It is finally time for me to sign off on the Thunder's 2012 NBA Playoff run. I have been loathe to put the finishing touches on their Finals appearance, not in the least because the ending came far sooner than I would have liked and expected. Mostly though I didn't want to write it because of the finality it signifies. Once the post-mortem is done, so is the entirety of the season, in a sense. And oh what a season it was, despite the sad ending.
I must call on Ms. Roosevelt one last time to give us the framework through which we can try to understand things.
I. The People
- Kevin Durant - For the first time in the playoffs, Durant would not be the best player on the court. However, he was the best scorer on the court, so convention stated that if he could do enough of the other things like rebound and distribute, he might make up for his comparative shortcomings and be a positive factor throughout the series. Plus, Durant has earned his claim as the best 4th quarter closer, and we knew that OKC just needed to keep things close and then let Durant go to work.
- Russell Westbrook - Westbrook was arguably the MVP of the Thunder's playoffs up to that point. To be sure Durant had some great finishing moments like Game 1 against the Mavericks or Game 4 against the Spurs, but Westbrook was a constant driving force. He continued to battle through all adversity, whether it was offered by the defense or by his own youthful shortcomings.
- James Harden - Harden was supposed to be the difference in the series. If Durant and LeBron were a wash and Westbrook and Wade were a wash and Serge Ibaka could keep Chris Bosh in check, then there should be nobody left on Miami's team that could equate to Harden's output. There was nobody on the Heat 2nd unit who could guard him, and he was likely to be facing guys like Mario Chalmers in the 4th quarters of games. It seemed like a recipe for a breakthrough performance.
- Scott Brooks - Brooks is the sometimes-maligned coach who seemed to be forging his own way through the playoffs. Consider that he first took down Rick Carlisle, then Mike Brown, and then Gregg Popovich in succession. That is a whole lot of playoff experience running through the veins of that collective group, and in 3 straight series Brooks navigated his team through it all. Maybe he wasn't the perfect coach, but he seemed to have the ear of his players and knew how to guide them to wins.
- LeBron James - And only LeBron James. That is what it it had always been about and always will be.
II. The Events
Game 1: Thunder Ready
The Finals started off with a bang in OKC. The Heat were coming off of a physical and draining 7 game series against the Celtics, which was preceded by another 6 game physically draining series against the Pacers. Meanwhile, the Thunder had tussled for 6 games of their own against the Spurs, but had a much longer break in between. As a result, the Heat kicked things off looking much more focused and together while the Thunder demonstrated their typical struggle with getting things started. The Heat took a 7 point lead into the half and looked to take a surprising lead in the series after 1 game.
The Thunder responded as they had throughout the playoffs. With an elevated focus on defense, the team began to take away the open looks and drives to the rim that Miami enjoyed in the 1st half. On the other end of the court, Russell Westbrook assumed what is now a customary role for him - he is the offensive set-up man. When the Thunder struggles, he is the guy who steps up in the 3rd quarter and gets his team re-invigorated. Westbrook's continued assaults on the rim led to his and-1 at the close of the quarter, giving OKC their first lead of the game.
In the 4th, Kevin Durant knew that it was his moment to take the reins. Durant dropped 17 points in the final quarter and the Thunder were on their way to what we all thought was a competitive series.
Game 2: The Foul That Wasn't
Game 2 was a classic example of how a team's, and a player's, ability to finish a game can undo everything else that occurs in the previous 40+ minutes of the game. On the flipside, the game also underscores how small the margin of error becomes when that team comes to rely on this course of events. One of the reasons why Michael Jordan is so revered is that he allowed...no, expected...no, wanted, that kind of pressure at the end because it was the only way he could validate on a nightly basis that he was the superior competitor, and most of the time he delivered. The Thunder have followed a similar model that puts Durant in that driver's seat. To his everlasting credit, Durant loves and thrives in these moments because he understands that to be great you have to want to be great and accept all the risks of failing to be great.
