James Harden: “A Dynasty Is Being Built”
The media was invited to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s practice facility yesterday for players’ exit interviews, and HOOPSWORLD was there to catch all the action. As coach Scott Brooks indicated at the start of the meeting, his team would have rather been on court readying for a Game 6 in the NBA Finals instead of talking about their abruptly-ended season.
To recap, after blowing through the postseason – with victories over the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs – the Thunder lost to the Miami HEAT in the NBA Finals, 4-1.
Brooks confirmed that Kendrick Perkins played through three rounds of the postseason with a partially torn groin.
“Perk played through it,” he said. “We would have not been in the NBA Finals if it wasn’t for his toughness versus the Lakers and his ability to guard pick-and-rolls in the Spurs series. I give him a lot of credit. Most guys would’ve shut it down, but he didn’t. He fought.”
Naturally, the players were asked a multitude of questions about their title hopes being dashed. They didn’t hold back when describing their perceptions of why the Thunder lost and how the loss affected them.
“All the guys know what that felt like, to walk off the court and not be champions,” said Russell Westbrook. “I think that’s going to push a lot of guys. I know it’s going to push me to come back better.”
He said it was “very tough” to watch Miami celebrate their win.
“It was a great experience, playing at the highest stage of basketball,” shared a very soft-spoken Kevin Durant. “As kids, it’s what you dream about, having the chance to compete for a title. Unfortunately, we came up short. It was a great lesson for us. Sometimes you learn a lot from failures. It’s going to fuel us, I think. We tasted a little bit of the Finals and, of course, we want to get back.
“It’s a picture in my head that I’m going to remember the whole summer,” said Durant, calling Miami’s on-floor celebration “very upsetting.”
“They were the better team,” he said. “I hate to admit that. We wanted this one. It felt like it was right within our grasp to get it. We never accepted us being too young or waiting our turn. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little bit longer.
“We don’t have to make any major changes. We don’t have to get a whole new team in here.”
The league’s Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, struggled in the series and many were anxious to get his take.
“(The Finals) is another level that you’ve got to play at, not just physically, but mentally. Every possession counts. Game 2 started off slow, and I think that changed the series.
“Shots didn’t fall and that usually go in, didn’t go in,” Harden noted. “It starts (taking) a toll on you, start to think about it a little bit. It’s a learning experience; that even if your shots aren’t falling, you can’t get down on yourself.”
“I think our game plan was solid,” said Nick Collison. “We didn’t execute it well enough.”
“It was fun and exciting,” said Thabo Sefolosha. “It was like a dream to be able to experience that, play at that level against a team that’s very, very, very good and has a lot of hype.”
“Sometimes it’s more than just talent,” added Eric Maynor. “I think maybe that’s what got Miami over the hump. It was more than talent in that series. We learned some stuff by losing in that series.”
There was a recurring theme among the players when explaining why the Thunder failed in their title bid, and that was their lack of mental toughness and experience.
“(Experience) was probably a pretty big factor,” explained Sefolosha. “I feel like the first two games, we were not quite ourselves. We played a little bit tense; we weren’t loose enough.”
“For us, that level comes mentally,” said Collison when asked if the Thunder can take their game to another level. “We’ve come such a long way, but the next step for us is being able to sustain longer periods of that mental sharpness to where (the) only thing in our mind is playing this possession the best way for the Thunder. The more we can get to that’s just who we are, the better we’ll be.
“Experience clearly helps,” Collison continued. “It doesn’t mean you can’t beat a more experienced team, but there’s no doubt that experience helps you. It gives you confidence sometimes; it helps you make better decisions in future situations.”
“You find yourself in games where you see that you’ve done all you can do, and it’s not enough,” Westbrook said. “You’ve got to find extra juice, extra energy to get you through. Coming into next year, we’re going to be hungry.”
“I expect everybody to grow from it and take it as motivation through the whole summer,” added Sefolosha. “I’m sure guys are going to work hard with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. It’s going to take all of us to play better if we want to get there again and have a chance to win it.”
“We know what it takes to finish, so it’s good for us,” said Serge Ibaka about his first Finals experience. “We can do better.”
