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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Unrealistic expectations for Thunder?

By Brian Windhorst

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have both emerged as MVP candidates for OKC this season.

Their circumstances are certainly different but, odd as it may seem, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder have the same reality.

Both live under significant expectations, both are believed to be title contenders for years to come and yet both may not quite be ready for the designation. The glamour and lion's share of attention belongs to the Heat, indeed, but the two sides can truly relate.

One thing is certain, they played one of the season's most spirited games when they met in late January with Miami pulling out a 113-108 win in Oklahoma City. They both come into Wednesday's rematch in South Florida on streaks. The Thunder are on a four-game winning streak with new addition Kendrick Perkins finally in the lineup and the Heat are coming off three big wins, slaying both the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in the process.

No team made bigger strides last season than the Thunder and no team made bigger strides in the summer than the Heat, creating a measure of pressure for each to deliver here and now. It hasn't been a merry ride, even if both teams currently find themselves in good playoff position as mid-March arrives.

The Heat have struggled to win close games and beat top teams at times, which has been well-documented nationally. Meanwhile the Thunder have seen their defense, which was such an asset last season, struggle for consistency and some question whether they have shown enough improvement this season.

"Coming into this season people put lofty expectations on us and that was new for us," Kevin Durant said. "We're doing a good job of not worrying about it. It is all about wins and losses and we're winning more than we're losing."

The Thunder were the darlings last season, completely turning their fortunes around. It was just a little more than two years ago that they were unquestionably the worst team in the NBA, starting the 2008-09 season 3-29 as they languished after roster changes and a hasty and biter exit from Seattle.

Enjoying making the playoffs as the eighth seed and pushing the Lakers in the first round was more than enormous progress last spring, it was a complete and total success story.

This season's success won't come with just 50 wins and another playoff experience. With two verified All-Stars on the roster now in Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are viewed as a team that should push the 60-win mark and be a legit threat to advance deep in the Western bracket.

It would seem to be the natural order for a young team on the rise.

And the Thunder are still so young, seven players have yet to see their 23rd birthdays. Even after the trade deadline deals that brought in veterans Perkins, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed, the Thunder are still the second-youngest team in the league behind the Los Angeles Clippers.

But that is no longer an excuse and everyone on the team is aware of it.

"A lot of people have put us at a level that teams don't get overnight but we were put there overnight," coach Scott Brooks said. "We're a team that is continuing to evolve. This is not the team you will see in a few years, it should get better. If they don't, it will be my fault. All of the young guys have to get better."

Brooks isn't just using metaphors, his team is still very much in the midst of a metamorphosis. Perhaps the greatest example is they're not really even done moving in from Seattle yet.

Currently, the team's base of operations is in a makeshift gym and office space that's an old roller rink on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The players pick up food from what used to be the snack bar. Their "weight room" isn't a room at all but an area squeezed in behind one of the baskets.

Next season the team will move into a new sparkling facility but the point is, while Oklahoma has become home, the roots are not yet deep.

Meanwhile the team finds the burden of projected growth as its new norm. The Thunder are 43-23 and in fourth place in the competitive West but have dealt with complaints that they aren't meeting the prescribed goals.

They're giving up about four more points a game and are now in the bottom 10 in the league in several key areas where they were near the top last season, notably defensive field goal percentage.

Durant is averaging 28 points on 47 percent shooting and more than seven rebounds a game and appears headed to his second straight scoring title. Yet there are whispers that the vogue preseason pick to win the Most Valuable Player Award is actually having a down year because all those numbers represent drop offs from last season.

Teams have made some adjustments to Durant's game, especially keeping him off the foul line as much and limiting perhaps his greatest weapon. He now regularly gets the same treatment that stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant get, extra defenders and more packed lanes to limit driving.

Dealing with the new challenges isn't something the Thunder don't understand, but it is still a new sensation for most of the young team.

"Getting to a point where we could just wins games was huge mentally, just to get there was a big stride for us," veteran forward Nick Collison said. "The difference now is we're past that satisfaction because as we go through this season we are constantly thinking about the playoffs and having success in the playoffs.

Overall, the culture around the Thunder is different from most in the league. Only a couple of the players are married and many of the ones who have steady girlfriends don't live in the same city. It is part of the reason the team is so close to one another, fitting into to what has often been described as a collegial feel that has developed deep bonds off the floor.

They get together for team-wide video game tournaments and order bulk chicken wings from where ever they can find the best deal. If you wander into the locker room about 75 minutes before any game you'll likely find it mostly empty, more than 10 players routinely go to a pre-game chapel sessions together.

These aren't scenes that are standard in the NBA and they may not be standard in Oklahoma City as the players age and mature in the coming years. It isn't clear where the Thunder are headed, even though core players like Durant, Perkins and Collison now have long-term contracts signed since last summer. The team is expected to offer an extension to Westbrook this summer depending on labor talks.

Not unlike the Heat, who have questions at several positions looking into the future, they still have roster tweaks to make. Getting a center like Perkins, something general manager Sam Presti had been working on for more than a year, is part of the team's ongoing development.

In short, they are not a finished product like the teams they are chasing in the West. Yet seeing them play -- their team-wide length and athleticism sets them apart and they have two perimeter All-Stars with game-changing talent -- it's easy to see why many expect them to stay in the passing lane. Even if they may not be quite ready to push the speed limit.

"We have come a long way, it wasn't that long ago that no one cared about us and no one really respected us as players," Durant said.

"That has changed but what we do every day hasn't, we're still just trying to work hard because that's how we have been able to get better. We're focused on staying with that plan because we all believe in it."