3-1, 3-2, 3-3, 4-3.
It happened so fast. Just five days to be exact. I think that's what makes this so tough. The 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder were a roller coaster ride from the beginning. They were never a perfect product, but considering how low they got at some points, it's that 3-1 - which, put simply, represents just how close they actually were to pulling off what most thought unthinkable - that makes the emotions of losing so difficult to put into words.
Deep down, we knew this run was possible. They would show flashes throughout the season, no matter how brief, of just how deadly they could be when everything clicked. And then, for about two weeks - while facing two of the 12 best regular season teams in NBA history - it kept clicking, and they sure as heck put it all together. Here they were, knocking down the Spurs not by leaning on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant's heroics - though there was still plenty of that - but by trusting everyone on the floor.
It's easy to look at the 4th quarters of the final three games and conclude that the Thunder stopped trusting each other and reverted back to their old ways of "hero ball." When you blow a 3-1 series lead, I suppose you have to look somewhere to place the blame. That, too, is what makes all of this so frustrating.
As I wrote before Game 7, the Thunder, perhaps more than any team in the league, is never immune from having a narrative placed on them no matter how fitting or unfitting it may be. Whether it's "Russ and KD" can never get along, to "they never should have traded James Harden," to countless more in between, there is never a shortage of takes when describing Oklahoma City.
Those are the things you allow yourself to get excited about when your team is up 3-1 in the series, no matter how cautious you know you should be. "This is the freaking Warriors, but can you imagine if they just win one more? We'll never have to hear about Harden, or Stringer and Avon, ever again!"
Then, splash. 3-pointer after 3-pointer. All of a sudden 3-1 becomes 3-2 and you get tight, and then 3-2 becomes 3-3 and the doubt really creeps in. Splash, splash. Season's over.
Again, you can search high and low and assign blame, but as much as I want to be frustrated, it's hard to overlook just how insane the Warriors shot the basketball to take this series back. The stat has been widely shared over the past 12 hours since the final buzzer sounded, but Steph Curry set a playoff record with 32 made 3-pointers. Klay Thompson set the 2nd-place record with 30.
Sometimes, it's not as complicated as we make it. So when Westbrook and Durant are at the podium, as they have been after every single game for the past six playoff runs, and they're spouting off the old "they just hit shots," it isn't just a line. They just hit shots. Crazy, impossible shots. Over and over again.
Sure, the Thunder maybe could have switched up their coverages and run them off the line a little more. There's always room for improvement. But so much of that was just incredible shot-making.
It's hard to argue that the Thunder didn't play well enough when they out-rebounded, recorded just as many assists, and even turned it over less. OKC essentially outplayed the Warriors in every facet of the game that you preach to your team. All of those numbers stem from being smart and playing with heart. The 3-ball is the equalizer, though, and the Warriors have been riding it to historic heights all season.
Frustration doesn't begin to describe the feeling that comes from realizing that, that OKC may have actually played better than the 73-win Warriors, but were simply done in by incredible display of shot-making.
So what now? How do you contextualize this season? Was it a failure because, after nine seasons of Kevin Durant, the Thunder still doesn't have a championship to its name? There are plenty in the sports world that would have you think that.
You know what, though? Winning really isn't everything. That may be a lame cliché or excuse or whatever, but I wouldn't change this run with Durant for anything. Seriously, has any team been as memorable, as intriguing, and consistently mesmerizing, as the Thunder has been ever since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant started making perennial runs to the conference finals?
Maybe they should have gotten over the hump by now. Maybe. Doesn't change all that they have done, which is provide endless entertainment, endless talking points, for you and I to enjoy year after year. So yeah, it's not a popular opinion, but winning isn't everything, especially when the journey is as fun as this team has made it all season.
In fact, let's go down the list, KD MVP-speech style, and give credit where it's due.
Sam Presti: Took tons of heat, a lot from me, for the moves he made. From trading for Kanter, to firing Brooks for a college coach, it wasn't always clear if his plan would work. It's still not totally clear, because the Thunder essentially relied on a 7-man rotation in the end. But the core is intact, and if Durant does choose to stay, it's hard to argue with that.
Billy Donovan: I don't think anyone made as dramatic of a turnaround as Donovan did in this postseason. A lot of that came from shortening his rotation, but it was all of the experimenting throughout the season gave him such a great feel for his team when they needed it most. He seemed to dial up the right combos, as well as install the correct tactics seemingly every step of the way, and the Thunder can feel good that they have the right guy at the helm going forward.
