It's remarkable how disappointing the end of the 2011-2012 NBA season has been for Oklahoma City Thunder fans. Just four years ago, fans were thankful the season was over, one where the Thunder went just 23-59, and were on pace in the first half of the season to have the worst season in NBA history.
But the seeds were sown in the second half of that season for a new power to emerge in the NBA. No one knew when it would happen, but it was obvious to everyone with any sort of basketball sense the Thunder would eventually rise to prominence.
This year was that year for OKC, and they took us all on a wild ride.
Expectations were high this season, after the Thunder reached the Western Conference Finals a year ago before falling in five games to the Dallas Mavericks. Even though the Thunder had reached that important milestone, an NBA Finals appearance, or better yet, an NBA championship still seemed like a dream scenario for a team made of mostly 20-somethings with a couple of older veterans mixed in.
This season, the Thunder delivered exactly what you would expect from a team overflowing with talent, but only half full on experience. The growth from previous seasons was obvious, with the Thunder winning plenty of close games, including several where OKC was down late in the fourth quarter.
Even a year ago, a lot of those games would have ended in a loss for the Thunder because they just weren't at the maturity level needed to execute in late-game situations.
The Thunder roared through the regular season, leading the Western Conference throughout much of the season. Several gems stood out in particular along the way, starting with an early-season buzzer beater from Kevin Durant that beat the Mavericks in their first matchup since the conference finals.
Individual performances were at a premium this season, with Durant going for 51, Westbrook for 40, and Ibaka going for a triple-double all in the same game against Denver, a game the Thunder won in triple overtime, 124-118.
Or there was a 149-140 double overtime win over Minnesota, where OKC overcame 51 points from Kevin Love with 45 points from Westbrook and 40 points and 17 rebounds from Durant.
Not to be outdone, James Harden went for 40 himself in a memorable performance against Phoenix late in the year. Then of course, there was a dominant, six-game run from March 21-April 1, where the Thunder crushed four playoff teams by at least nine points, including Chicago and Miami.
At this point, we were all thinking a championship wasn't only a dream; it was a very real possibility.
Unfortunately, despite a remarkable run through the playoffs, where OKC ousted three teams that had won 10 of the past 13 NBA championships, the Thunder came up short against the Miami Heat.
Ultimately, it was just another step the Thunder had to take to become the best possible team they could be. Three years ago, they suffered through an extremely tough season. Two years ago, they made the playoffs and discovered they could hang with the upper-class of the NBA. Last year, they took the next step, coming up just short of the Finals.
Now, they've experienced the sting of defeat on the biggest stage. It's something that can't adequately be described by one who has never experienced it. Think a literal punch to the stomach, a feeling so disheartening, it can literally make you sick.
The Thunder may be young, but you'll never hear youth and inexperience used as an excuse for falling short of their goals. Whether or not they'll say it, youth was the reason for their Finals loss. They didn't necessarily understand just how much you have to want a championship in order to take it. They didn't have the NBA Finals experience that really is more valuable than anyone will tell you.
Yet, this team is still growing. Many would argue they've arrived at this level ahead of schedule. If that's truly the case, the rest of the NBA is in for a potential dynasty, provided of course finances allow the core of the team to stay together. The Thunder don't have a ton of growing left to do, but the thought that a team this good can easily get better in several areas is downright terrifying.
The future of this team is not completely set in stone, but there is something that will always be a certainty.
The Thunder fans will always love their team, will always show up to games, will always be loud, oh, and they will always love their team.
I've been a sports fan since I was about four or five, and I've never seen a fan base more connected to their team. It's an incredible thing to see, made even more incredible and unique by the history of Oklahoma City and its citizens.
Long before the Thunder were even thought of, OKC was known as the city that sustained (to that point in time) the worst terrorist attack on US soil. It's a story that has been told many times, by many people, but it never, ever gets old.
There's nothing you can do to separate the fans from the team, or the team from the history of the city. They're all intertwined in a one-of-a-kind relationship that is impossible to find in any other professional sports franchise.
This season may not have turned out the way players, coaches, or fans wanted it to, but it provided so many moments to store in a bank of memories that is already filled to bursting with incredible memories from this team's first four seasons in Oklahoma.
So don't be caught up in the disappointment of a championship that has slipped away. Instead, be excited and prepared for the incredible run this team is about to embark upon.
If you think this year was a wild ride, the next several years are going to blow your mind.