MIAMI, Fla. — As the Miami Heat's long painful lesson in championship basketball neared its conclusion Thursday night, Oklahoma City's team proved it still had something to offer.
The Thunder showed us all a sermon.
On class, on gratitude and on all the things this organization said it wanted to be about since the day it arrived in town.
What transpired on the court at American Airlines Arena in Game 5 was nothing for the Thunder to be proud of. It's possible that was Oklahoma City's worst performance of the year. But what transpired behind and on the OKC bench toward the end of the Heat's NBA title-clinching 121-106 victory is the kind of thing you don't see every day in a championship setting.
Maybe not ever.
It started, as all things Thunder do, with Kevin Durant, hugging and thanking his family for everything they had done for him. For their love and support. As Durant's family cleared out, making way for the Miami mayhem, Russell Westbrook followed suit in embracing his parents.
Then the Thunder's leaders gathered around James Harden in what for them is an unfamiliar place — at the far, far end of the Thunder bench. They hugged, leaned against each other and took it all in. The way they stared at the Heat and all the revelry, you half expected one of them to ask for a pen and pencil to start taking notes.
What were they thinking?
“Just we've got to get better,” Westbrook said.
“We hugged each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling. We kind of looked around and just, we've got to get better. We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season and just got to get better man, before we can find a way to get back here.”
The three of them then worked their way down the bench, thanking the guy who arranges their travel, the assistant coaches who sweat along side them to help develop their games, the security guy who makes sure they and their families get where they're going safely. And of course, they thanked their teammates.
And when the buzzer sounded, for the first time all night they beat the Miami Heat at something — to the handshake. Competitors who had just suffered the most bitter disappointments of their playing lives were past half-court and practically in the Heat huddle when LeBron James turned away from their celebration to greet them.
Again, this doesn't happen. Superstars force-fed a bitter defeat like this one have been known to flee the court, often. Just a few weeks ago, when the Miami Heat vanquished the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston's Kevin Garnett, the so-called greatest leader in American team sports, hit the exit before the game ended. His point guard, Rajon Rondo, was close behind.
LeBron himself has been known to storm off, skipping handshakes and congratulations. Not these guys.
They thanked everyone, including the media.
“We have a group of men that I enjoy leading, and it's a family,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained, proud, impressed but not the least bit surprised at how his team conducted itself.
“They act like men off the court, something that everybody should be proud of, not just me but the people who love the game of basketball and love NBA basketball. We've got a great group of guys that believe in team, believe in work, and I'm proud to coach them, and I love what they're about.
“You guys know Kevin, but just down the line, we've got 15 men that do it for each other every night.”
And when all the hugging, crying and congratulating ended just before midnight in Miami, it felt less like the end of a season and more like the start of something else.