Don't blame Thunder collapse on the kids

by | CBSSports.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's a common theme after the Thunder lose heartbreaking playoff games.

Well, at least they'll learn from it.

It's true. This team is young. An average age of 25.4 years old, making it the youngest squad to make a Western Conference finals since the 1986 Houston Rockets. Their two keystone players are both 22 years old. Their starting five totals up to 118, which I think is close to Jason Kidd's age.

But it's no excuse for their Game 4 meltdown. Not anymore. There are a lot of reasons the Thunder choked away a 15-point lead with five minutes left and lost the most important game of the season 112-105 in overtime. Bad execution, turnovers, dumb decisions, poor defense, Dirk Nowitzki -- but inexperience and youth shouldn't be part of the explanation. That just doesn't cut it for me.

It's the easy road every time this Thunder team fails in big moments. And yes, there's no denying they are young. This is the first time they've played in the Western Conference finals. This is new territory. But that doesn't give them a free pass to blow wins.

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The Thunder certainly did immature things. They committed three fouls in the back court with the Mavericks in the bonus. Boom, six free Dallas points, plus it stopped the clock. James Harden -- 22 years old -- committed his sixth foul swiping at the ball 80 feet from the basket. The Mavs outscored OKC 28-6 after he left the game. The Thunder took shots with seven or eight seconds on the shot clock. Valuable seconds that could've shortened the game. They turned the ball over repeatedly -- 26 times, in fact. They missed crucial free throws.

They did a lot of dumb things.

"Was that youth?" Scott Brooks asked after that game. "I don't know. That's how we've had some success all year, playing with a young team. We just have to execute better."

Brooks could've easily just answered: "Yep, it was totally youth, next question" and moved on. It would've been easy to just chalk it up to that. The door was open for him to remove a little of the blame, but he wasn't taking it.

Neither was Kevin Durant.

"This is basketball, man. Our youth has nothing to do with what we were doing on the floor. We've showed we can play on this level. They played good defense, man. We missed some shots. Our youth has nothing to do with it."

This is only the second postseason for this roster. Game 4 was only the 22nd playoff game for this Thunder team. But like Durant said, it's basketball. They've already survived a Game 7, they've already closed out two series. To just cop out and say it was youth isn't even fair to themselves.

Mainly because they've been down this road before. Against the Grizzlies in Game 3 of that series, OKC led by as many as 18 and by 10 with six minutes left. But after some bad shots, turnovers, missed free throws and the like, Memphis forced an overtime and eventually took a pivotal game.

That was a learning moment. That was a time to grow up. And they did, bouncing back to win Game 4. They were supposed to learn from their past failures though, right? It was supposed to fix everything.

Not the way it works, though. Because it's basketball, man. You've got to play and play well to win. Period.

This type of thing will test them, though. For as much as this group has been through this postseason -- rumored in-fighting, criticism of players, criticism of coaching, potential division in the locker room -- there is going to be an opportunity for this team to really come together and rely on each other.

Because after a loss like that, that's really all you have. You've got your teammates. You've got the other 15 guys or so that are feeling the exact same level of pain you are. Winning cures every issue, but losing brings them out. It makes people point fingers. It makes people blame others.

And after the type of loss the Thunder suffered Monday, there's going to be an urge to do a lot of that, I would imagine. Teams go through moments like this. Winning a championship isn't easy. There's no doubt this is part of the process. This definitely is an opportunity to mature and step forward.

But this loss isn't on being young. This one was about basketball, man.

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