The Thunder Didn’t Make Enough Good Basketball Plays

In the coming days, weeks, and months leading up to Kevin Durant’s impending free agency, much to do will be made about this series. Sprawling columns will be written—for hypothetical example—about a particular look Durant gave Russell Westbrook, and why it must have meant the end of the OKC-Durant-Westbrook era. But what really happened is much more concrete than any interpretation of body language or synthesized theory. The Thunder had the Warriors in a 3-1 hole, and they blew it because of lack of basketball execution.

In game five of the Western Conference Finals, the first of three closeout chances for the Thunder, OKC played well. They weathered a few storms by the Warriors, who were playing with the benefit of a loud and energetic home crowd. In the final minute of the game, the Thunder refused to fold despite a solid lead from the Warriors. They kept the pressure up, and at one point were down six points with about 30 seconds left. Durant got a good look at a three-pointer, which would have made it a one possession game. It caromed off the rim.  A blown chance. Not a great chance, but an opportunity to get back in it. Not to be. Game over.

In game six—the game they will look back on most begrudgingly—they led by as many as 13 points at home. They held a six point lead with about five minutes left. Klay Thompson—give credit where credit is due—had a game that has to rank somewhere in the top 15 all-time of individual playoff performances, and game his team a three-point lead with about 90 seconds left. From there, the Thunder unraveled, but still had a chance to tie the game with 30 seconds left after a Thompson miss. Durant secured the rebound, then nonchalantly threw it away to the Warriors. The next play was a Curry bucket. Game over.

In game seven, which few expected the Thunder to show up for, OKC took a six point lead into halftime. They came to play. They were running an offense, playing defense, containing Curry. The run for Golden State came in the third quarter, who grabbed a 14 point lead. The Thunder fought back valiantly despite a few prolonged stretches of one-on-one basketball. Behind a great last stand from Durant, they pulled within four points with 100 second to go. After a timeout by Draymond Green that could easily have been called a jump ball, Steph Curry got the inbounds pass and drew a foul on Serge Ibaka, who teetered between productive player and shell of his former self for much of the series. Curry hit all three at the line. Comeback over.  Game over. Series over. Memorable run over.

But none of these late game collapses were a product of miscommunication or lack of chemistry.

There was no moment where Billy Donovan looked like a rookie coach. For the most part, he made the right substitutions, and decided on the right types of lineups. He gave the ball to his two stars and let them make the decisions.

Outside of the natural ebb and flow of yelling and arguing, there was no moment when Durant and Westbrook made it clear they couldn’t co-exist anymore. There was never a blank stare from Durant like the one LeBron James gave during his playoff exit in 2010 in Cleveland before darting for Miami.

It was the opposite, actually. In defeat, Durant looked noble. He was encouraging and fiery until it became abundantly clear that the Thunder were too far into the trench to dig themselves out.

If you’re a diehard fan from the state of Oklahoma, or if you’re a Seattleite still rooting for your uprooted team, or if you’re a fan of great and likable players, you take solace in the fact that the Thunder wanted that series more than most collections of people want anything. You take solace in the fact that Durant is a good person, and likes Oklahoma, and values loyalty.

If you desperately want Durant to stay, you don’t buy into the non-news stories that will circulate over the next month. You don’t watch First Take. You don’t read Bleacher Report’s Five Reasons Why Kevin Durant Wants Out.

You take his decision for what it will be. If he stays, he stays. He will return to the Thunder, who should be the preseason favorites to win a championship in 2017.

If he leaves, it won’t be because he wants out. It won’t be personal. It won’t be a decision he made last night, because last night he was there in body and in spirit. He wanted to win. Russell Westbrook wanted to win. The Thunder wanted it.

It just wasn’t enough. That’s it.

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