OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 6 loss to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals wasn't the defining game of their franchise history, but it certainly was emblematic. Hard-fought. Admirable. Impressive.
With an eight-point lead in the final quarter of a series in which they had held so many demons at bay, the Thunder simply needed to hold the line. Just keep the door closed. They could not hold the door, and the Warriors burst through with flame and shields and, as always, made all the shots -- particularly Klay Thomson, who almost single-handedly saved the Warriors with a jaw-dropping performance that no Warrior fan will ever forget.
But let's address the elephant in the room.
The debate will be whether the Thunder have collapsed. Whether this is a "choke job." On the one hand, the Thunder had a 3-1 series lead four days ago, and a seven-point lead with 5:48 to play Saturday night. Now they face a Game 7 which only two teams in NBA history have won on the road in the conference finals after losing a 3-1 lead. In the final five minutes, the Thunder were outscored 19-5, had no assists to six turnovers, shot 1-of-5 from the field and lost the game.
It does not get much more collapstastic than that. Still, this is an all-time great team the Thunder are facing, and they were never going to go out whimpering. The Thunder had to earn it, and they almost did. Almost. Ken Berger has more on how we shouldn't consider this a collapse, but a marvelous series between two great teams.
The question of whether this is a collapse is an instant reaction though. That's about now. That shouldn't be how this game is viewed. It should be viewed as a microcosm of everything that is the Thunder. A team with great heart, fueled by a raucous crowd -- one that Warriors coach Steve Kerr listed as one of the four best in the league -- led by two transcendent superstars, that gives a phenomenal effort and lifts itself to the very cusp of greatness, within an outstretched hand's grasp of undoing all the narratives and tropes about this team.
Instead, the Thunder failed. Again.
And with all due respect for Kevin Durant, and the weight he has to carry, and the greatness that embodies his career ... Durant failed. Again.
Durant shot 10-of-31 from the field in Game 6, including 1-of-7 in the fourth quarter and 1-of-3 in the final five minutes. You can point to his partner, Russell Westbrook, and to be sure, Westbrook's four turnovers in the final five minutes doomed OKC as much as Durant's struggles, the Thunder's "stagnant" offense and above all else, the Warriors.
However, this game doesn't go down like this if Durant doesn't shoot so poorly.
"I like my shots," Durant said. "It's just a matter of them going in. Like I said, when I drive to the rim they bring guys at me, so I've got to do a better job of making the extra pass. I wish I could have a lot of those shots back.
"I felt great on a lot of them, but that's just how it is."
Yeah, that's how it is. Again. Just like Durant wants the 2015 season back, when he was out with a broken foot. Or the 2014 playoff series against the Spurs when Serge Ibaka was hurt the first two games. Or 2013 when Westbrook was out. Or 2012 when the Thunder weren't ready against LeBron James' Heat.
It's always something. That's not dismissive, either. It really is always something. We live in a results-oriented world that wants to work backward from losses to find blame. After Game 6, the Thunder stars kept repeating the same words.
"They got hot from 3," Durant said of the Warriors.
"Curry had some tough ones over hands, so that's what they do," he said.
"Just like Kevin said, they were making some tough shots, we played hard most of the game. They just made more shots than we did," Westbrook said.
It's a make-or-miss league, to be sure. And sometimes you make yours, and the other guy doesn't, unless you're the Warriors, and then roughly 80 percent of the time all of your guys make all the shots. But Westbrook isn't Westbrook for his shooting (and his early hot jump shot helped the Thunder establish the lead). Serge Ibaka isn't there for his shooting, it's just a plus that helps them win games. Westbrook missed all five of his 3-point attempts, but you have to live with that -- it's part of the Westbrook package.
Durant, though ...
Durant is who he is because of his shooting. He's added rebounding, playmaking, leadership, savvy, foul-drawing and defense to become the well-rounded dominant force he is. But he's a scorer first, a shooter, one of the best in the league's history ... at least before the Warriors started skewing the sample.
He missed 21 shots. Hitting a fourth of those makes for a Thunder win. Making any more than that, and the Thunder are partying all the way to Cleveland right now. On the one night, more than any other, that the Thunder needed Durant to do what he does -- make shots -- he wasn't able to. He forced plays in transition, dove into the defense and couldn't finish at the rim, missed good look after good look.
Somewhere, beyond what feels like a very academic Game 7, is Kevin Durant's free agency. This playoff run, and this series should tell him more than ever that he should return. The whispers have all said that Durant could leave because he would feel he needed a better supporting cast. He needs to bury that idea in a trunk inside a vault at the bottom of the Oklahoma River. The Thunder didn't fail Kevin Durant this time.
Kevin Durant ... well, you know the rest.
Maybe that's not fair, but as it is with LeBron James, that's the price. Unless you're Steph Curry, the glory of superstardom comes with the burden of blame. (Had Curry failed and the 73-win team fallen to the Thunder, Curry's injury would have explained his struggle. Read Zach Harper for more on that.)
The Thunder have been a roller coaster these last six seasons, and it was all on display Saturday night. The risky moves Sam Presti made with Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters were paying off. The Thunder had proven through the last two rounds that they had put their fourth-quarter demons to bed. Oklahoma City was on the verge of the Finals. Then it was gone, in a flash of Splash Brothers brilliance and followed by a confused, heartbroken silence in what had been a cacophony of excitement for 43 minutes.
The Thunder players were terse after the game, understandably. The fans were in shock, understandably.
And despite all of the promise that this postseason had held for the Thunder, when you look back at the breaks and twists of fate this franchise has watched through the highs and lows, in the end there was only disappointment and a gnawing fear that maybe this was the last Thunder game of this era in the madhouse that is Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder will make one more attempt at a last stand Monday, at Oracle Arena, but Game 6 was at once unlike any game the Thunder have ever played and yet ...
It all seemed so familiar. Again.