OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant knows all about how the Oklahoma City Thunder have been tabbed as the NBA's team of the future during a meteoric rise from league laughingstock to title contender.
All through this season, he didn't want to think about the prospect of success down the road. He wanted it now.
"I think the pieces are here. We had a good opportunity to get there right now," Durant said Thursday, a day after Oklahoma City was eliminated by Dallas in the Western Conference finals.
"A lot of people always put that tag on us as being young and, 'We'll be OK down the line,' and 'The future is bright.' We wanted to kind of rush the moments up and do something people didn't think we could do."
Durant said he still considered it "shocking" that Oklahoma City's season had come to an end.
The NBA's scoring champion the past two seasons had planned on still playing into mid-June, and now he's not sure what he'll do with the next few weeks open.
"We wanted to end the season better but we can't hang our heads at the year we had," Durant said. "I think it was successful as far as us growing and getting better as a group, everybody as individuals as well. We all wanted to get to that top level, but at the same time, we know what it takes to be patient and we've been there before as far as waiting our turn.
"But like I said, it hurts that we didn't get to where we wanted to get to."
Just two seasons ago, the Thunder started off a miserable 3-29 and were on pace for the worst season in NBA history. After making the playoffs last season, this year's deep postseason run proved their status as a legitimate title contender.
"I just remember when I first got here and just how things are different and just how fast it became a great team and we've gotten better. It's definitely a tough road," said Russell Westbrook, a first-time All-Star and second-team all-NBA selection this season.
"Yet there's still work to be done to get where we really want to be."
Oklahoma City can simply look at its West finals opponent to see how difficult it can be to make the next steps. The Mavericks have won at least 50 games for 11 straight seasons and are now in the NBA finals for only the second time, still seeking their first title.
"I think the natural progression is to want more. I think the biggest key for us is to not just say we want to move on and realize that everybody wants to move on," Nick Collison said. "Everybody wants to get to the finals and have a chance at the championship.
"The key is the teams that can put in the work and get better in the process of every day. That's what we've been good at so far. That's how we've gotten better."
The lasting heartache from this season may be how it finished, with consecutive leads blown in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City was up 15 on its home court with 5 minutes left before losing Game 4, then gave up a seven-point lead in the final 6 minutes of Game 5.
"We had a chance. We had a very good chance," top reserve James Harden said. "Age doesn't matter in this league. Your opponent doesn't feel sorry for you because you're young.
"We had a very good chance. It was in our hands. We just couldn't get it done."
Kendrick Perkins, acquired from Boston in a trade deadline deal, chalked it up to mental mistakes caused by Oklahoma City's youth.
"I honestly can sit up here and say that Dallas being older is probably the reason they beat us in that series," said Perkins, who won the NBA title in 2009 with the Celtics and lost in the finals last year.
"They weren't more talented than us. They just, in certain ways, they outsmarted us."
Those lessons can only be learned over time for a team that doesn't have a starter older than 27. Durant and Westbrook are only 22, while starting power forward Serge Ibaka and Harden are 21.
"It's something that we can look back at after a few days from now and say, 'Wow, we went on a really good run.' And we're a team that should improve and should get better," coach Scott Brooks said. "It doesn't guarantee us we're going to get back next season, but we have something to really fall back on.
"As players, as coaches, all the experiences are good. It's just not the good ones that are good. Even the tough ones are good because you learn from them. Those are the opportunities to get stronger."
If they needed a pick-me-up with their season over, the Thunder were welcomed home early Thursday morning by a throng of fans 10 deep outside a fence at Will Rogers World Airport, camped out and waiting for the team plane to arrive.
"It was amazing. It was really cool that they came out and supported our guys," Brooks said. "I really believe they've earned this right to be in the position that we were in with the success they had. They've earned it.
"They're not entitled to it, but they earned it. They earned to get to the final four."
NOTES: Westbrook will have his first chance to sign a contract extension on July 1, if there is no lockout. "I definitely want to play here," he said. "I love playing here. and I definitely would love staying here." ... Ibaka hopes to play in the Olympics next summer for Spain, and said "we will know soon" if he's eligible. He was born in the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) but now lives in Spain. "It's something I would love to do," Ibaka said.