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In short order, Kevin Durant (left) and Russell Westbrook have turned the Thunder into contenders.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Young Thunder will need to live up to higher expectations

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Dec 23 2011 9:24AM

To hear the talk, you'd have thought that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rolled around the locker room floor kicking, thrashing and putting each other in mutual headlocks.

To read the stories, you'd have believed that as soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, that Durant and Westbrook wanted to hop in their cars and drive as fast as they could to opposite ends of the continent.

Yet there they were seven months later, back at the Thunder media day doing what?

Smiling.

"Me and Kevin are very close," said Westbrook.

I got his back 100 percent. He's got my back 100 percent on that floor," said Durant.

So it's a new season, but the old questions will linger:

• Can Westbrook learn to understand that there are times when his immense talent must take a backseat to Durant?

• Will Durant ever learn that there are times when he's got to shed the nice guy image and simply demand the ball from his point guard?

"There's nothing really to talk about," coach Scott Brooks told The Oklahoman. "I think they're great teammates."

Did Black & Decker, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry get every last nuance of a partnership right from the start?

Truth is, they're a couple of 23-year-olds having the time of their lives doing the thing that they love and finding a way to do it better.

Fact is, Durant and Westbrook have only played together for three seasons and looked how far and how fast they've climbed.

On Dec. 29, 2008, the Thunder were 3-29 and going nowhere except, perhaps, toward the ignominy of the NBA record book for the worst season ever. Durant was a gangly second-year phenom on a wobbly colt's legs, Westbrook was a rookie playing point guard full-time for the first time in his career and Brooks was a first-year coach wearing the "interim" tag.

"Our goal, just like all the other 29 teams, is to win a championship," Brooks says. "We are no different. We know the process is long and hard and you can't skip steps and you don't get there quickly."

But then last spring, the precocious pair found themselves just three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals.

So now the Thunder are no longer regarded as the kids who have their faces pressed up to the candy store window, but a team ready to taste the sweetness of a championship.

In other words, the future is now and that only means the intensity and glare of the spotlight will be on the playing relationship of Durant and Westbrook more than ever. Some irrational observers said the Thunder needed to trade Westbrook. Of course, the team is more inclined to get him locked up to a contract extension.

Reality says that OKC is more than just a terrific twosome. With Kendrick Perkins having shed 30 pounds during the off-season, he's lighter, quick and ready to be more aggressive in the middle of the lineup.

With James Harden continuing to make a push for the Sixth Man of the Year Award -- if not first a spot in the starting lineup -- the OKC has as fearsome a both-ends-of-the-floor weapon as any team in the league.

With Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison and Eric Maynor, the Thunder have the complementary parts and the right kind of sacrificing attitudes that can form the bonds of a contender and would-be champion.

But in the end, it will always come down to the two of them -- Durant and Westbrook; Westbrook and Durant -- learning to find a common rhythm, like a pair of contestants on Dancing With the Stars.

"People dub us as the best two players on the team, so of course you're going to (perceive) some tension amongst a group of media guys or people from the outside looking in," Durant told The Oklahoman.

"But I think within our group, we bounce ideas off each other and sometimes I say, 'Nah, Russ you might have to do it this way,' and we might talk about it for awhile and vice versa. But at the end of the day, we all want to win. He wants to win. I want to win, and we support each other."

The three-step plan

1. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook must ignore the outside chatter and continue developing their on-court relationship while not giving up their individual skills.

2. Now that center Kendrick Perkins is healthy and significantly lighter coming into his first full season in OKC, he's got to return to his snarling effective old self.

3. Defense, defense, defense. Everybody knows the Thunder than fill up the baskets and winning a shooting match. It's stopping the other guys that will win a title.

Three points:

1. Everybody loves James Harden as the Thunder's not-so-secret-weapon off the bench. But it might be time to move him into the starting lineup.

2. After advancing to the Western Conference finals last season, the Thunder will have to live up to the burden of greater expectations as a preseason favorite.

3. Getting Westbrook signed to a contract extension as soon as possible will eliminate one more distraction that a still-young team doesn't need.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. 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.

AT A GLANCE

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Team Site | Schedule | Tickets

Video | Fantasy | Team Store

LAST YEAR: 55-27, 1st in Northwest

FINISH: Lost in Western Conference finals

2010-11 Regular Season Standings

2010-11 TEAM LEADERS

Kevin Durant

27.7 PPG

Kendrick Perkins

7.9 RPG

Russell Westbrook

8.2 APG

2010-11 STATISTICS

  OFFENSE DEFENSE
PPG 104.8 101.0
RPG 42.8 40.6
APG 20.4 20.9
FG % 0.464 0.458
3PT % 0.347 0.361
FT % 0.823 0.744
  Complete 2010-11 Stats 
STARTING FIVE

RUSSELL WESTBROOK, POINT GUARD

21.9 PPG | 8.2 APG | 4.6 RPG

Made a quantum leap as a floor leader, but was criticized for playoff miscues. Some criticism of him is legit: he's led the NBA in turnovers in two of his first three seasons.

THABO SEFOLOSHA, SHOOTING GUARD

5.1 PPG | 4.4 RPG | 1.2 SPG

A defensive maven, Sefolosha has been OKC's starter for most of the last two seasons. Offensive-minded James Harden could push him off his perch.

KEVIN DURANT, SMALL FORWARD

27.7 PPG | 6.8 RPG | 1.1 SPG

A must-watch player, Durant got the Thunder to within three wins of The Finals and has lifted OKC from West afterthought to legit title contender.

SERGE IBAKA, POWER FORWARD

9.9 PPG | 7.6 RPG | 2.4 BPG

Stats soared after OKC dealt Jeff Green to Boston at the deadline. Refining his 15-foot jumper while remaining a solid defender would only help OKC.

KENDRICK PERKINS, CENTER

6.0 PPG | 8.0 RPG | 0.9 BPG

Instantly upgraded the Thunder defense with his tenacity. He dropped roughly 30 pounds during the lockout, which should make him more nible against the West's bigs.

RESERVES
NAMEHTWTPOSCOMMENT
James Harden6-5220GWill the Beard continue as Sixth Man or become a starter?
Nazr Mohammed6-10250CWell-traveled vet is a solid piece off bench in young lineup.
Eric Maynor6-3175GA steadying influence at point when Westbrook rests.
 Complete Roster 
OFFSEASON MOVES

ADDED: G Reggie Jackson, F Lazar Hayward

LOST:  G-F Robert Vaden, C Byron Mullens

MAN ON THE SPOT

RUSSELL WESTBROOK, G

As long as he's playing in the same starting lineup with the other-worldly Kevin Durant, Westbrook is always going to be a lightning rod for criticism. The Thunder don't need him to tone down his explosive offensive game as much as smooth out the sharp edges and know when to pick his spots.

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