• OKC missed winning the West by a whisker, and that whisker was mental

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    Kevin Durant No.35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high-fives Dion Waiters No3 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO

    Kevin Durant No.35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high-fives Dion Waiters No3 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO

    The NBA finals began Thursday night (Friday in Manila), and the Thunder wasn’t involved. Bummer.

    The Thunder had a great playoff run. It won 55 games, beat a team that won 67 games and dang near beat a team that had won 73 games. The Thunder fell short because of bad timing. To reach the Finals, the Thunder was required to produce two major upsets. Only one was in the cards.

    But the seven-game battle with the Warriors, which should have ended in six with a Thunder triumph, will remain vital to the Thunder.

    “I thought the series forced our guys to dig down deeper,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think we can dig down even deeper. The more you get challenged and pushed like that, I think the more you have a chance to grow and flower. So that’s what it is to me.”

    It was a great lesson. The Thunder physically was capable. But it missed winning the West by a whisker, and that whisker was mental. The Thunder blinked in the final five minutes of Game 6. The Thunder stayed tough virtually the entire series, except those five minutes.

    Russell Westbrook said the Thunder has “a great team, a lot of guys that can contribute in a lot of different ways as you’ve seen, a lot of guys that improved over the season, not just starting in the playoffs, but gotten better mentally, and I think that’s the main part, not just physically but mentally gotten better and made us a better team.”

    But, Westbrook admitted, OKC can improve mentally. “Mental toughness,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten very, very well at that point, but I think to make the next step, we have to constantly do that throughout the whole season, not just late in the playoffs, because I thought we turned the page when it got to this time of year, but I think if we constantly keep that from start to finish, it makes it easier for us in certain situations.”

    The Thunder’s fourth-quarter troubles were well-documented during the season. OKC consistently did not play well down the stretch of games. That mostly changed in the playoffs. But old habits are hard to break. It’s hard to stay on the wagon. Most improvements are not a total ascension. Some up, some down, a lot up, a little down. A little down got the Thunder at the worst possible time.

    Golden State is a legitimately great team. The Thunder was great, too, for this series. All but those five minutes that will haunt the Thunder no matter how many titles it eventually wins.

    When you get a chance to eliminate a team as great as the Warriors, you better take it. You’re not likely to get a second chance.

    Kobe to Durant: “Look at every opportunity”

    Kobe Bryant has some advice for Kevin Durant in his upcoming free agency summer.

    In short: don’t limit yourself.

    Bryant, in a Q&A with USA Today, chimed in on Durant’s highly-anticipated free agency by advising Durant to do his due diligence this summer before making a decision.

    “Yeah, I mean, you know, you’ve just got to look at it holistically,” Bryant said. “What does he want out of his career, what opportunities present themselves, even I — when I was a free agent — I did my due diligence, I looked at every opportunity and I left no stone unturned, so you have to vet those things. I was just very fortunate things worked out for me in Los Angeles, but he certainly needs to look at every opportunity and make the right decision for himself — keeping in mind his fan base in Oklahoma, as well.”

    Durant maintained at his exit interview Wednesday that he still hasn’t given thought to several things related to his free agency, including what factors will go into his ultimate decision and whether he’ll be interested in signing a long or short term contract. But Durant did call Oklahoma City “home.”

    “The most important thing for me is the type of people I’m going to be around every single day,” Durant said. “If I’m enjoying playing basketball … that’s the thing I really want to center everything around. I love my teammates here. I love playing basketball here. So that’s what’s important to me.”

    Durant will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

    By the numbers
    32: Games the Thunder played this season where the point differential was three points or less with 30 seconds or less remaining. That total tied for third-most in the league. Minnesota ranked first with 36 such games played. Indiana finished second with 34. San Antonio had the fewest with 15.

    17-15: The Thunder’s record in those one-possession games with 30 seconds or less remaining.

    17: Minutes in such games, tied for sixth-most in the league.

    15: The number of points the Thunder outscored its opponents in those one-possession games with 30 seconds or less remaining. Golden State led all teams with a plus-23 point differential in those instances. Utah ranked last at minus-25.

    3: Turnovers by the Thunder in its 32 game situations where the score was three points or less with 30 seconds remaining.

    42.2: Percent field-goal shooting by the Thunder in its 32 game situations where the score was three points or less with 30 seconds remaining. Sacramento paced all teams at 58.3 percent.

    25.0: Percent 3-point shooting by the Thunder in its 32 game situations where the score was three points or less with 30 seconds remaining. OKC made four of 16 3-pointers in those situations. The Thunder’s 16 attempts were tied for fourth. The Clippers led all teams with 46.7 percent.

    TNS

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