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Despite changes, Thunder continue to be among the NBA's elite

Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Kevin Durant's continued excellence has helped the Thunder retain their spot as a top squad in the NBA.

NEW YORK -- In the end, it was a glorified scrimmage. No Carmelo Anthony, no Raymond Felton and no heart whatsoever left the Knicks ripe for a beating, and here, on Christmas Day, they took an unforgiving one, losing 123-94 to Oklahoma City. Too much Kevin Durant (29 points), too much Russell Westbrook (14 points, 13 rebounds 10 assists), too much Serge Ibaka (24 points), and the stumbling Knicks slinked off the Madison Square Garden floor understanding what most of the league already knows: The Thunder are, again, really good.

They weren't supposed to be this good, were they? A year or so removed from trading away James Harden and mere months after watching Kevin Martin defect to Minnesota, the Thunder are 23-5, deadlocked with Portland for the top spot in the deep Western Conference. Without Martin, the Thunder still boast one of the NBA's best offenses while playing a throttling defense that hustles back in transition and chokes opponents in the half-court.

"We played a great team tonight," said Knicks coach Mike Woodson.

For months, the narrative gobbling up time on talk shows was how the small market Thunder, victims of the very collective bargaining agreement designed to support them, were going to take a step back. For months, everyone, from the relentless working general manager to the underrated head coach to the roster with eight players 25 and under, ignored it.

"I was confident [coming into the season]," Durant said. "Our guys worked hard all summer. A lot of guys stayed in OKC this summer to figure out the system or what their roles were going to be. They knew the hard work would produce results this season. Jeremy [Lamb], Reggie [Jackson], Steven [Adams], Perry [Jones], those guys did a great job all summer. We all felt confident that with our leadership we could help them out. Surprisingly, they are helping us out even more."

Indeed, while much of the praise will be heaped on Oklahoma City's stars -- all of it deserved, no doubt -- it's the work of the role players that has had a heavy hand in keeping Oklahoma City among the elite. There is Jackson, a mini-Westbrook, a dynamic scoring guard who has tacked five points onto his scoring average this season. There is Lamb, who made the two-hour trek between Oklahoma City and its D-League affiliate in Tulsa several times last season, emerging as a solid, 20-minute per game contributor off the bench. There is Adams, a panned draft pick in June whose per-36 minutes production this season (8.4 points, 10.7 rebounds) is better than the Thunder's starting center, Kendrick Perkins (5.7 points, 7.1 rebounds), in the same category.

G.M. Sam Presti continues to draft top talent, while coach Scott Brooks has proven to be skilled at developing it, without costing a rising contender wins in the process.

"It's a fine line," Brooks said. "One of the things that we do, we don't talk about the youth of our team. We never have. I've always felt that you're an NBA player, you have to act and perform like an NBA player every night. It's tough. It's a grind. But you have to focus on improving every day."

"We have great leaders in our locker room. They understand that how they perform and how they work trickles down to the rest of the team. Kevin and Russell have done a great job with that. We take pride [in our development]. That's the only way I could have made it as a player, by the work that I put in on the floor. I take pride in guys getting better every year because I think it's a reflection of our staff."

Yes, Oklahoma City's baby faced bench--averaging 34.1 points per game, the highest in the Durant-era--keeps opponents at bay, before the starters come in to finish them. Durant is averaging career-highs in rebounding (8.1) and assists (4.7). Five times this season, Durant has scored 30-plus points while collecting ten-plus rebounds. In context, Durant racked up those numbers just four times all of last season. Ibaka is averaging career bests in points (14.0) and rebounds (9.3). Westbrook, his offseason and training camp interrupted by knee surgeries, is again putting up big numbers.

Here comes Oklahoma City, and no thinks they are too thin to win anymore. There is no real secret to the Thunder's success, no undiscovered element to its unrelenting attack. They didn't ask Martin to be the next Harden, never told Jackson and Lamb it was their job to fill Martin's shoes. Standing in front of his locker, Lamb recalls the one piece of advice Durant and Westbrook dispensed in training camp.

"They said, 'Play your game,'" Lamb said. "Play your game, and go to work."

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