Posted Oct 20 2009 6:12AM
HOUSTON -- The future, as they say, is so bright in Oklahoma City that everybody should be wearing sunglasses.
The annual survey of the league's general managers picked the Thunder as one of the NBA's most likely teams to rumble up through the standings with improvement. The GMs also think Kevin Durant's elevator is rising so fast that he might shoot straight through the roof before the All-Star break.
What's left then to do except plan the parade route for a couple of Junes from now that will have a large segment of the citizenry in Seattle ready to jump off the Space Needle?
"Keep our heads down and don't read the hype," said Durant, the wunderkind. "The only thing that can come from listening to all of the talk about us is no good.
"It's not a question of us not believing in ourselves. We're gaining confidence as we gain experience. It's not a question of how far this team could someday go, because the sky is the limit.
"But the only thing that's going to get us from here to there is to keep our heads down, keep coming to work and getting better one step at a time. Hey, that's how we got from there to here."
There, of course, was the 1-12 start to last season that got coach P.J. Carlesimo fired and put first-timer Scott Brooks on the bench as the interim boss. There were all of the bumps and bruises and painful experiences that saw the horrid start stretch out into something positively gruesome. The Thunder set a franchise record with 11 straight home losses and tied the mark for consecutive overall losses at 14 by the time they hit bottom at 3-29.
Here is the respectable 20-30 (.400) record that Durant and his buddies posted to close the season, which got Brooks the full-time gig and now has people starting to expect giant steps of further improvement.
"The talk out there gives us motivation," Durant said, "because we know there's more attention our way. But at the same time we know that it's not just going to happen. We're the ones who have to earn it."
In some ways, the Thunder locker room is like a traveling fraternity oozing with youthful friendship and hi-jinks. The three-man core of Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook averages just 21.3 years.
"If you go strictly by the numbers, look at their ages, man, they are young," Brooks said. "But one of the things I admire most out these guys, about this team, is that even last season with all of the tough times we went through, I never heard them make an excuse about being young. They never lost games and said, 'Oh well, we're young and we'll learn.' Their attitude is more: 'We'll work and we'll learn.'
"I like the mindset of our guys coming back. I tell the guys all the time I don't know where it leads us, but we're doing the right things by pushing each other in practice. That's important, from the top players down to the guys at the end of the bench. It's important that everybody sticks together and tries to be a good teammate."
While still being the big gun, Durant picked up his rebounding last season by more than two a game from his rookie season and still has plenty of room for improvement on the boards.
"He also has to be a better help defender," Brooks said. "He wants to be one. We have to see that out of him this year for us to take another step up.
"Kevin understands more now from watching the playoffs last spring. They were great. There were a lot of playoff moments with players making a lot of basketball-winning plays and he's understanding now that it's not just him making a shot to win a game, but it's him making the right play to win the game. There's a difference."
Green is the wizened 23-year-old, giving up inches and pounds at the power forward spot, but thriving with his smarts and consistent level of intensity.
Westbrook, 20, was given his baptism by fire when Brooks made him the starter at the point barely a month into his rookie season.
"You can't lead as a rookie, I don't care who you are, how special you are," Brooks said. "Well, maybe Magic (Johnson) as a rookie. That's it. That's the end of the list."
But now, Oklahoma City needs Westbrook to be more of a leader and he took strides in that area by following up the extended minutes of his rookie year by playing with the Thunder team in two summer league sessions. He came out of those experiences and into camp headier, more sure of himself."
Yet with the Thunder holding a two-point lead in the final 15 seconds against the Heat last week in Tulsa, Westbrook came down the floor and, instead of pulling the ball out and running the clock, drove in for a layup and missed. He was bailed out when Etan Thomas got the offensive rebound, was fouled and made two free throws.
On Monday night, the Thunder simply didn't match the Rockets' effort in the second half, giving up too many run-outs for easy baskets.
That bright future sometimes can be blinding.
"That's why it's important we don't listen to the hype," Durant said. "We've come a long way. But we know we still have a long way to go."
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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