- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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The end of the world doesn't look or feel like this. The beginning does.
In the NBA, champions evolve from teams that previously didn't quite get there; they aren't made overnight. As Eric Spoelstra said after winning his first championship as the Miami Heat head coach, you have to inherit the pain.
In the fire. Through the fire.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, the end of Game 5 is not the moment they'll have to replay and relive until their time comes. The shouldn't be dogged by memories of watching the confetti fall or watching the Heat pour champagne on owner Micky Arison or reading and hearing the countless stories of how LeBron James has now (finally) been vindicated.
The moments they'll have to replay and relive are the 4 minutes and 25 seconds it took in Game 4 for them to lose that 17-point lead. That's when they lost the series.
Again, this is the beginning.
"They are going to be a team to reckon with for many years." (Said LeBron.) "They're going to be around for a while." (Said Dwyane Wade.) Blah. Blah. Blah. None of this means anything to the Thunder because none of the accolades and promising talk about them by others based on their potential is comforting or promises to hold true.
And nothing when it comes to a team ever being in the Finals again is guaranteed.
They'll hear again the reasons that will eventually turn into excuses of why they didn't win. Inexperience. Youth. The stage being too big. Nerves. Lack of offensive structure and ball movement. Lack of a true commitment to defense. James Harden. Eventual lack of poise. That as good as they are, it's just not yet their turn.
Here's the truism: You have to learn how to win. But first, you have to learn what it feels like to lose. When the Thunder look at themselves in the mirror after this loss in the Finals, they don't need to see a team defeated. They need to see themselves simply as the 2011 Miami Heat. A team that reached the NBA Finals and might have lost but learned from it.
Kevin Durant showed a microcosm of recognizing that by saying simply: "It hurts, it hurts man. It's tough, it's tough man. That's the only way I can explain it."
Russell Westbrook, sitting beside Durant after Game 5, might have said it better when he said, "We know what this feeling feels like [now]. We'll remember this feeling."
The journey is about finding yourself. Discovering who you are as an individual first, then as a team in moments when it feels like it's the end. That's the beauty in losing. That's what separates those who always lose from those who eventually win. If the Thunder take this year's loss in the Finals to heart and not to mind, they will come back next year and every year after that as a better, stronger, smarter team.
A team that will be speaking on podiums in close-out games still in their uniforms with snapback championship embroidered baseball caps on their heads, bookended by Tiffany trophies, as opposed to in street clothes with backpacks and faux optics.
Their time will come, even if nothing is guaranteed.
But everything rests in how they accept this loss. The Thunder cannot lose faith or belief in themselves. The organization cannot panic and make drastic roster or personal changes, the coaching staff cannot try to change the way Westbrook plays, Harden cannot blame himself.
There are two sayings the Thunder need to take with them and ritually recite over the summer and throughout next season: One is, Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not, it's not the end. And two, You'll never find out how strong you are until life forces you to lift something.
Losing in the Finals should not and will not be the end of the OKC Thunder. If they are who we/many believe they are and expect them to be, this is their beginning.
So don't cry for them, Oklahoma. This team will be fine -- and possibly return to this stage this time next year -- if only it takes a page from what just happened to it the same way the Heat took last year's loss in the Finals.
It's called growth. It's called evolution. It's called a journey for a reason.
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