- J.A. Adande, NBA
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It was all set up in the waning seconds of the first half, with Durant dribbling the ball near half court and Kobe Bryant switched onto him, the crowd's anticipation rising at the rare one-on-one showdown between two of the NBA's greats. Bryant moved in close, too close in the eyes of official Danny Crawford, who whistled Bryant for a foul as the fans groaned. Bryant looked at Crawford with a "you-gotta-be-kidding-me" smile, and Crawford returned a sheepish grin.
Durant lamented the call as well.
"I would've taken him," Durant confided afterward.
He was smiling when he said it. He has too much respect for Kobe Bryant to dismiss his skills even in their still-rehabilitating state, as Durant showed later when he called Bryant "the ultimate competitor."
"I wish he didn't foul me," Durant said.
Do you believe Durant when he said he would have taken Bryant?
You should. Durant scored on 10 of the 13 shots he tried Friday night (and made all of his eight free throws for good measure). Actually, we need to believe everything said by the Thunder right now, because they're delivering on potential as well as any team in the NBA.
For years they had talked about being a good defensive team; this season they have the second-best opponents' field goal percentage in the league.
They've talked in the past about growing up and getting wiser. Well, even though a third of the roster wouldn't qualify for the car insurance rate drop that comes on your 25th birthday, they don't do young-team stuff.
Example: Once the Thunder went up by 10 points in the first quarter, the lead dipped to single digits for less than two minutes the rest of the night. Oklahoma City never led by less than 15 points in the third quarter. Or by less than 20 in the fourth, when they pushed ahead by as many as 30 points even though Durant and Russell Westbrook didn't play a minute.
"Maturity," Westbrook said. "We're older now. We know we've got to take care of business regardless of what the score is, go out and play the game and play our brand of basketball."
The temptation is to say, "Yeah, whatever." Except there's no reason to doubt any statement the Thunder make.
If they want to say their bench is better than ever, even though it lost Kevin Martin a year after losing James Harden, believe them. Their second unit, led by Reggie Jackson, regularly builds or extends leads. Steven Adams is a tough frontcourt presence, Jeremy Lamb is knocking down shots lately, and rookie Andre Roberson held Kobe to four points Friday night. (OK, so Bryant isn't all the way back from his torn Achilles, he tried only six shots in 23 minutes and was much more interested in passing in his role as emergency point guard. Still, Roberson can frame this box score and say it happened.)
"I like where we are now and where we're going," Scott Brooks said, in as close as you'll come to hearing a coach say, "Things are great!"
There's not much to dislike about their 18-4 record. Since Westbrook came back from his torn meniscus surgery in the third game of the season, the Thunder's only losses were at Portland (on the second night of a back-to-back), at the Los Angeles Clippers (after Serge Ibaka was ejected for fighting in the first half) and at Golden State (on a last-second shot). Those are some quality losses. And there's nary a blemish on their home record, which is 11-0 after they beat the Lakers. This could turn into a Seattle Seahawks situation, where no one wants to go there in the playoffs. (Sorry to bring up Seattle, SuperSonics fans.)
But you won't hear the Thunder target the No. 1 overall seed as bluntly as the Indiana Pacers have.
Brooks' goals for the team are less tangible: "Continue to build trust in each other, and focus on each other and not worry about anything else but trying to make your teammates look good."
Durant said, "We just want to play our best brand of basketball at the right time. Whether we get the 1-seed or however that falls, we just want to play our best basketball coming down the stretch."
The Thunder have already shown they can win a playoff series without home-court advantage, which they did against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference finals.
Past playoff results matter even more than present regular-season results. So bank on that 2012 playoff run. The one thing we don't know is whether Westbrook and Durant will be able to thrive in the playoffs without that third star in Harden. But with Westbrook's injury last spring we also were denied a chance to see if the star duo and their continued growth (such as Durant's passing and Westbrook's defense) would be enough on their own.
What the 2012-13 campaign is providing testimony to is the Thunder's deliberate approach to team-building, and the continuity that has developed in Oklahoma City.
"It's kind of crazy how all the franchises change across the league and different guys they've got in trades," Westbrook said. "With one trade, teams can go from this to that. It's kind of crazy. I think around here we've done a good job of developing guys, taking it year by year, game by game and trying to compete every year."
They're not just competing every year, they're improving every year. That's not a statement, just a fact. In each of their previous five seasons in Oklahoma City the Thunder have managed to improve on the winning percentage of the year before.
And they're at it again.
Critique the roster moves all you want, but Kevin Durant and the Thunder may be better than they've ever been.