The clock hit zeroes, the buzzer sounded, and just like that, the Oklahoma City Thunder's reign as Western Conference champions was over.
It was only a matter of time after Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury that those words would become reality, but the Thunder wasn't going to go down without a fight. Wednesday night at The Peake it was an ugly rock fight but in the end, the Thunder surrendered its crown, falling to Memphis, 88-84.
With the win, the Grizzlies punched their ticket to the franchise's first Western Conference Finals and await the winner of the San Antonio-Golden State series. The Spurs currently lead that series, 3-2.
This was not the way Oklahoma City pictured its season ending, but it's the hand it was dealt. No one could have predicted Westbrook to go down at the worst possible time, but that's what happened and there was nothing the Thunder could do about it but play.
Kevin Durant did his best to carry the Thunder and extend the season, but it seemed as if his youthful back finally gave out under the weight of the rest of his teammates. Durant went the distance Wednesday night, playing all 48 minutes for OKC and finishing with 21 points, but did so with a shockingly bad 5-of-21 performance from the field. His last miss wasn't the worst, but it was the most memorable—an open 18-footer that could have tied the game with less than five seconds left clanked harmlessly off the rim into the arms of Tony Allen, who hounded Durant all night long.
Durant's night encapsulated Oklahoma City's performance in this series perfectly: plenty of effort with little results. The Thunder tried to battle with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post; they tried to make Memphis pay for focusing so intently on Durant; they tried to overcome a 12-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining Wednesday night.
But they couldn't do it. Oklahoma City simply didn't have enough in the tank or enough talent to overcome the loss of a superstar on such short notice. It was a valiant effort, but you can only suffer through so many six minute and 13 second droughts without a field goal before succumbing to the inevitable.
The water cooler talk going into the offseason is sure to be pretty interesting and heated, but the fact remains, there isn't a lot to change about this team. Sure, the Thunder could use a consistent presence down low on both ends of the court, and some more offensive punch in the bench would be nice, but those aren't drastic changes. The close nature of this series—all five games were decided by six points or less—underscored just how good the Thunder is, and that was proven without a top-10 player in the league.
A Miami Marlins-like fire sale is not going to happen. The Thunder won't be making any big splash signings in free agency or any major trades—whether by choice or by financial ability. Instead—if last season's Finals disappointment is any indication—Oklahoma City is going to go back to work and try to get better. It's easy to forget how young the core of this team is. Durant is just 24; Serge Ibaka is 23; Westbrook is 24. There are a lot of years of growth left on each of them and when you think about how good each of them are now, that's an exciting thought.
Wednesday night's result was going to happen at some point, but a disappointing ending to a great season thanks to unforeseen circumstances isn't a reason to panic about the future of the franchise and Oklahoma City's status as a contender in the NBA. If the Thunder had simply quit after Westbrook's injury and lost in the first round to Houston, or looked completely inept against Memphis, some concern wouldn't be unreasonable.
However, that's not what happened. The Thunder showed a lot of heart these past few weeks, but reality wasn't going to be delayed any longer. The season may be over, but the Thunder's future isn't and it's ascension to the top of the NBA will just have to wait another year.