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Thunder facing gut-check portion of schedule, gauntlet of elite teams

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Durant, Westbrook power Thunder past Timberwolves (0:57)

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combine for 51 points and 20 assists in the Thunder's 126-123 win over the Timberwolves. (0:57)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Count Kevin Durant among those who are wondering why the Oklahoma City Thunder have seemed to slip under the radar a bit this season.

On Friday, after the Thunder wrapped up their shootaround in preparation to play the Houston Rockets that night, Durant rejected the notion that their schedule hasn't afforded them enough marquee wins to this point.

"Man, everybody plays the same teams," Durant said. "It's not like the league is super, super loaded with all 50-, 60-win pace teams and we're just playing the worst teams in the league. Everybody's playing the same teams. Golden State's playing the Minnesotas and Phillys, Cleveland's playing Philly two or three times in a week. Everybody's playing the same teams, man, it's just a matter of who you want to see and who you want to talk about. But like I said ..."

Durant paused. He knew he was walking into dangerous territory.

"Let me not say that about the media because it'll be deemed insensitive and I'm bashing them. So who cares? From the eyes of everyone on the outside, it really doesn't matter who's talking about us. I know who we are and I know what we can do and it is what it is."

"We know who we are. ... When we lock in and come out with that sense of urgency and follow the game plan every single game, we're one of the best teams in the league on both ends of the court."

Kevin Durant

The Thunder say they know who they are. And on paper, it seems pretty clear: They're 35-13, and have the striking appearance of a very good team. They check basically every box. They're second in the league in offensive rating and 12th in defensive. They have a robust margin of victory. And they have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

There's one major knock against them, though: They're not the Spurs or Warriors, who have separated themselves from the pack and jumped into a historically great category, despite the Thunder lining up with that duo more closely than one might think.

The Thunder turned a corner once they a) got Durant back from a hamstring injury in November and b) started settling in to Billy Donovan's system changes. Since Dec. 3, when they had fallen to 11-8, they're 24-5 with a net rating of plus-9.8. In that same time frame, the Warriors are 22-4 with a net rating of plus-12.3 and the Spurs are 23-3 with a rating of plus-17.8. With Durant this season, the Thunder are 32-9 and outscoring teams by 13.5 points per 100 possessions.

"We know who we are," Durant said. "We're a little inconsistent on the defensive end, but that's about it. We're doing a good job, though. When we lock in and come out with that sense of urgency and follow the game plan every single game, we're one of the best teams in the league on both ends of the court."

One thing about that stretch since early December, though: Of those 24 wins, seven have come against teams with .500 records or better. The best wins? A 100-99 win over the Clippers in Los Angeles, a 99-74 win over the Heat, a 109-106 win over the Mavericks in Dallas and a 107-94 win over the Hawks. They played one "top tier" team in the span, losing 104-100 to the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

(Note: It happened so long ago that it seems forgotten, but the Thunder actually have played the Spurs once this season, winning on opening night 112-106. Clearly both teams have changed dramatically since then, which is why the Thunder probably don't get much credit for that one.)

The Thunder have 34 games remaining before the postseason, and those 34 games are going to help figure out exactly where they belong in this conversation. If the Thunder want to be in it, they're going to have their chance to earn their place.

Hardest remaining schedule

Right now, they're 29th in strength of schedule. (The Spurs, though, are 28th.) The rest of the way, the Thunder play the hardest schedule in the league.

They close out January with three should-win home games -- Houston, Washington, Orlando -- but starting in February, the schedule turns nasty. Just check out the chart. Yuck.

It's a round robin, of sorts, between contenders. It's a chance for the Thunder to prove they're worthy of the conversation -- not just to fans and media, but also to themselves. This team features the same core that has been at the top of the Western Conference for five of the past six seasons, but the roster around Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has significantly changed. There are questions about the Thunder's depth and whether their role players can hold up against the top teams.

And with the trade deadline on Feb. 18, there's not a lot of time left for the front office to evaluate whether the roster is good enough as is, especially when it's facing the best teams. General manager Sam Presti and his staff made considerable changes around the last deadline and entered this season planning to be patient and seeing how the team grows and develops together.

To this point, it's apparently a very good team. Is it good enough, though?

"I think we have a good idea [of who we are]," Westbrook said. "We know what we can be. Some nights we don't play to that standard, but I think we know exactly how good we can be when we're locked in together and playing with each other."

But this season threw in a curveball. There is more pressure on the organization than at any time before. Durant will be a free agent, and not only do the Thunder need to see if they're good enough now, they also need to prove to him they're going to be good enough in the long run as well. This Thunder group might indeed be built to win. Or it may not.

Over the next couple of months, everyone's going to find out.