MIAMI – Kevin Durant walked off the court and into his mom's arms. He stood there, all 6-foot-whatever of him seemingly folded in half, sobbing in the embrace of his parents as the Miami Heat's championship celebration thundered down the tunnel behind them. In these swollen-eye moments – mother consoling child – it's easy to remember Durant and so many of the Oklahoma City Thunder are still so young. No one buys you a snow cone after you lose the NBA Finals, and Durant let the emotion wash over him.
Tears dried, head held high, Durant walked out of the arena about an hour later. His innocence had given way to the cool detachment of a man who knew where he was headed. He would be back, if not here in Miami, then Chicago, Boston. Somewhere. Durant didn't exit the Finals stage for good. This week – this championship – belonged to LeBron James, but Durant isn't done fighting.
"This is not the last time we'll see Oklahoma City," James said.
Durant isn't done growing. Nor are many of his teammates. The Thunder will take the experience of these Finals and do with it what they've done with all their experiences from the past few years. They'll stew over the loss, digest it and turn it into fuel. They'll come back wiser and tougher.
Another scene from the closing minutes of Thursday night spoke to this: Russell Westbrook and Durant came off the court, hugged their teammates and told them not to forget this scene. Durant, Westbrook and James Harden – the young core of these Thunder – locked arms and watched as the countdown to Miami's championship began.
"We told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling," Westbrook said.
"At the end of the day," Kendrick Perkins said, "we still have that missing piece in our souls."
For three straight seasons now, the Thunder have lost to the league's champions. Beaten in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010, dismissed by the Dallas Mavericks in last year's Western Conference finals and eliminated by the Heat three victories short of a title. The Thunder have returned stronger each season, and there's no reason to doubt they will again. They're too talented, too hungry.
"We're all brothers on this team," Durant said, "and it just hurts to go out like this."
There's a collegial feel to these Thunder, from the way their fans stand until the first basket to the players' earnestness. Everything is always about effort with them. Each loss is met with the same seventh-grade response: We'll play harder next time.
They will eventually outgrow this, too. Championships aren't won on effort alone. They require discipline. They require a system. The Thunder came into the Finals as favorites after four straight victories over the San Antonio Spurs, but they unraveled against the Heat, losing four consecutive games after winning the series' opener. The Thunder couldn't match the Heat's desperation, but that's not why they lost. They lost because the Heat defended better and played smarter. Three of those losses hinged on a mistake or two.
"I think now we know every possession counts," Harden said.
The Sixth Man of the Year should have learned that lesson as much as anyone. The Finals weren't his best work. He failed to score in double digits in three of the five games, one fewer times than he'd done so in the entire 66-game regular season. He's eligible for a contract extension this summer, but this performance didn't help his bargaining power. Serge Ibaka's effectiveness also was limited in the Finals, and he, too, can get an extension. The Thunder will eventually have to make the tough decision on whether they can afford to pay both. At worse, their young core should remain intact for at least one more season.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks' contract ended with the season. His new deal should get done, though probably not at the number Brooks dreamed of getting before he decided to sit Durant and Westbrook in the third quarter of Game 3. That decision haunted the Thunder for the rest of the series. Another mistake: Brooks' point guard didn't know only five seconds remained on the shot clock on that critical jump ball at the end of Game 4.
The Thunder lost their composure by Game 5, and Brooks spent much of the night looking like he'd swallowed a bad quesadilla. Pale, dazed, he came to the realization he had no answer for James. The series began with some questioning whether Durant now reigned as the league's best player. For now, he'll have to settle for No. 2.
James impacted the Finals on both ends of the court in ways Durant couldn’t. He defended and rebounded, and in the final two games, he totaled 25 assists. He was the better player, leaving Durant to exit these Finals with one more lesson.
James gave Durant a long hug after the game ended. As Durant left the court and made his way through a line of more well-wishers, his parents greeted him. He could see it in their eyes. They hurt as much as he hurt.
"I didn't think I would get that emotional," Durant said. "It was a tough, tough game, tough series."
There would be no snow cone on this night, no championship. As Durant walked to the Thunder's bus early Friday morning, he carried the pain with him. He also knew something else: This wasn't the end for him. He'll be back.
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