“I’m sure if we get back again, I’ll be more relaxed and more experienced,” predicted Durant. “Experience really is the best teacher. It really does matter.”
The players were candid in talking about those areas requiring improvement, both individually and as a team, going into next season.
“A lot of things,” said Westbrook when asked what he needs to work on. “I could go down the list for myself. I’m going to come back and just be better. A better leader, better player overall (and) a better defender.”
“I want my mindset to be maybe a little more aggressive,” Collison said. “I’ve become a better shooter offensively, and I want to look at that more. I don’t want it to be where I’m only shooting it when I’m feeling good, I want it be like that’s what I do. I think that can help us.”
“I want to try to work on my offensive game,” said Ibaka, who said he’s also looking to gain more confidence. “I want to get better on my post game.”
Durant shared a laundry list of things.
“I’m going to continue working on my body, try to get as strong as I can, being a better playmaker. Just try to be a better scorer, an easier scorer, better rebounder, better defender…things like that.”
He said he needs to keep getting “stronger and stronger” to do those things he does at a higher level.
Lefty Harden said he wants to focus on his right hand; finishing, shooting, defense…just work on his whole game. He wants to find other ways to impact the game when his shots aren’t falling.
The Thunder has methodically progressed over the past three years in the postseason; in fact, they were eliminated by each eventual champion, going deeper in each playoff round. Given that scenario, the next step figures to be capturing an NBA title. How will they handle that pressure?
“I don’t think guys are going to feel pressured next year and be perfect,” answered Westbrook. “I just think the pressure (is) coming back and being more hungry.”
“I think we’re going to be held to a lot of expectations,” said Maynor, sidelined most of the year and set to return by training camp. “Everybody’s going to expect us to be back in the Finals.”
“It wasn’t easy getting there, and it’s going to be even tougher next year,” said Durant. “Everybody’s going to come at us, and they’re going to bring their best shot every single game.”
“There’s no guarantee the next natural step is a championship,” Brooks said. “We all start next season 0-0.”
With Maynor’s role switching from player to observer from the bench, he didn’t hesitate to tell the guys what he saw from his vantage point.
“Guys probably got tired of me saying stuff to them, because I (saw) everything. I think it’s going to help me out a lot coming back next year just knowing some of the stuff it takes that I didn’t really realize.”
Derek Fisher and Perkins were both under the weather and did not participate in the exit interviews.
None of the players would entertain the subject of contracts for Ibaka, Harden and Maynor (all are eligible for extensions this summer) except to say, in general, they hope every player returns.
Maynor made it crystal clear he wants to stay in Oklahoma City. He admits he would like to be a starter in the league, but will gladly sacrifice to continue backing up Westbrook. Veteran Nazr Mohammed, an unrestricted free agent, said he hopes to return and noted that teams have been calling. Harden says he “loves it here” and wants to stay.
“A dynasty is being built here,” said Harden.
As for Brooks, look for some type of news soon as his contract expires at the end of June. Players expressed admiration toward their coach and their hope that he returns.
Thunder fans, about 4,000 of them, greeted the players and coaches when the team plane landed in Oklahoma City the day following the Finals loss. It turned into an impromptu rally.
Durant said he couldn’t even explain in words how it made him feel to see all those people waiting there, especially after a loss. He expressed tremendous gratitude toward Oklahoma City.
“Personally, I really wanted (the win) for the team and the city, and think about me after that,” he said when asked to describe his personal disappointment.
“We’re surprised still with how incredible the support is,” said Collison. “We don’t take it for granted, and we realize how rare it is. The lack of negativity that we have to deal with here from outside that a lot of cities do helps us too, especially in our growth.”
This is nothing new, but the players continue to throw around words such as “family”, “bond” and “we’re like brothers” to describe the chemistry of their team. Almost all of them acknowledged that, at the end of the day, the NBA is a business and roster changes could happen.
“It translates right away when you’re on the floor,” said Maynor, who admits he didn’t have that experience in Utah. “You give more effort because you feel like that’s your real brother. It’s a different NBA team. It really feels like college.”
It was a great run for the Thunder this season. All eyes will now turn toward them to see if they can take the next logical step…winning an NBA championship.