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Western Conference Insider: Trying times for young Thunder

By Art Garcia,
Posted Dec 17 2008 11:47AM

The losses continue to mount and so does the frustration. On pace for the worst record in NBA history, with its head coach already fired, can anyone fault the Oklahoma City Thunder for sinking into the depths of basketball depression?

Teams go through bad seasons. This is a disaster.

"It's been tough on everybody," Thunder center Nick Collison said. "It would obviously be better on everybody if we were 21-2."

Sadly, they're not. Relocating from Seattle to Oklahoma City has proven easy by comparison. The Thunder's record after Tuesday's home loss to the Clippers is 2-24, a pace that equates to 6-76. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers own the all-time worst mark at 9-73.

The Thunder's season promises to remain painful, even if OKC avoids setting the league standard for futility. A franchise record already has been set for consecutive home losses (11 and counting) and tied for overall losing streak (14).

The question now is what the franchise can do to salvage this season. General manager Sam Presti has to draft, trade and spend wisely in the years to come. Interim coach Scott Brooks, for as long as he has the job, has his hands full.

"I tell the guys this is not the first team that had a bad start," said Brooks, whose 1-12 record is the same as P.J. Carlesimo's was when he was fired. "I'm not the first coach that had a bad start. It's been done before. It doesn't last forever."

Brooks doesn't want his team to lose sight of the lessons that can be learned from defeat.

"It's not easy," he added. "I'm not going to sit up here and say I'm glad I'm going through this, because I'm not. But in the long run we're going to look back at this and understand what it takes to get out of stuff like this."

Despite the rough season so far, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks is trying impart lessons on his youngsters.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Collison is one of the few veterans still around when the Sonics last reached the playoffs in 2005. He looks around at a locker room with its share of promising, young talent -- particularly Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook -- and wonders if all the losing will cause a permanent mental block.

"I don't think it's happened yet," said Collison, himself a lottery pick in 2003. "I know how long and difficult last year was, and obviously we haven't started out well.

"It's like when you raise children, they're most impressionable at their youngest stages. It's the same thing with NBA players. You don't want them to develop bad habits. You want them to develop winning habits. It's not happening now, but hopefully we can get it going."

Durant is on his way to being one of the league's marquee stars. Last season's Rookie of the Year knows as well as anyone that he won't get there without eventually winning.

"We've just got to keep our heads up, stay focused and get better," he said.

Brooks shrunk the starting lineup and rotation, shook up the practice routine and has tirelessly stressed the positive after taking over for Carlesimo. As a player, Brooks made up for his lack of size and athleticism with hustle and smarts.

The Thunder have shown more pep under Brooks, who isn't guaranteed the coaching gig past this season. Going small and emphasizing more ball movement has led to more scoring and kept OKC in games longer. Brooks has done this while playing Durant-Green-Westbrook big minutes to speed their development.

"I definitely see the progress," Westbrook said. "Every game, I feel we're getting closer and closer."

In the past week, the Thunder found itself in position to steal road wins at Dallas and San Antonio. OKC has lost its last eight games by an average of seven points. That's an improvement over the 13.6-point margin during the 14-game slide earlier this season.

"What we're really missing is to know what we're trying to do on the floor," Collison said. "The teams in the league that are winning teams, in the fourth quarter when they're winning games, they know where they're going and they're executing, and we're just missing that right now. When we get down there, we're not really sure what we're doing."

Just a second of hesitation is often enough to botch a crucial possession in a tight game. A couple turnovers lead to a mini run and, just like that, a win is lost. In some respects, Brooks has the Thunder going through training camp on the fly.

"It's a tough league and you can't really be experimenting too much, but you have to go through it," Collison said. "You can't simulate those situations in practice. You can try all you want, but at the end of the game you have to be able to execute. It's easier said than done."

To their credit, according to Brooks, the players haven't shortchanged him in effort.

"They're practicing hard," Brooks said. "Our guys are workers. They're workers. Unfortunately, they're not getting rewarded with some wins.

"My job as the coach of this team is to continue to motivate them and get them excited about playing, because it is an incredible opportunity that we're all in. There are 82 nights a year that you have to be excited about playing. That should be an easy job."

It's the winning that's hard.

Streak ends for Griz Kids

Kudos to the Grizzlies for nearly winning their fifth in row before falling 91-84 in a hard-fought contest Tuesday night to New Orleans. Memphis actually had the lead going into the final four minutes before a pair of Hornets' 3-pointers and O.J. Mayo turnovers sealed New Orleans' victory.

Memphis' four-game streak was the club's longest since winning the final five of the 2005-06 season. The Grizzlies (9-16) hadn't won consecutive games all season before it. They also topped 100 points in each game during the streak after doing so just twice prior.

Probably the team's most impressive number isn't found in the box. The Grizzlies' usual starting lineup (Mayo, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Darrell Arthur and Marc Gasol) boasts an average age of just 21.4 years old. That's actually younger than the first unit of the Memphis Tigers (21.6 years old) in the 2008 NCAA Championship Game last April.


• Dallas went 5-2 on its season-high seven-game homestand and still fell out of the West's top eight. The Mavericks were hardly dominant during the seven games, outscoring foes by only 11 points.

• Even with its loss Tuesday, Denver's 17-8 record is tied for the best 25-game start in franchise history. The 1976-77 and '77-78 teams had the same record.

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