The 2012 NBA playoffs featured one momentum shift after another. Time and again, a team that had been more or less counted out came storming back to take a series from a team that had previously seemed unstoppable.
The San Antonio Spurs won their first 10 playoff games and took a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder -- only to have the Thunder turn the tables and win four straight. The Miami Heat were counted out more than once. In the conference semifinals, the Indiana Pacers took a 2-1 lead, embarrassing the Heat in Game 3 -- only to watch Miami win three straight and take the series. In the East finals, the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead with two straight wins and had a chance to close out the series in Boston, but then it was Miami's turn to win two straight.
The Finals weren't quite so dramatic -- Miami never faced elimination as they did against the Celtics. But after their Game 1 win, the Thunder were 13-3 in the playoffs, undefeated on their home court, and looked to be on an unstoppable roll. Of course, the Heat stopped it by winning four straight behind the stellar play of Finals MVP LeBron James.
For the Heat, it's a measure of redemption after losing in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks last season. It seems silly to say at this point, but expectations were so high what with all the talents that were taken to South Beach in the summer of 2010 that another Finals loss would have been a major disappointment, and the entire Superfriends experiment might have been declared a failure. Instead, LeBron got his first NBA championship, and the Heat figure to be at least this good if not better for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, the Thunder can take some solace in Miami's victory. Oklahoma City has been on an upward trajectory for several seasons, from a first round playoff exit to a conference finals berth to the NBA Finals over the last three seasons. Maybe they had to lose in the NBA Finals -- to learn how to win in the NBA Finals -- just as the Heat did.
There's something to be said for the paying of dues in the NBA, for the rite of passage. With very few exceptions, young stars don't just waltz to the championship on their first trip to the playoffs. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actually Lew Alcindor at the time, did it as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, and Bill Walton had a similar run in 1977, but those are the exceptions to the rule.)
The Thunder can look to their franchise history for a perfect example of this rite of passage (though the people of Seattle may not want Oklahoma City stealing any lessons from the SuperSonics at this point). In 1978, the Sonics went to the Finals with a team that featured rookie center Jack Sikma and a backcourt of Dennis Johnson in his second season and Gus Williams in his third season. The Washington Bullets beat the young Sonics in Game 7 in Seattle to win the title. The following postseason, the same two teams met in the Finals again, and this time a more experienced Sonics team won the franchise's only NBA championship.
Can Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka do what Williams and Johnson and Sikma did 34 years ago and what James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did this year? Can they apply the lessons learned from an unsuccessful trip to the Finals to finish the job a year later?
Although Oklahoma City is a very young team, the championship window for this group may not be as wide open as it would at first seem. Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka haven't even entered their primes and could have many more years playing together at an even higher level, but the realities of the NBA salary cap and life in small market Oklahoma City will dictate that either Harden or Ibaka will likely sign elsewhere when the two become restricted free agents next summer.
Which makes the 2013 playoffs the sweet spot for the Thunder. They'll be ready to take the next step, as they have done for the last three seasons, and let's face it, there's only one more step to take. They'll have all of their key contributors back and a chance to add more depth in the off-season, and it will likely be their last chance before they lose an important piece. It's certainly not a "now or never" scenario for the Thunder in 2013 -- not with Durant and Westbrook still under 25 -- but it will be a great opportunity.
Of course, 29 other NBA teams will be trying to win the title as well, most notably the Heat. With both of these teams returning more or less in tact next season, a Finals rematch seems like a distinct possibility, maybe even a likelihood. If that happens, the Thunder will be looking to learn a lesson that Miami taught this season: how to turn a Finals loss into an NBA championship.