After the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the young Oklahoma City Thunder's run was like something out of a Hollywood movie script. Unfortunately for OKC it was not a Hollywood ending, at least not this season. In their first finals appearance, the young Thunder fell to Miami in game five ending the series 4-1. Miami showed why experience matters and OKC showed us they needed a little bit more. Heading in to these finals, Dwayne Wade and Lebron James had appeared in four finals combined. OKC's five starters combined have appeared in two (those two both coming from Kendrick Perkins when he played with Boston). It was an obviously painful experience for OKC but a growing one that may ultimately prove to be necessary in their maturing into a future championship (possibly even dynasty) team. I guess you could say they're going through growing pains. However, this is not the end for OKC but only the beginning. With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both only 23 years of age, signed to long term deals this team still has a long ways to go and much left to accomplish. Every year for the last four years, they have improved as a team and have taken steps towards achieving their goal of winning a championship. Making the Finals this season was a huge step for them; losing the Finals means they have just one more to take next year.
Plain and simple the Thunder just weren't quite ready yet but they are well on their way. Although people will talk about Lebron's great post-season performance, I see Kevin Durant passing him to become the ruler of the basketball world in the near future. I think Durant will grow stronger and more determined from this experience and will only continue to become a more dominating playoff performer. In his first NBA Finals series, Durant averaged 30.6 points and shot 55% from the field, which is substantially greater than what Lebron did in his first two finals appearances. With three scoring titles to his name, he's already considered one of the greatest players in the world. He continues to improve every season, his defense is evolving and he has yet to hit his peak. Russell Westbrook has also continued to improve many aspects of his game (especially his decision making) and has yet to reach his peak as well. I believe he too will come back better and stronger next season and will continue to become a superior playoff performer. He put up a Michael Jordan type performance in game four with 43 points, seven rebounds and five assists (according to ESPN.com the only other players to reach each of those totals in a Finals game in the last 25 seasons are Michael Jordan in game three in 1993 and Shaquille O'Neal in game one in 2001). He's already considered one of the best point guards in the league, overall he had great post season and he is still continuing to grow as a leader on this team. Then there's Serge Ibaka and James Harden who I feel were less ready than the dynamic duo for these finals but at only 22 years old can you blame them for still needing a little more time to develop? Both Harden and Ibaka had strong performances during the first rounds of the playoffs and proved they can step up and help their team win playoff games. Going forward they (especially Harden) will need to prove they can do it again and if they make it back will need to prove they can do it in the Finals. Luckily, they are young and still working towards reaching their full potential. The 2012 season was definitely one where we saw the Thunder mature as a team; they're just not quite done maturing yet.
The off season will prove to be an interesting one for OKC and many questions will have to be answered. First question will be how will they be able to keep all of their key components (Ibaka, Harden) together. Ibaka and Harden both have a year left under contract but are eligible for their first extensions in July. The value of these two have gone up over the course of the season, especially with Harden winning the Sixth Man of the Year and Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots and coming in second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year. In addition, Thabo Seflaosha who I believe is a very underrated key component of this team, is also under contract for only two more seasons. It will be difficult to keep this team intact from a financial perspective but not impossible. This is a very tight knit group and they know they have a championship caliber team in place. They always refer to each other as brothers and family so it will be interesting to see if one of them is willing to take a pay cut to keep the family together. Harden was recently quoted saying "This is something special here. A dynasty is being built here. So we're winning, we're having fun and we're brothers. The other stuff, you can't buy it." Only time will tell who can be bought and who's willing to sacrifice for the sake of the team.
However, the first contract they will need to take care of is that of coach Scott Brooks. Brooks contract is about to expire but I don't see how the Thunder management could not give him an extension after leading this team to their first NBA Finals only three years after they finished their first season a dismal 23-59. Although critics have questioned some of the decisions he made during the Finals, I think we need to remember he is still a young coach and these Finals were a learning experience for him as well. For those that question if he deserves it, lets take into consideration how he has been able to help this young bunch grow and mature into the players we see today and how he's made them see that it is not about them as individuals but about being a team. It’s no accident that when you hear them being interviewed, they are constantly giving thanks and praise to each other. Their interviews are almost never self-centered and are almost always focused on the team. Keeping all of these young guys focused and all of the egos in check could not have been the easiest task in the world either. I think Brooks has earned a contract extension and hopefully we will see him rewarded with one very soon.
At the end of the day as a Thunder fan I was disappointed to see the season come to an end the way it did but I continue to hold my head up high and be proud of my team. I urge my fellow fans to keep in mind that championship teams are not built over night and they take time. For example in 1984 the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan but they did not win their first NBA championship until 1991. It has been a four-year journey for the Thunder but the journey is far from over. Sometimes you have to go through the struggle and the pain before you can come out on top. This is a team that does not give up and always fights. I can only see them fighting harder next year to get back to the finals and win it all. Will the fifth year of their journey bring them their first NBA title? Only time will tell but in the mean time it has truly been inspirational to watch this team progress and it will be exciting to watch their future unfold. The journey continues with the tip-off of the 2012-2013 season, until then always remember to Thunder up.