Tuesday November 23rd, 2010

It was inevitable, really. Unless Oklahoma City started the season 13-1 (they didn't), unless Kevin Durant shot the lights out (he hasn't) and unless the Thunder quickly emerged as the class of the Western Conference (they haven't), some critics would start to question if the NBA's third youngest team was anointed as a legitimate contender a little too early.

"People really think we should be like that, just running through teams," said Durant. "But teams in this league are good, especially early in the season. That's when guys lock in and want to start good. I didn't expect us to go undefeated and win [each game] by 80 points. I knew we would go through ups and downs."

Expectations were high for Oklahoma City coming into this season. After winning 50 games in the regular season and stretching the Lakers to six games in the opening round of the playoffs, the Thunder looked poised to make a big jump. But they opened the season 3-3 and were drilled at home by Utah by 21 and in L.A. by the Clippers by 15. The early season inconsistency seemed to mirror the play of Durant, who shot 39.4 percent in the teams first six games.

Explanations for Durant's struggles vary. As a team, the Thunder haven't shot the ball well (44.5 percent, 23rd in the NBA), resulting in defenses loading up on Durant. Through Monday, Durant's shooting percentage was down 5.3 points (42.3 percent) and his three-point percentage was down 7.5 (29.0 percent) from last season.

"He has seen more of a crowd," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "We have to hit some shots. If we're not, they are going to load up on him."

Fatigue could be a factor, too. Both Durant and Russell Westbrook were key players on USA Basketball's gold medal-winning team this summer. Durant led the team in minutes played (28.2 per game) while Westbrook averaged 19.4. Brooks says the team is keeping a close eye on Durant, who admits there are times that he has felt more tired than usual this season.

"Never during a game," said Durant. "But I sleep a little longer before I go to practice and sometimes I feel it after practice and after games. That's the life of a pro. I can't complain or blame that on me not shooting the ball well."

Oklahoma City's team defense hasn't helped Durant out, either. Last season the Thunder ranked among the top 11 in scoring (98.0 per game) and field goal (44.8 percent) defense. This season, they rank 21st in opponents scoring (102.2 points per game) and 25th in field-goal defense (47.3 percent). They have been victimized by dribble penetration that has led to defensive breakdowns. The team has come up with key stops late in games -- they are 6-0 in games decided by six points or less -- but haven't been able to maintain that defensive intensity for entire games.

"Defensively, we only played stretches of defense," said Brooks. "We haven't done that consistently enough. "We need to get away from just defending when it counts. We need to defend all throughout the game. It's part of the growth that we have to go through. I don't look at it as a bad start. I look at it as we aren't playing the defense we need to play."

Some of the defensive lapses can be attributed to the absence of assistant coach Ron Adams. Adams was Oklahoma City's defensive coordinator the last two seasons before leaving to take an assistant position with Chicago this summer. Adams constantly harped on defense, often discussing individual matchups with players before games and laying out defensive strategies at shootarounds.

"We miss him a lot," said Thabo Sefolosha. "It was tough at first, not having him. But we're adjusting. Early on, we weren't very focused. People were trying too hard. But now I think guys are letting it go and playing the way we know how to play."

Even with the inconsistency, the Thunder have found ways to win. Monday night's win over Minnesota was ugly (Oklahoma City blew an 18-point lead and made just seven of 17 shots in the fourth quarter), but it was the Thunder's fifth straight and came on the heels of back-to-back wins over Boston and Milwaukee -- wins that came without the services of Durant, who was nursing a sore ankle.

Westbrook has been sensational, earning conference Player of the Week honors last week when he averaged 23.0 points, 7.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds in four Thunder wins. Serge Ibaka filled in ably for the injured forward Jeff Green the last two weeks (Ibaka averaged 11.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 32.4 minutes as a starter), while Oklahoma City's relentless assault on the rim has the team ranked first in free throws attempted (31.1 per game) and makes (27.1).

The Thunder believe better days are ahead of them. The key, they say, is just to continue to put in the work.

"The outside expectations, they were very flattering," said Brooks. "But we aren't buying into them. When that happens, you become cocky. You play like an arrogant team. You play like you're entitled to win. We're still working. Guys are doing their normal routines, from KD down to the guys who don't play a lot of minutes. I haven't seen a team that has been complacent or satisfied with what we did. We just have to keep chipping away."

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