One more hill to climb.
The Thunder have progressed each season for the past four. They became a promising young team with a bright future. Then a first-round playoff team that pushed the champs admirably. Then a Western Conference finals team knocked down by wily veterans. Then the Western Conference champions unable to oust the King.
So, now what?
Now, this is the cliff. The apex. Time to get busy living or get busy dying. The Thunder can win the title, cement the legacy of Kevin Durant as one of the youngest superstar champions in NBA history, erase the questions about the James Harden trade and Russell Westbrook and small markets and all that comes with it.
Or they can hit a big, ugly wall.
That's what's incredible about these playoffs for Oklahoma City. The only way that they improve is if they win a title. Otherwise, they will have regressed. So, you know. No pressure.
How do they get there?
You already know. It's Durant working in the flow of the offense as the most elite scoring machine in the NBA. Westbrook creating more offense than he's given credit for and attacking the rim relentlessly. Serge Ibaka surprising teams with his range even though he's had it for two years. Nick Collison's great defense, Kevin Martin's great offense, and did I mention Durant and Westbrook?
The Rockets will be cathartic for them, some sort of closing of the book on Harden's time in Oklahoma City. They have to end their brother's season to continue their own. It'll be emotional and yet likely anticlimactic due to the Thunder's advantages. Then it's on to the Clippers or Grizzlies. And while Memphis holds a bit of the Thunder's past in their grasp stemming from the 2011 series, neither team is likely to present a significant challenge. It'll be a series but not much more than the standard one.
Then it gets tricky. San Antonio. Denver. The Lakers? All three present different concerns. The Lakers are the past, the team that the Thunder were beaten by in their first postseason experience and whom they defeated last year to advance to the conference finals and establish their dominance. The Spurs are the present, the team that they've battled with all year for the No. 1 seed. And the Nuggets are the uncertain future, based on the horrible regular-season matchup for OKC. It'll likely be the Spurs and a continuation of what happened last year.
And what happened last year is great, until they reach the Finals and a likely matchup with the Heat.
The Thunder were in all five games last summer vs. Miami. That's forgotten due to the brevity of the series. But they were right there. That has to be the idea. They weren't outclassed in the Finals; they were merely beaten in three very difficult contests before their hearts gave out. They can hang with Miami. They can beat the Heat. They can defeat LeBron.
They have to believe that because, otherwise, the ladder that they've been climbing for four years doesn't go anywhere. It just hits a concrete ceiling, and they slip and fall into one of those teams remembered for how good they were, and how close they came, but not for having been the best.
It's on Durant. It's on Westbrook. The rest of the team is great; they play together. But it will take two of the best postseasons of any two players over the past 10 years for the Thunder to win the West, to make the Finals, to beat the Heat.
Another long climb up the rope. Nowhere to go but up.