The 2012 year was filled with many victories, but alas, the Thunder did not claim the ultimate prize so there are still lessons to learn. I've chosen my top 5 losses of the year here, but lest you conclude that I'm simply just pointing to the most painful losses, what I'm really chasing is the biggest losses that taught us something about the Thunder as a team. Some losses are not only good but necessary because they bring about the proper awareness that, hey, something isn't right and needs to be fixed. Here are my 5 games that fit that category:
5. Mavericks 100, Thunder 87, Jan. 2
Not so fast.
One thing that we've learned over the past year, even as the Mavericks are fading into the sweet goodnight, is that they know how to play the Thunder tough. They know how to make OKC play to their weaknesses instead of their strengths, make Kevin Durant work, and keep the game close in the end and wait for Thunder mistakes. This early season loss was a huge lesson for how OKC had to continue to maintain their mental focus even against teams that could not stack up with them, talent-wise.
4. Kings 106, Thunder 101, Feb. 9
Every team, EVERY team, has let-down losses where they simply do not take their opponent seriously enough. The Kings, with all due respect to the Sactown Royalty crew, are a mess, and they've been a mess for a long time. While they have some talent in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, the team as a whole is without substantive direction and purpose and a team like that should never be able to take down a contender like the Thunder.
That said, it happens, and the way it happens is a lesson every time that it happens. Specifically to this Kings loss, it marked the end of some really bad Thunder basketball where the defense was disinterested and coasting. OKC was relying upon its prolific scoring to do away with opponents, but we knew that it was just a matter of time when the lackadaisical attitude would cost them. Even though the Kings did not even play that well, they still out-hustled and outworked the Thunder inside and in the end Durant and Westbrook could not save the day.
We hearken back to one of Durant's favorite sayings - "Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard." Indeed.
3. Grizzlies 94, Thunder 88, April 2
The Grizzlies are a natural foil to the Thunder. Where OKC wants to run, The Grizz want to slow down. Where Durant and Westbrook want to explode vertically to the rim, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph want to play Super Smash Brothers and beat you with body blows. Where OKC's natural byproduct of aggression is the occasional turnover, Memphis thrives on not making mistakes. Every game...EVERY game...is a war.
The Thunder had just finished up a very, very good month of March and were gearing up for the home stretch. The Grizzlies put them in their place and sent them on a 3 game skid that forced the Thunder to reevaluate how they were going to do business on a regular basis if they wanted their season to continue.
As most of the best lessons are learned, this lesson came the hard way.
2. Spurs 120, Thunder 111, Game 2, May 29
If Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was a moment where the Thunder simply let things slip away, Game 2 was the exact opposite. What was the most painfully striking about this game was that the Thunder 'Big Three' actually played well throughout. They got the shots they wanted, executed on offense, and were completely run off the court in the 2nd half. The Spurs' 20th consecutive win was a sight to behold.
Tony Parker spearheaded one of the best performances of the best offenses I've seen in many, many years. Coming out of this Game 2 debacle, I fearfully had to admit that maybe, the Thunder did not have what it took to solve such a juggernaut. The Spurs were that good.
The Thunder were reeling and they had to do something radical if they wanted to reverse the course of this series. This blowout game put OKC on notice that the norm was no longer good enough; they had to adjust on the fly, challenge the Spurs where their strengths originated, and take the fight to them.
The Thunder succeeded, and the Spurs never won a game again last season.
1. Heat 100, Thunder 96, Game 2, June 14
We all know how it ended, but the more important aspect of the game was how it began. The Thunder had won Game 1 in solid fashion, shaking off the cobwebs and playing a strong second half to close out their first win of the series. In Game 2, one of OKC's main issues - the slow start - materialized.
Over the course of the first 8 minutes, the Thunder found themselves trailing 18-2. What was so catastrophic about this terrible start was that, from that quarter on, it felt like the Thunder were playing catch-up the remainder of the series. Instead of dictating the direction of the games, OKC was merely reacting and responding to what LeBron James and the Heat threw at them. Always a step slow, the Thunder left themselves with tiny margin for error.
Game 2 ended when a foul wasn't called and a Durant bunny shot didn't go down. Sometimes the foul doesn't get called, sometimes the game's best scorer misses. Those things happen. What we hope will not happen again going forward is for the Thunder to place themselves in the type of situation where an entire series can swing on a non-call and a missed shot.