We will remember Game 2 for this play, which has been dissected to its bare elements:
However, the sequence of events that allowed the game to boil down into that tiny margin of error will be forgotten, and it shouldn't be, because the earlier sequence of events is what really mattered.
The Thunder started out the game by scoring 2 points in the first 8 and a half minutes of the game and trailed in the 1st quarter 18-2. This was the most important sequence of the game and the sequence that has happened more times than we can count this past season. This was the sequence that we've seen far too many times and it is the sequence that must be expunged if the Thunder are to get better.
Because sometimes the foul does not get called. Sometimes Durant misses.
Game 3: Durant and Westbrook Watch
This game will be remembered in two distinct phrases: a) free throws; and b) a tactical coaching mistake.
a) In looking at the box score alone, the free throw disparity jumps out. The Heat attempted more and made more free throws throughout the game, and in a game that came down to a few possessions, that discrepancy matters. However, the number that really matters is the number of free throws that the Thunder missed. OKC has been the best free throw shooting team for two years running and they have consistently hit their free throws when the pressure is on. However, in Game 3 we can only conclude that the mounting pressure got to them because they missed 9 out of their 24 attempts. You can't complain about a free throw discrepancy when you fail to make the ones you did get.
b) Durant struggled with foul trouble in Game 3, and with over 5 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter committed his 4th foul. Durant left the game with the Thunder up six, a lead that was 10 a minute later. As long as OKC could maintain its focus for the remaining 4 minutes of the quarter, they would head into the 4th with a solid lead and their 4th quarter warrior ready to close things out.
Unfortunately, Westbrook was also in the process of a bad 3rd quarter stretch, and Brooks pulled HIM out as well. Without their two primary scorers, the Thunder had to turn to James Harden to carry the load with mediocre finishers at his disposal. The Heat clamped down on Harden with vigor and Harden began to struggle. The Thunder failed to score another field goal the rest of the quarter and collectively missed 5 free throws. Durant and Westbrook could only watch as the game slipped away in those few moments and by the end of the quarter the Heat had overcome the Thunder's surge.
Game 4: Westbrook Eruption Not Enough
Game 4 will forever be known in Thunder circles as the Westbrook game, and alas that moniker is correct because it encompassed both aspects of Westbrook's identity.
On the one hand Westbrook was the only aggressor who decided to show up on that night in Miami. I have often joked that Westbrook reminds me of Sir Lancelot the Brave in Monty Python for the way that he keeps attacking and attacking and attacking, bad shots and collateral bridesmaids be damned.
His effort that night was fierce, defiant, and on a competitive level that we often reserve for guys named Jordan and Kobe.
Here is the thing though. No matter how hard Russell plays, or how many great plays he makes, or how well he keeps his team in games, he is never going to be Kevin Durant, and for whatever reason, Durant makes the key plays in the end while Westbrook does not. So it was a bit of a tragedy in the end when Westbrook concluded his breathtaking game by committing a horrendous foul.
Such is the plight of Westbrook; no matter what he does, he somehow always gives his detractors just enough ammunition.
Never forget though, amidst a soul-crushing loss, Westbrook never backed down.
Game 5: Painful Loss
A moment like Game 5 was building. The Thunder were holding the ship together with duct tape and crazy string. Tactics were failing, shots were not falling, and OKC was losing its way to the finish line. Undaunted however, they continued to battle because battle is the only thing they know how to do. In the beginning of the 3rd, they made their move. After seven quick points and a blocked shot on Wade, the Thunder had the ball with a chance to cut the lead to a single possession. One good possession could turn everything around.
Instead, turnover. Chalmers three.
Blocked shot. Battier three.
The lead had gone from being potentially a single possession to a double-digit lead. OKC's chance had passed them by. The flood gates were about to open.
