Their team’s season was over, ended in heart-wrenching defeat that technically completed when Russell Westbrook’s desperation quick-trigger three bounded off the front rim as time expired but was really done the moment Pau Gasol stuck a knife in the entire state of Oklahoma with a putback as 0.5 seconds remained on the clock.
Yet Oklahoma City Thunder fans went nowhere. Not a soul streamed toward the exits. If the Thunder needed their fans in victory, they needed them more than ever after their first bitter taste of playoff defeat.
As the unexpected cheers rained down on Kevin Durant and his rapidly-aging teammates, Durant gathered his crew in a circle near the foul line. Not even a minute after having his heart torn out by a goofy but multi-talented Spaniard, Durant was already focused on the next step.
“I told the guys, ‘Next season starts now’,” Durant explained to reporters.
And this season wasn’t supposed to be so thrilling. It wasn’t supposed to end so harshly, but it wasn’t even supposed to result in a playoff berth. The kids grew up, and quickly. Durant grew faster than anyone else.
He blossomed into a scoring champion but, more importantly, emerged as a leader. What other 21-year old on earth has the perspective to bounce back, from the most jarring loss he’d ever experienced, within 30 seconds? To immediately turn his attention to the next task at hand, preparing for next year? I’m 22, and I would have been in tears after the shattering defeat. After seeing a season that went so much farther than expected end at least 48 minutes and 0.5 seconds too soon. Straight tears.
But Durant remained composed and, after falling to the floor as Westbrook’s attempt bounced off the rim, Durant left this season behind. It was a season of experience and excitement, one that brought joy, ended in heartache and will be remembered next year when Oklahoma City returns to the playoffs as legitimate contenders rather than green newbies.
And when Oklahoma City again improves by leaps and bounds next year, I’ll remember the meeting at the free throw line. The one that forced the Lakers to wait to shake hands. The one that was met with the soundtrack of fans cheering a team that wasn’t supposed to make it that far. The one in which Kevin Durant put Game Six’s failures, still so fresh in his mind, behind him. “Next season starts now.”
I’ll remember, too, what Kobe Bryant told Durant and Russeel Westbrook when the impromptu team meeting finally finished.
“Y’all some bad muthaf*ckas.”