Self-Aware Thunder Team Knows it Must Improve

As the Thunder, in its fourth season as an organization, strives to continue to build a program that the fans of Oklahoma City can be proud of for years to come, the players on this season's team are also developing their own skills to be successful on and off the court. From All-Stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who have the ball in their hands a large percentage of the time to less heralded but important role players like Royal Ivey and Cole Aldrich, the Thunder is becoming increasingly self-aware as a squad. Head Coach Scott Brooks has allowed his players to learn their roles, understand their strengths and weaknesses and also improve in areas that help the entire team concept.

“I think with every good team, you have to have guys that understand their roles," Brooks said. "We have a team that does that very well. We have a bunch of guys that accept it, that want to get better within their role and I think that is what is really helping us. We have a deep team that is really good with guys that know how to play, that are going to get better, that should continue to get better.”

Part of this iteration of the Thunder's maturation has come from playing tough games on the road against likely playoff teams and learning from both wins and losses in those situations. In a season that has featured no training camp and minimal practice time, the Thunder utilized its recent stretch against three Eastern Conference teams that currently sit high in the standings as opportunities to grow. With come-from-behind wins over Philadelphia and Orlando followed by a difficult loss at Atlanta that was a one possession game with two minutes remaining, Brooks' crew learned quite a bit over the past week since the All-Star break.

“There’s no question, it helps when you’re playing against close teams," Brooks said. "You can’t practice it, (practice) can only do so much for you. You’re in a hostile environment and it’s close, and every decision is critical. It only helps you when you’re put in that position many, many times. We’ve been in it a lot of times over the years, and we’re getting better, but we still need to keep charging and keep moving forward and keep climbing that ladder to be a better team at closing out teams.”

One of the players who has made a huge impact on the team's mentality since arriving in Oklahoma City is center Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder is now 41-13 with Perkins in the starting lineup, but the success is almost as much about the attitude and awareness he has brought to the locker room as his defensive prowess on the court. After the road win at Orlando last Thursday, Perkins said he was glad the Thunder had found ways to win on back-to-back nights on the road, but reflected on what is necessary for this team, and this organization, to continue to improve in order to have sustained success. It is Perkins' foresight and program-building instincts that have been most valuable to Brooks and the rest of the team.

"We have to keep building," Perkins said. "I really want to have an overtime game on the road. Another one like Portland. I think that builds a lot going into the playoffs. Every night there are going to be teams coming out and giving us their best shot. So we have to be prepared for that."

"I'm kind of always looking forward. I have a real good basketball mind at times," Perkins said with a wry smile when asked about how he knows what this team needs in order to grow.

When facing the Nuggets on Thursday, the Thunder will be challenged by the team that pushed and challenged it into overtime at home on February 19. In that contest, Kevin Durant scored a career-high 51 points, Russell Westbrook added 40 points and Serge Ibaka finished with an unbelievable 14 points, 15 rebounds, 11 blocks triple double. This will be a good challenge to help the Thunder get back on track after a tough loss at home to the Houston Rockets.

"We have to move on and see where we can get better and get one on the road," Durant said.