Steven Adams: Speaking of guys that got better when it mattered most, he took every body blow the other teams threw at him, and he kept getting up. Not only that, he fought back, but always to the benefit of his team, never hurting them in the process. Add to that the fact that he has become a legitimate weapon on offense, and he's as valuable of an asset as anybody not named Kevin or Russell going forward.
Serge Ibaka: Lost for most of the season, he found his game for most of the Warriors series. He had a rough Game 7, particularly on the defensive end, which is so rare for him, but he never stopped believing in his shot. If he can find that balance between being aggressive and creating space with his shot, he will continue to be a key piece to the championship core.
Andre Roberson: Yet another guy that went from a defensive specialist to an all-out weapon. If he spends the entire offseason developing a 3-point shot (easier said than done) this offense becomes un-guardable. But even if he keeps working as a cut-to-the-basket weapon, he's still valuable going forward.
Dion Waiters: You love to see guys mature, and he did just that when it mattered most. Gone were the stepbacks, and out came the fiery drive-and-dishes that completely broke down the defense. He also found his defensive swagger in his own right. Add to that the joy that is Waiters Island, and we've officially reached the point where it will be a sad day if he isn't re-signed.
Enes Kanter: Another guy that wasn't played off the floor for bad defense, and whose relentless effort on the glass on both ends truly proved his value. His contract was a laughingstock for most of the season, but I don't think anyone is laughing after he swung the Spurs series and proved he is, in fact, playable against the Warriors.
Cameron Payne: The future is bright, assuming he plays a more consistent role next season.
Randy Foye: Had some decent playoff moments, definitely made the deadline deal look savvy.
Kyle Singler/Anthony Morrow: Thanks for keeping KD's minutes down all season!
Nick Collison: Probably deserves his own column at some point. Continues to just be a reliable, trustworthy sideline presence.
Russell Westbrook: Another dude I could write 15,000 words about. His competitive fire is truly inspiring, even just as a fan. Steph gets all the accolades and is basically universally loved. Russ is his own breed, though, and it couldn't be more fun to watch.
The explosive drives, and crazy passes that don't seem possible. He's certainly prone to some questionable shot selection, but with how much he does for the Thunder, he deserves so slack for those poor decisions.
Perhaps the best part of this series is that he genuinely felt he was the better point guard. You saw it in his postgame comments even at the very end. When asked about Steph's game after Game 7, he went with "he made some tough shots over our bigs." This, of course, after laughing at Steph's defense two games before. Oh, and he was wearing a hat that said "Brodies" while he said it.
Never stop being you, Russ.
Kevin Durant: We close with Durant, who is perhaps the reason why this is all so emotional to begin with. His free agency has been the elephant in the room all year, and to his and the team's credit, they sure seemed to do a good job not letting it impact the play on the court.
Still, no matter how confident we may be that he'll come back, at least for another year, the uncertainty makes all of this that much more bittersweet. What if he does leave, and Russ follows next year, and this is the last we see of Thunder basketball into late May for quite some time?
I can't tell you how many times that question has run through my mind over the past month or so. If there's a silver lining, though, it's that it was Durant himself that quieted that voice in my mind with his play when it mattered most. Game 4 against the Spurs could have ended terribly, and if the Thunder end up losing that series 4-1, who knows how much different his free agency looks. But there he was, draining everything and not letting his team lay down and die..
Even in Game 7, after making a concerted effort to get everyone involved all game, it was Durant taking and making the big shots and making one last run at it, refusing to roll over until the clock struck zero.
We can go through the list of players and coaches and GMs time and again and every single one of them deserves credit. The Thunder truly were a joy to follow all season, and just about everyone had their moment in the sun.
At the end of the day, though, it's still Durant's team. The uncertainty of his future looms large, knowing how much his decision could impact Oklahoma City not just as a franchise, but as a community.
Such is life for the Thunder and their fans, who will spend the next six weeks stressing over every meeting and every leaked report. It's what makes 3-1 that much more frustrating. One more win, and there is even less uncertainty of the future.
But in the present, in spite of all of it, the highs, the lows, the questions surrounding Durant, the Thunder just came this close to completing a run just about everyone thought was unthinkable coming in. No matter what happens, that's unforgettable.