Thursday night marked a significant turning point in the careers of two NBA superstars. LeBron James, the most hyped, talented and criticized player of our generation, finally won his first title. The pressure constantly placed on him for being ring-less and fading in the clutch was lifted with a dominant playoff performance.
On the other side, Kevin Durant got his first taste of an NBA championship, and watched it slip away in just over a week. The three-time defending scoring champion left the court in tears after the Game 5 loss, and he'll have to wait another year to attempt to win his first ring.
The loss isn't all bad, though, as the Thunder can come away from the NBA Finals with a few lessons learned for the 2012-2013 season.
Young Team Gains Experience
The Oklahoma City Thunder were looking to become the second-youngest team ever to win an NBA title, showing how tough it truly is to win with youth. LeBron James first played in the finals as a 22-year-old and was ousted in four games by the San Antonio Spurs. Dwight Howard missed out on his first shot to the Lakers as a 23-year-old. Experience trumping youth is nothing new in the NBA.
For the Thunder in this series, youth equaled inexperience, and inexperience led to mistakes. Oklahoma City had the advantage after Game 1, but things went downhill from there. Durant missed a shot that would have tied the game in the closing seconds of Game 2 and the series ended up being split headed to Miami.
Harden committed a mindless foul to seal Game 3 for the Heat after the Thunder were leading by 10 in the third quarter. The momentum shifted in the third after back-to-back fouls on three-point shooters, something you wouldn't even see in a high school game. Game 4 saw a brilliant performance from Russell Westbrook until his ill-advised foul ended the Thunder's hopes of evening the series.
Who is more likely to win the NBA Championship next year?
The combination of silly fouls, turnovers and blown leads in crucial situations is what doomed Oklahoma City in the finals. The experience will benefit them next season, as their youth proved to be costly in 2012.
Durant Needs Help
With the exception of Russell Westbrook's amazing performance in Game 4 (he scored 43 points but committed the detrimental late-game foul), it was a one-man show for the Thunder. Durant averaged 30.6 points per game on nearly 55 percent shooting in the series.
Westbrook single-handedly kept the Thunder in Game 4—nobody can deny that—but how many point guards would take 120 shots in a five-game series? Nobody on either team came within 10 shots of that. If you take away his one good game, his shooting percentage comes out to be 36 percent.
The NBA finals require more consistency and better shot selection than Westbrook displayed.
The one thing Westbrook did right was showing up to play, which is more than what can be said about James Harden. Harden shot 37.5 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from behind the arc. He had as many fouls as he did field goals in the series, and he gave the Thunder little chance with Durant and Westbrook being the sole producers on offense.
Westbrook needs to share the ball more and not shoot more than his three-time scoring champion teammate. Harden must resolve his playoff issues and provide clutch shooting and an outside option when necessary.
If they can improve in the offseason, there's no reason the Thunder can't be back in the finals in 2013.
Thunder Come Back Hungry
In all honesty, the Thunder had it way too easy this season. The shortened schedule likely benefited their youth, as four or five games in a week was likely no problem for them.
They breezed through the Western Conference against three aging teams in the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs. They saw just one Game 6 on their way to the NBA Finals. They had plenty of momentum and were confident heading into the series against the Heat.
After Game 1, expectations were high. Their playoff record at that point was 13-3, and they were on top of the world. Then it all came crashing down over the course of four games.
What's the positive that comes with all of this? Their story is extremely similar to that of the Miami Heat in 2011. They rolled through the Eastern Conference in the 2011 playoffs, losing just one game in each series. After taking Game 1 of the 2011 NBA Finals, their playoff mark was 13-3. Then they lost four of five and the title to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Just as the Heat came back hungrier than ever this year, so will the Thunder in 2013. Losing in the NBA Finals is difficult enough, but losing when you not only thought you were going to win, you knew you were going to win, leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
LeBron took that motivation and dominated everyone on his way to winning his first ring. Durant will have that same motivation next season.