MIAMI – The Oklahoma City Thunder had just been blown out by the Miami Heat by the score of 121-106, dropped their fourth straight game for the first time in 276 games, and the silence of their locker room said it all.
Russell Westbrook walked out of the shower and into the locker room. He sat down and looked around at all the media in the Thunder locker room, his eyes puffy, red and a little watery.
After a few moments of silence, he cracked a joke with a Thunder staff member who was seated next to him.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant had his head down and was plugged into his phones, a Blackberry and an iPhone, texting away while waiting for an NBA minion to tell him it was time to walk to the postgame press conference.
In tough moments like these, sometimes the best thing to do is to laugh. To breathe. To concentrate on anything other than the devastating defeat for a few minutes. It’s only healthy for these kids. After all, the Thunder’s nucleus of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka are all 23 years old or less.
It was easy for analysts to expect the Thunder to outduel this veteran, battle tested and visibly hungry Miami Heat team. It was easy to say that their talent would shine through, that their age and inexperience on this stage wouldn’t matter, and that they would be able to knock off the Miami Heat.
But at the end of the day, age and experience did matter. The pounding the Heat took against the Mavericks last year drove them to winning the championship this year: Losing to Dallas became the driving force, the catalyst for this season’s ultimate dismantling of whichever team was opposite them.
“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals, you know, and me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics,” said Finals MVP LeBron James. “It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted. You know, it happened just one year later.”
Wade echoed the sentiment and revealed he pulled out an old game tape for added motivation.
Yes, the tape of last year’s Game 6.
“You know, two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was,” he said. ”But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. And as much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and that suffering. To get to this point of this season and the rest of our careers together, we’ll take nothing for granted. Like I said, that series versus Dallas hurt, but it was their time. I went back last night and I watched Game 6 of The Finals, and it was their time. The shots they was hitting was unbelievable. I just seen and I looked at it and I said, it wasn’t our time. And tonight it was our time.”
The sting of this defeat will burn for the coming hours, days, weeks and months for the Thunder. It will keep them up late at night, thinking about what might have been, if they had made this shot here, that pass there, not fouled here, made a free throw there.
In the long run, this kind of loss, this type of experience – which included three close games that could have gone either way – could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Just, we’ve got to get better,” said Russell Westbrook when asked what he, Durant and Harden were discussing on the bench as the Finals were wrapping up. “We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling. We kind of looked around and just ‑ we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season and just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here.
“Just thanking everybody, man, for the support, just going down the line and making sure everybody stayed positive, just making sure everybody knew that we worked hard, and we know what this feeling feels like,” he continued. “We’ll remember this feeling, and that will push everybody in the summer, just try to keep everybody going and keep everybody’s heads up.”
As can be imagined, the contrast between Oklahoma City and Miami’s locker rooms was blatant.
While the Thunder were gathering themselves up off the floor, the Heat were beginning the celebration of a lifetime. Just down the hallway, champagne was popped, beer was flying and cigars waved in the air while music blared throughout the room. Miami was thoroughly enjoying the moment that their unity and hard work had brought to them.
In the end there can only be one team left standing. The Thunder were the last team to put up a fight, but their will was dominated by a squad full of starving veterans and an impressive young coach who weren’t going to take a play in this series for granted.
“There’s things that we have to work on,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. ”I’ve never used age as an excuse. But we’ve got some incredible experience these last three years of being in the playoffs, and it kind of ‑ it has helped us get to this point and to compete at this level. But give Miami credit. They have really talented players. It’s obvious they have great experience.
“They were here last year, and they had a bad taste in their mouth. There’s no question, when you experience that, there’s something more to that next time you get back. Like I said, it’s not easy to get here. Give Coach Spoelstra a big hand that they were able to do it two years in a row.”
If there is any indication as to how the Thunder will come back next year, it’s that even though they came up short the past three seasons (lost to the eventual champs all three times – Los Angeles, Dallas and now Miami), they have consistently learned from their mistakes to improve individually and collectively while advancing further and further in the playoffs every time they begin a new season – a promising sign for a young group of players.
The most important thing that they will have to take from this series is how to play with even more of a burning passion against losing. As competitors, the sting of a loss is oftentimes greater than the sensation of winning.
Losing builds (and reveals) character.
The Thunder handled themselves gracefully during their downward spiral from Finals favorite to distant runners-up.
The only question left to be answered is whether this feeling of disappointment fuels them back to this point and beyond in 2013, whether they apply their past experience to their future endeavors and, ultimately, are capable of seizing the moment when it’s right before their eyes.
Jeremy Bauman is a 2011 graduate of Indiana University and the newest writer for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.