Russell Westbrook on what Thunder need to improve: “Mental toughness”

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The Oklahoma City Thunder played a brilliant series against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It was the toughest test the defending champions have faced in their two-season run. By far.

Yet there is a narrative that the Thunder choked, something even Jason Terry said on his new show on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

“In that type of situation, late game situations, yeah, you choked.  I mean, let’s just be honest.  I mean, those are my guys and I’m going to tell you that first hand but, yeah, they choked.  And the thing about it is, it’s bad habits.  I mean, these are the same type of habits they had throughout the season when they gave up a historic number of fourth-quarter comebacks they allowed to happen.  It came back and bit them again in that series.”

To me, “choked” is too strong a word and discounts the superhuman effort and shotmaking of Klay Thompson in Game 6 — if he’s not hitting every ridiculous shot he throws up the Thunder do win. That said, the Thunder did revert to bad habits — they tried to run the clock down and started plays with not enough time to get to second options, and they ran too much isolation. They became defendable. That opened the door.

Russell Westbrook owned up to that in his exit interview. He was asked what the Thunder need to do to improve for next season in his exit interview and gave an honest answer, as reported by The Oklahoman.

“Mental toughness,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten very, very well at that point, but I think to make the next step, we have to constantly do that throughout the whole season, not just late in the playoffs, because I thought we turned the page when it got to this time of year, but I think if we constantly keep that from start to finish, it makes it easier for us in certain situations.”

He’s right. And how the series against Golden State ended may help teach the Thunder that lesson.

The Thunder are legitimate contenders to win the NBA title next season. Providing they can keep Kevin Durant. But painful losses on the doorstep can sear lessons into teams — think 2014 San Antonio Spurs, coming off that loss to Miami in the Finals (and the Ray Allen shot). That could be the Warriors next season.