Thunder could turn to reign

OKLAHOMA CITY -- All season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had considered themselves a college team winning games in the NBA and, true to form, when it was over, the aftermath looked like something straight out of a crushing NCAA tournament defeat.

Kevin Durant was face down, slapping the court. Jeff Green held his hands to his head and doubled over in pain. Russell Westbrook stared into the upper reaches of the Ford Center, a look of disbelief frozen on his face.

And then the Ford Center crowd, which had announced itself as the new decibel standard in the NBA in these playoffs, refused to let its team walk off the court in remorse Friday night. The fans stayed in their seats -- standing in front of their seats, technically -- and cheered. Then they kept cheering, and the cheers grew even louder. Even Phil Jackson, that old cynic, called it "heartwarming."

The players gathered in one last huddle, as Durant told them to work hard wherever they were this summer.

Because the difficult part begins now.

These were the good old days, when everything was fresh and new and the team could do no wrong, when every victory beyond the 23rd of the season was considered progress. After losing their first-round series to the Lakers in six games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks could rightfully claim, "There is nothing to be ashamed of." (You think Dallas coach Rick Carlisle could get away with that statement this week?)

No one in the core group of Durant, Westbrook, Green, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha is older than 25. The team will be around $15 million under the salary cap this summer, while none of their own top players can leave before 2012 if the Thunder want to keep them around.

"There's good chemistry, a group of four really good scorers, and they've got some good role players that can assist them," Jackson said. "They're talented, it looks like they work well together. They're without a large center, but they can get the job done."

They can address the big man issue in the draft or through free agency this summer (Brendan Haywood could work).

Everything about the franchise says stability. As incredible as it might seem, Brooks, who has a career record of 72-79 even after this 50-win season, has more job security than the 10-time champion Jackson right now.

But there's nothing to guarantee it will all work out for the Thunder. The ruthless NBA is often kinder to day traders than to long-term investors.

After his Lakers owned the 1980s, Magic Johnson predicted that the Cleveland Cavaliers would be the team of the '90s. Then Michael Jordan and a certain "Shot" happened and the Cavs were done before the decade they were supposed to rule even began.

Jordan called the Washington Bullets with the former Fab Five combo of Chris Webber and Juwan Howard the "team of the future" after his Bulls beat them in a closely contested first-round sweep in 1997. That group never made the playoffs again and was dismantled after a string of off-court incidents.

I've even seen an ecstatic group of young Los Angeles Clippers so happy that Lamar Odom was dancing on the scorers' table in front of an adoring crowd after the last home game of the 2001-02 season. That fun-loving group had Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles knocking down 3s and pounding their heads, with Elton Brand racking up double-doubles, and the Clippers could afford to dream big.

"I remember when I had my first game at the Staples Center," Odom said. "I always thought that I was going to be the first Clipper who was going to have his number retired, sitting up there amongst the Lakers [legends], there would be one Clipper jersey up there.

"But things happen," said Odom, who had a league-imposed suspension for violating the drug policy among the "things." "I was a young man, my decisions off the court weren't the best. There were a couple of trades, a couple of injuries and the team wasn't as interested in me as they were when I was a rookie or my second year."

He was traded to Miami, Miles was traded to Cleveland and Richardson was sent to Phoenix (to clear salary-cap space in a futile attempt to sign Kobe Bryant).

The young group never got a chance to grow up together.

Meanwhile, most of the recent success stories have been quick fixes. The Detroit Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace in a midseason trade in 2004 and won a championship that year (which worked much better than the investment in the future -- No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic). The Heat sent Odom back to Los Angeles to get an older Shaquille O'Neal from the Lakers and won a championship two years later. The Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and won a title immediately. The Lakers, whose post-Shaq plans seemed destined only to drive Kobe Bryant out of town in frustration, wound up getting Pau Gasol from Memphis and going straight to the Finals, then returning to get the championship the next year.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti has based his approach on the slow, steady course set forth by the San Antonio Spurs, the team that gave him his first NBA job.

Odom has seen how it works from the flip side and now realizes that "you get what you want -- if you want to keep guys together, if you want to keep guys there, then it's right there."

But even the Spurs went on a spending spree to grab Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess last summer in a last-ditch attempt to get another championship while Tim Duncan could still play.

It's a now league, and the Thunder are later.

At the moment, in this afterglow, they can afford to be optimistic.

"It's all a process," Durant said. "It's all about going through ups and downs.

"The better days are ahead of us. If we continue with that mindset, coming in, working hard, playing basketball the right way, respecting everybody we play, then the sky is the limit for us."

They're at the stage where they still can feel encouraged by a defeat. They blew out the Lakers as many times as the Lakers blew them out in the series, and the Thunder lost by only three points in Game 2 in Los Angeles and by a point on a last-second tip-in in the Game 6 finale.

"We fought so hard as a team," Westbrook said. "All of us. We feel we can take that next step."

It will require better execution in tight games, for one. Including the playoffs, the Thunder were 7-13 in games decided by three points or fewer this season. All they have to do is pick up a few of those games next season and they can get to 55 wins, which would have been enough to win the Northwest Division this season ... and avoid a first-round matchup with the defending champion Lakers.

Durant will have to enter the realm of unstoppable, rather than someone who was bothered enough by an aging Ron Artest to shoot 35 percent in the series, including 5-for-23 in Game 6. For now, he can afford to call it a setback in his ascension to greatness. The Thunder organization keeps pushing Durant because he's their big break, the star who might never come to Oklahoma City via free agency, and it's essential that he becomes great.

Every championship team needs a second star and it looks like the Thunder have one in their point guard, Westbrook, who tore apart the Lakers until they made him their defensive priority starting in Game 5.

The Thunder believe in their coach and they have earned his trust through their effort.

"We're one of the hardest-working teams in the league," Durant said. "I think that we deserve a lot."

He didn't say it with a sense of entitlement, he said it from a belief that hard work is rewarded, that planning and persistence will pay off.

If Durant can reach the LeBron-Kobe-Wade level and Presti can add the right pieces and none of the main pieces are lured away by bigger cities or more money, and they can remain as healthy as they did in this virtually injury-free season, then it could.

If not, then those old Cavs, Clippers and Bullets teams will have to make room at the diner counter on the boulevard of broken dreams.