Posted Jan 28 2011 10:06AM
On the court of their youthful dreams, this is how it would always be for the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook is stomping down on the accelerator of the offense like it's the gas pedal of a race car.
Jeff Green is doing all he can to hold his own against the bigger, stronger foes he faces at his power forward position, and is slipping through seams and finding ways to slash to the basket to make another tough shot.
Kevin Durant is sublime with a career-high equaling 47-point effort that looks like something that should be hanging on a museum wall behind a velvet rope. It all adds up to an entertaining 118-117 win over Kevin Love and the Timberwolves.
Thunder guard Royal Ivey described it perfectly: "a video game."
But not a playoff game.
Here is Oklahoma City, nearly nine months removed from that stirring first-round playoff tussle with the eventual champion Lakers, inching its way up the standings to the top of the Northwest Division. Yet it is also giving pause at times to how much true progress has been made.
"Defense," said coach Scott Brooks. "We know that you can't reach the goals that we have ultimately set for ourselves without playing defense at a higher level."
The truth is, the Thunder have gotten worse. A year ago when OKC was scrapping for every bit of recognition on the national scene and clawing out the last playoff spot in the West, it was an achievement that had defense as its foundation.
But now, after their first taste of the spotlight's heat against the Lakers and the warm glow of compliments that came with it, the Thunder have been backsliding.
Those claws have been filed down to a dull edge. Last season they gave up an average of 98 points a game. This season they're surrendering 102.8 and getting out-rebounded by their opponents. They rank in the bottom third of the league in points allowed and opponents' field goal percentage.
Rather than trying to stop foes, the Thunder now are simply trying to outscore the other guys.
"Last year we were still searching and figuring out things and hoping that we would improve every day," Brooks said. "This time we knew we were a good team going into the season. I think now we know that and the league knows that.
"I don't know if every team we play is looking at us different now. I'm guessing. But I would guess that they know we have a good team and they know that they have to play well against us and that brings a different level of competition. I'm not sure we've accepted and adjusted to that yet."
The Thunder, for all the noise that Durant, Westbrook and Green have created, are the youngest group of core players of any team in the upper half of the playoff picture in either conference. It is not their fault that they were caught up in the media hype and expectations after last spring.
OKC is the No. 4 seed in the West, but there remains a separation from the top three teams. The Thunder are 1-5 this season against the Spurs, Lakers and Mavs.
"We're not the ones who have said we've arrived," Durant said. "We haven't changed the way we look at ourselves or think about ourselves. We know we have to put in the work and we know we still have a lot of it to do. But sometimes I think there is a tendency to overthink some things. When you get a win, it's a win."
However, Brooks is the one who knows that you're not going to cruise deep into the playoffs by trying to score 115 or 120 points a night. He knew, too, that the moment his Thunder walked off the court to that rousing, emotional thank you after tying up the Lakers series -- and had pushed Kobe Bryant & Co. to fully extend themselves in the series -- that the next step up was going to feel like they were carrying a piano on their backs.
"I wish it was as easy as a lot of people thought it would be," Brooks said. "If it was that easy, then a lot of people would be able to get there quickly. You can't skip steps. We are no different."
Durant and Westbrook benefitted greatly from their successful stint with Team USA last summer at the World Championship in Turkey. Durant was spectacular and named MVP of the tournament. Westbrook shined and was a vital part of the gold-medal team. The experience gave both of them confidence boosts. Maybe, strange as it may sound, so much confidence that they have played all season like they can outscore anyone at anytime.
The Thunder are 17-6 in games decided by seven points or less. That says they've been able to make plays that counted at crunch time ... but it also says they've allowed too many lesser teams to hang around.
"We're no different than any team," Brooks said. "You've got to be able to stop the ball. You've got to play better man-on-man defense. You've got to be able to play good help side defense. You've got to be able to contest shots."
Otherwise, you might as well just be playing video games.
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