Perhaps what saddens me most about the conclusion of the NBA Finals — besides the fact that either A) the Spurs didn’t win a title or B) basketball is over for the foreseeable future or C) both — is witnessing the pain and suffering of the losing team. Unless, of course, that team is named the Lakers.
Judging from the disposition of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they were probably the most devastated players on the floor last night. Their photo from their press conference (pictured above) is all you really need to see. While I don’t doubt the energy level of of most NBA players, Durant and Westbrook elevated the accepted energy level into an entirely different stratosphere.
Even when the game was largely out of reach, they continued to relentlessly pursue the ball, creating any conceivable shot irrespective to the degree of difficulty. I understand this term is incredibly cliche but they were warriors out there. They didn’t accept the pain of defeat easily thus the emotions of Durant aren’t too surprising. He never allowed a modicum of doubt to permeate his psyche and, when the moment finally arrived, his emotions flowed as freely as a Gregg Popovich set play.
Not only is it physically exhausting to play at full throttle for 40+ minutes a night but it also requires an extreme amount of mental stamina only present in the best players in the league.
Oklahoma City got away with their unimaginative offensive sets and rigid rotations by outworking their opponent. For the first three rounds of the playoffs, the strategy worked. Simply ratcheting the intensity against Miami, though, wasn’t good enough.
They needed to improve their execution and find ways to combat Miami’s aggressive fronting on Durant. Their most effective offensive weapon was dulled the farther he was pushed away from the basket. Despite the inherent disadvantage of battling space and extra defenders, Durant still averaged 30.6 points while making 55% of his shots.
Though the prevailing narrative may be that Westbrook’s reckless play was a hindrance to the Thunder cause, it can’t be forgotten that he posted elite numbers in the Finals as well. Westbrook averaged 27 points, 6.6 assists and 6.4 assists. His field goal percentage still isn’t acceptable but you can live with the flurry of bad shots and ill-advised decisions. Given the choice of an uninterested, calculated Westbrook and a reckless Westbrook with the capability of pouring 43 points at any time, you understand Oklahoma City’s sentiment.
Time will inevitably quell the initial pain of losing. But the irreparable damage to their memory will spur Durant and Westbrook next season. Considering these two remain insanely young, athletic and still have discernible holes in their games — Durant’s strength; Westbrook’s shot selection and 3-point shooting — we can reasonably expect that they will improve. The insatiable desire to win is just ingrained into their psyches.
As for the rest of the league? Well, good luck.