MIAMI -- Kevin Durant untucked his jersey, grabbed a towel and walked to the very end of the bench to sit down, all alone. He sat there, head down, feeling the wave of disappointment wash over him as a sea of white rocked in celebration.
A party in South Beach was kicking off, and Durant and his Thunder teammates were just in the way. Four minutes were left until it became official, and really, those four minutes just served as 240 seconds of torture.
So Durant sat there, alone in his painful world of misery. I'm sure there will be a lot of people tell him that he's just 24, and that this team will have its time. But that doesn't matter right now. What matters is the pain. The hurt. The heartbreak.
|More on NBA Finals, Game 5|
If this is it for Miller, what a way to go out
|More NBA coverage|
You could tell he was trying to shake it off, trying to be a leader. He bounced up from the end of the bench to rejoin the huddle, regaining his composure and seeing out this season as we'd all expect. He stood on the sideline bunched with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, towel over his head, trying to find it within to cheer on the seldom used bench guys finishing out the game.
As the clock kept ticking towards inevitibility, Durant went down the line and hugged all his teammates and coaches. He embraced Scott Brooks. Then the buzzer rang, confetti fell and as the King was crowned, Durant walked to midcourt to wrap LeBron James in those forever long arms.
He was stoic, poised, mature. He was handling the agony of defeat with the humility and pure class we've all come to expect from him.
Durant walked off the floor, fighting emotions as he hugged general manager Sam Presti and owner Clay Bennett in the tunnel. But it was all over when he saw his mom and dad standing there.
“I didn't think I would get that emotional," Durant said of hugging his parents. "It was a tough, tough game, tough series. My mom and my dad have been there from the beginning. So like I said, win or lose, they're going to always be there for me. You know, I'm not going to just hug them because we won a game. We lost the series, lost The Finals, I'm still going to thank them for all their support they've showed me. They hurt like I hurt. That's what you want your parents to go through. It's tough for me, and I could tell in my mom's face and my dad's face, it was tough for them just to see us lose.”
Sitting at the podium answering questions, there was a strange confidence in Durant though, as if he realized that this is just one season, one disappointment. As if he understands what the rest of us do, that he'll be back. That he'll have another shot.
His first NBA Finals didn't finish as he intended, but he was terrific in his regardless. In Games 1 and 2, he scored 33 combined points in the fourth quarter. For the series, he averaged 30 points a game on 55 percent shooting. He was forced to battle unexpected foul trouble, a swarming Miami defense keyed on trying to stop him and the pressure of carrying a young Thunder team that clearly was struggling with the magnitude of the moment.
This year's Finals were billed as LeBron vs. Durant and while it ended up being all about that, it really wasn't at all. The two defended each other sparingly and played completely different games. LeBron was brilliant and collected in handling OKC's pressure and matchups, while Durant almost seemed to be scrambling and laboring for each clean look.
What's lost on this defeat for the Thunder is just how close they really were. A terrible first quarter seemed to dig their grave in Game 2, but a no-call on a baseline jumper could've sent the game to overtime. Game 3 was back-and-forth, coming down to a handful of plays. Game 4, the Thunder appeared to have in hand before the Heat reserves made their impact. Something here, something there and it's Durant's time. It's his moment.
It's a copout to say this is a lesson for Durant and his young Thunder team, but that's exactly what it is. Falling on the big stage manifests motivation, puts that little extra something in you. Durant and the Thunder have now been near the top without tasting it. That kind of drive is what fueled LeBron this season and now Durant knows that pain.
"It hurts," Durant said. "It hurts, man."
Those were his first words at the podium Thursday and he really didn't need to say anything else.
What makes it hurt so much is that the journey just to get here is so long. To get back seems forever away. What stands between Durant's shot at redemption is an 82-game season with back-to-backs, long road trips and meaningless February games in Sacramento. Gone are the big shots of the postseason, the moments where legend is born. It's back to the grind, but that's what you have to press through if you want another shot.
"We're not frontrunners," Durant said. "We're not guys that are just happy when things are going well. It's the toughest time we've ever been through, and we want to do the same thing we would do if we won the game."
That's the footprint of this Thunder team, and it's because it falls in step behind Durant. It's all about evolution, about hard work, about taking another step forward. The Thunder did precisely that going one round further this season than last, but it ended all the same. Heads hanging low while watching the other team put on extra large t-shirts and way-to-crisp hats.
It's all part of the process, something the Thunder preach. Live by it, die by it. You can't rush it, even though it seems like the Thunder have been speeding towards greatness at warp speed. It's because of their overwhelming talent and organizational structure. These guys play to win and they don't want to wait their turn.
But they will for another year.
"We hug each other, tell each other how much we love playing alongside each other, and thank them for what they've done all season, every guy down the line, coaches, everybody that worked with us every single day, and we worked together and worked hard every single day," said Durant. "We just thanked each other for this season. But we all know this hurts. We've got to continue to keep working.”
Derek Fisher, a veteran that knows a thing or two, or five, about championships, put his arm around Durant late in the fourth quarter as the Heat piled on. It was as if to tell the young star that his time will come again. Sometimes, you just don't win.
Durant seemed to understand that when he spoke to reporters, keeping his head held high as he sat there with that backpack on. He failed in this Finals run, but he'll be back.