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Thunder hope sting of early playoff exit leads to title

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (R) is guarded by Memphis Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter (L) in the first half of Game 5 of t
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (R) is guarded by Memphis Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter (L) in the first half of Game 5 of t

(Reuters) - The Oklahoma City Thunder hope the pain of a disappointing end to what was shaping up as a phenomenal season proves a necessary step toward reaching their ultimate goal.

With their title hopes dashed for at least another year after falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals on Wednesday, the young and talented Thunder are ready to learn from the heartache.

"Everything is a process and you have to go through some tough times to get to where you want to get to," Thunder forward Kevin Durant told reporters on Thursday.

"We just have to take it a day at a time. In the summertime, just get better as individuals ... It is fun knowing that we get an opportunity to work on our game this summer."

The Thunder (60-22) finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference but were dealt a crushing blow two games into the playoffs when All-Star guard Russell Westbrook was lost to injury.

Oklahoma City went on to win the best-of-seven series 4-2 over Houston but were outdone in the second round by a gritty Memphis team that prevailed 4-1 in a tight series where no game was decided by more than six points.

Durant, who led the team in points and rebounds during the regular season and playoffs, took comfort in the maturity his team showed all season and the leadership qualities displayed by Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka.

"I like how we all grew up," said Durant. "We had our best season this year winning 60 games ... Everybody came together. Russell grew up as a leader, I grew up as a leader, Serge grew up into his role.

"We had some ups and down throughout the year just like any other team, but we fought through that ... I loved the way we stayed positive no matter what. We leaned on each other."

'MORE EFFICIENT'

Durant, a three-time NBA scoring champion, had one of the worst playoff performances of his career in the season-ending loss to Memphis.

He finished with 21 points on 5-for-21 shooting during Wednesday's elimination game and missed a jump shot that would have tied the game with six seconds left.

But Durant was not letting his latest performance dampen any enthusiasm for next season, when he will be looking to build on one of the most efficient NBA campaigns in history.

"Be more efficient," Durant said. "The only way I can go is up. Just keep finding ways to get better on my offensive game - different shots, different moves, different spots on the floor where I can be better."

The Thunder were considered a favorite to contend for this year's National Basketball Association (NBA) championship after falling in last year's final to the Miami Heat.

But in the end a promising season was cut short as the team were unable to overcome the loss of Westbrook.

The Thunder went 3-6 in the playoffs without Westbrook, who led the team in assists and steals during the regular season and was second to Durant in points.

"Playing this game is a privilege," said Westbrook.

"If you have the opportunity to play, you have to play to the best of your ability ... I think as a team and team mates you have to find a way where (adversity) can help you moving into the next season."

Despite the early playoff exit, the Thunder have emerged as a contender and one of the premier teams in the NBA with plenty of room to grow and develop.

With young players like Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson all under the age of 25, the Thunder are well positioned to compete for years to come.

"We have a bright future," said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. "We have a good team that is going to get better."

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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