NEW YORK -- Standing in front of his stall, in a visiting locker room slowly vacuuming people out, Kevin Durant let slip a wry smile. It wasn't pretty, Oklahoma City's 95-94 win over the Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks on Thursday night. OK, fine: It was downright ugly. The Thunder committed 16 turnovers, shot a pedestrian 44.3 percent from the floor and allowed J.R. Smith to light them up for 36 points. Still, Durant was able to put the game in context. He was able to see a greater truth.
"I'm happy with where we are right now," Durant told SI.com. "We're starting to hit our stride. We're playing great defense, moving the ball, taking care of the ball. Of course, we want to be better. But I like where we are."
Since the beginning of the season, Oklahoma City has faced one question: Can this team take the next step? It has been a meteoric rise for the young Thunder, from Seattle transplants to a 50-game winner, from playoff newbie to Western Conference power. But the Finals appearance last June raised expectations and set a new benchmark for success.
That benchmark seemed impossibly far off in October, when James Harden was swapped for Kevin Martin, suddenly tearing apart a group that grew up together and stormed to the top of the conference. No way Oklahoma City could win a championship without Harden, a consistent scorer when Durant couldn't, an under-control playmaker when Russell Westbrook wasn't.
Yet here are the Thunder, 45-16, just 2½ games behind San Antonio for the top spot in the West. They have succeeded because of Durant, who has picked up his playmaking (4.6 assists per game) and efficiency in Harden's absence. They have succeeded because of Westbrook, perhaps the most unfairly maligned player in recent memory, who has improved his play as a distributor (7.8 assists) and as a three-point shooter (career-best 33.8 percent) while continuing to shoulder a heavy offensive burden. They have succeeded because of a hungry roster, one that has seen the mountaintop and is eager to get back.
"We're more mature," power forward Nick Collison said. "I don't know if that's because of losing in the Finals, but we understand that we need to grow and we need to execute better. That's what happens in these playoff series. We can't get by if we get outexecuted. We understand the importance of doing the work every day."
Asked for the biggest difference between this team and the one that stumbled against Miami last year, Collison said, "The attention to detail. There are so many things within a possession that are important. The timing, the cutting hard, the screening. We're better at all of them."
Incorporating Martin has been seamless, in part because the former 20-point scorer with Sacramento and Houston has so easily accepted playing off the bench. It's a contract year for Martin, and he could have griped about wanting the starting role he has thrived in for the last seven seasons. Instead, he slid into Harden's spot and did what he always has: score (14.5 points per game) and make threes (team-best 43 percent).
On Thursday, Durant didn't hesitate to swing the ball to Martin with New York up one in the fourth quarter and a double team headed Durant's way. Martin then coolly knocked down a 24-footer.
"I've figured out how to play with him," Durant said. "I know where he likes the ball, I know what type of shots he likes, what type of plays he likes. The biggest thing is we have to continue to give him confidence every day, because we're going to need him if we want to get to where we want to get to in the playoffs."
Everything is about Miami now, from LeBron James's ascent to an even higher level to the Heat's 16-game (and counting) winning streak that has terrified Eastern Conference contenders. The focus is on South Beach, and it will stay there. Durant is well on his way to a fourth straight scoring title but won't get within shouting distance of his first MVP, not with James submitting a season that has elevated him into the debate for the greatest player of all time.
That's fine with Durant, who only wants another shot at beating James where it matters most. It has been a long eight months since the Thunder watched Miami celebrate a championship, an interminable stretch broken up by highs (an Olympic gold medal) and lows (two regular-season losses to the Heat). Getting back to the Finals won't be easy, not with San Antonio, Memphis and the Clippers standing in the way. Durant and Westbrook have logged heavy minutes this season, and will have to take on more when the playoffs start.
Yet throughout the Thunder locker room, the sentiment is the same: Let's get to it.
"When you lose in the Finals, you just want to start the season off in the playoffs," Durant said. "But we're patient. We're building habits here every single day. I like the direction. Guys are buying into what we're doing. It's an exciting time of year."