Almost there. In the 2012 Finals, with James Harden embracing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, Thunder fans imagined that their team was so close, just a year or two from Oklahoma City’s first championship. In 2016, ‘that close’ still feels the same as it did in 2012.
The Thunder really were one solid half away from putting away the Warriors in two straight games. The Warriors spoiled the Thunder’s Finals plans when—as they are wont to do—they went completely bananas from long range en route to a 96-88 Game 7 victory. Thunder fans may want to avoid watching the Finals if they don’t want any traumatic flashbacks.
In the grindhouse of the Western Conference, you may never get a better chance than being up three games to one in the conference finals. The Thunder are good, and everyone knows it. The difference is that the Warriors are great right now.
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson absolutely willed the Warriors to victory in the final two games, making three after three with hands in their face. When the Splash Brothers are making shots like that in the face of good defense, there’s not much you can do. Steph and Klay combined for 57 points, making 13 of 23 three pointers. Without their shotmaking, this is a 6 game series for the Thunder. “They beat us from the three-point line the last two games. We beat them from everywhere else,” Durant said. “That was the series.”
Kevin Durant, determined to rebound from an awful Game 6, tried to will his team back into it. KD, in what could have been his final game in a Thunder uniform, scored 27 points and added seven boards. Russell Westbrook, ever-mercurial, shot only 7 of 21 for 19 points, adding 13 assists and seven rebounds.
One person who must be lauded for the Thunder’s success is Billy Donovan. He went toe-to-toe with (and even outcoached at times) three of the NBA’s elite coaches in Carlisle, Popovich, and Kerr. He got his squad to buy in defensively, and proved that when they play the right way offensively (read: non-iso sets, plenty of ball movement, passing up bad shots), they can outplay anybody. This post-season has proven Donovan’s coaching mettle.
It’s hard to knock a Thunder team that almost put it all together at the right time. If Sam Presti can keep the core together—which means dealing with potentially messy contract situations for Durant and Waiters—the Thunder have a potential five-year window to win a title.
Still: they were that close to doing it now. In 2011, it was assumed the core would stick together, and it obviously imploded. Presumably, Clay Bennett won’t be afraid to empty his pockets when it comes to keeping his star this time. A lot can change in a matter of a few months, though. We had better hope Presti doesn’t Harden (yes, Harden is a verb) this one, lest we have to hear Bill Simmons harp about it for the next five years.
There are a few things to look forward to (or be anxious about), like looming free agency decisions and the Olympics. If Durant finds reasons to return (and Presti has about 149 million of them over the next five years), then anything but a return to the conference finals will be a disappointment.
Until next year, everyone.