The 2012 Thunder gave up the ghost in those final 12 minutes of the game, but to their credit the final image we were left with was Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden looking on in defiance as the Heat wound down the game in order to wind up the celebration. It was the look of three men who knew that they did not have quite enough in 2012 but vowed to themselves and each other that they for sure would have enough in 2013.
III. The Ideas
Durant vs LeBron. We both like to think things are so simple and yet not quite so simple. I think in the case of this series, it is.
What makes it so simple is that Durant and LeBron, the two best players in the league, set out for it to be this way last summer. It was during that time when the two got together for five days, engaged what they referred to as "hell week," and corporately began the healing process together of having been defeated by the Dallas Mavericks in the previous season's playoffs. They both had to figure out why exactly a Mavs team featuring a star who was neither as fast nor as athletic as they figured out how to beat them both.
To be sure the two trained hard and played hard, as LeBron's film crew demonstrated. We know that Durant is a hoops junkie and LeBron has a training regimen second to none, so the physical aspect was a given.
What I want to know is, what did they talk about during their down time? Did they obsess about the weight of expectations, missed opportunities, and the best way to maximize their teams' goals? Did they talk about their families and how the central role of a mother can both help and hurt?
Did they have moments like this?
Perhaps it didn't occur in such a dramatic fashion over coffee and ambiance, but I bet that conversation did happen in some fashion. I think that the reason why is because the highest compliment one player can give another is to compete at his best. That is the only way to acknowledge the opponent's personal virtue, not by talking about it, but by demonstrating that only a top notch effort is enough to overcome it.
I think that the pair also realized during their training sessions that they need each other. It is true that nobody in the NBA is like LeBron, an athlete so gifted with both physical and cerebral skills that it literally puts him in a category all by himself. However, Durant is also a new 'model' of sorts, an impossibly long player who can rebound like a power forward, pass like a small forward, shoot with unlimited range like a shooting guard, and go from the 3-point line to the rim in 2 steps. He can score 30 points easier than anybody else in the game. There is nobody else like Durant, either. So it is good and I daresay important in a career-defining way that these two gents, still knocking at the primes of their careers, would come together and forge out a relationship of substance. Maybe they realized that each career is going to be defined in part by the other in the same way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's careers were, and not only is that a soul-defining reality, but in a sense one needs the other in order to reach their true potential.
Consider how one referred to the other:
Durant: I always just try to see how guys approach the game, how hard they work. And he's one of the guys that work hard and really is passionate about the game, and that's the same way I am. I really like players like that, no matter if you're in high school, college or the NBA, I just like players that work hard and respect the game, and he's one of those guys.
LeBron (to Rachel Nichols of ESPN): "For him to continue to work hard...he’s going to be my inspiration. He’s going to be the person that I look at each and every night to see what he did in a game so I can match him. [He's] someone I want to compete with year after year." Later on in the conversation, LeBron went on to say that he considers Durant his brother after the two worked out together last summer and complimented KD as "a hell of a player" and "a great person, too."
LeBron doesn't usually offer much in terms of his own affections apart from his buddies on the Heat, his family, and his lifelong friends. However the more I read about LeBron's metamorphosis over this past season, the more I believe that LeBron's embrace of Durant that lasted the final 10 seconds of Game 5 was the rarest of emotions that we see from him - humility in the midst of victory. It was as if LeBron was simultaneously comforting KD, knowing that he had to break his friend's heart, while at the same time giving Durant a new burden. Refusing to let Durant walk away prematurely, it was like LeBron was saying "I'll carry you now for these next few steps, and then you're going to take a few on your own. Walk to your loved ones, and then you're going to be OK."
And so Durant did, and barely made it into the tunnel. This image of Durant, falling into his parents' arms, is going to be the image that stays with us for the next 12 months.
Durant will re-emerge though, along with his team. They will use the pain that they endured in these Finals and grow stronger because of it. That is the way things work in the order of the NBA.
Just ask LeBron.