playoff team. We wouldn’t be anywhere (near) as good as we are.”
- Player I’m most looking forward to seeing next season: Nick Collison. No player on the Thunder raised his level of play like Collison. I wonder what that means for him next year.
- There’s a ton more to get into. But there’s plenty of time for that. The Thunder is holding exit interviews throughout the day Thursday. We’ll have much more from those.
- For now, I’ll leave you with this quote from Kevin Durant: “I’m sure guys are hungry and ready to start next season already. I know I am. This was a fun playoff run.”