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Sekou Smith

The Thunder have amassed 105 regular-season wins the past two years.
The Thunder have amassed 105 regular-season wins the past two years.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Thunder weren't supposed to be title contenders this soon


Posted May 20 2011 10:42PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Scott Brooks has made his position clear for anyone willing to actually listen to the Thunder coach explain what makes his team tick.

For the last time, they're not just happy to be here.

They're a good team, as good as any other team still suiting up right now.

And no, they're not interested in waiting their turn to chase championships. They want it now, just like everyone else.

The Thunder's most recent actions speak louder than any words Brooks could say. You saw them snatch Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in Dallas from a Mavericks team that includes future Hall of Famers Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, outplaying the most seasoned team to make the NBA's final four in a most hostile of environments.

A win here Saturday in Game 3, before 18,000 of their adoring fans at Oklahoma City Arena, puts the Thunder a step closer to reaching the NBA Finals, a place no team this young has ever been spotted.

While so many others view their postseason run as some month-long Shock-The-World infomercial, the Thunder insist they are just doing what comes naturally. They are not ahead of schedule.

"We don't worry about what other people think," said the Thunder's 21-year-old sixth man supreme James Harden said. "We just want to work hard, win basketball games and have fun. As long as we have that same work ethic every single day and are doing whatever it takes to get better, we can operate on our own schedule and not someone else's."

You are welcome to view them as a "young" team, but what will you call the Thunder's energetic and ambitious game of '80s babies in two or three years, when their three best players -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden are all still in their early to mid-20s?

"NBA champs has a nice ring to it," Harden said before flashing a bearded smile. "We haven't really thought that far ahead. We're just playing in the moment and trying to make the most of the opportunity in front of us."

Brooks disagrees with this theory his team is so young and naïve that they simply cannot comprehend the magnitude of the moment they are in at such an early stage of most of their careers. That's a drive thru pharmacy explanation for a much more complex issue. It's also disrespectful to a group of men, however young they might be, that made a commitment to each other and to winning at the highest level.

"It's easy to say that, but I don't look at them as being young kids that don't know any better," Brooks said. "They know what's at stake. It's just guys that play hard and love the game. And they play hard for each other. I'm not naïve enough to say that they're not young. But they're good basketball players."

Winners of 105 regular-season games the past two years, this Thunder team is no fluke. They pushed the eventual champion Lakers to the limit in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, losing in six games but serving sufficient notice to anyone watching that they would indeed be a factor in the future.

They accelerated the process, though, at the February trade deadline when they added Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed in anticipation of a deep playoff run that requires more size and interior toughness than was previously on the roster.

Perkins came from a championship culture in Boston, a place where veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen set the tone for how younger players are expected to work, play and toe the championship line in pursuit of more than just personal glory.

"I try to keep the guys away from reading newspaper articles and watching ESPN reading or watching things about themselves," Perkins said. "I think that keeps you hungry. And one thing I always preach is make sure everything you do is for the team and about the team. One thing about these guys, they are definitely hungry. You have guys who want to get better, who want to win and work hard. You can't take that away from them. I knew from the moment I walked through the door that we were a good team. I didn't know if we'd be this good, but I told them I felt like we had the potential to win a title if we were willing to grind the way you have to. And it's not out of reach."

All that said, the Thunder are still prone to some of the same growing pains any young celebutante experiences during their first dip in the playoff spotlight.

They lead the playoffs in technical fouls, thanks mostly to Perkins, and Durant even picked one up after vicious dunk over Brendan Haywood in Game 2. "I like seeing that in him," Perkins said. "It showed toughness. And it shows that he's got the nasty side it's going to take to win a title."

Westbrook has come under fire for his play and actions throughout the playoffs, the latest being his third quarter blowup in the third quarter of Game 2. ESPN cameras caught him fuming on the bench after being taken out of the game after he committed a turnover. Brooks sat him, and four other starters, for all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter, opting go with Durant, Harden and three other reserves during the crucial fourth quarter of the biggest game of this team's season.

But they brushed aside the drama at practice Friday. Westbrook insisted his focus was on the task at hand. His teammates did the same, rallying around their All-NBA point guard the way you'd expect this close-knit bunch to. They were bouncing around, smiling and loose.

"We played the defending champions last year and battled them," Harden said. "And we came back this year with a chance to get a better [playoff] seed and see what we're really made of. Nothing's going to get in the way of that now. We're going to stick together and keep grinding until we get there."

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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