By Frank Hughes
April 12, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Oklahoma City forward Nick Collison sat at his locker in Oracle Arena on Sunday night, absentmindedly ripping the Velcro straps on his ankle braces back and forth, back and forth as he contemplated the puzzling start to his NBA career.

He remembers, after being forced to sit out his rookie season with the SuperSonics because of two shoulder surgeries, that Seattle stumbled through his first preseason, in 2004, going 2-6 while Ray Allen publicly feuded with KobeBryant. He remembers how an entire roster of expiring contracts caused tension that turned into near mutiny. And he remembers how, when Seattle lost its first regular-season game by 30 points to the Clippers, Armageddon was about to hit.

But somehow, the Sonics won nine consecutive games thereafter and got off to a 17-3 start en route to one of the most improbable seasons ever, a team that had Danny Fortson and Jerome James as its two-headed center winning the division and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At the time, Collison didn't know any better. This was how the league works, right? Complete a successful college career, enter the NBA and make it to the postseason on a regular basis.

Wrong. After four consecutive losing seasons, and the sale and relocation of the franchise to Oklahoma, Collison, the only Thunder player from the 2004-05 SuperSonics, has yet to return to the playoffs -- until now. And it is because of his days with Seattle that he, perhaps more than anybody on the roster, values Oklahoma City's first postseason berth since relocating.

"I've actually said more than a few times how much I appreciate this," Collison said. "When you win only 20 games [which the Sonics did in 2007-08], you cherish every win. And so I think I still have a little bit of that in the back of my head. I appreciate it more than I ever did after being on some down teams."

This Thunder team, Collison said, reminds him of that 2004-05 Sonics team that won the division. Like that team, the Thunder went 2-6 in the preseason. And like that team five years ago, it was another nine-game winning streak -- from Jan. 29 to Feb. 21 -- that galvanized the players and gave them a previously ill-defined belief that they could, and should, actually win.

"That winning streak kind of gave us a cushion in terms of being above .500, and at that point we thought we really had a shot to make the playoffs," Collison said. "There is not really a moment I can think of where everything clicked. But if you are still playing consistent in mid-February, then you know you have a shot."

Now, the Thunder face the next step in their growing process: competing in the playoffs with zero postseason experience, save for Collison's lone season in Seattle and a few minutes picked up by players with other teams. Among the Thunder's rotation players besides Collison, only Nenad Krstic (15 playoff games combined with the Nets in 2005 and '06) and Thabo Sefolosha (nine games with the Bulls in '07) have appeared in the playoffs.

It is well chronicled in this league that there is a distinct learning curve for inexperienced teams with young players at its core, the most notable of which is Michael Jordan's classic battles with the "Bad Boys" Pistons teams.

"In most situations, it takes going through it and getting beat up," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I was with Denver for three of the first five years of their first-round knockouts. It took them five years to break through, and that was the case last season" when the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals, losing to the Lakers.

In a sense, Oklahoma City is getting an early indoctrination into the postseason as it fights with the Trail Blazers and Spurs for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the West (all three teams entered the final three days of the regular season with 49-31 records), and try to avoid a first-round matchup with the top-seeded and defending champion Lakers. The Thunder have dropped three of their past four games, including a disappointing 120-117 loss to Golden State on Sunday that would have given them sole possession of sixth place.

For as well as the Thunder have played this season -- their 26-game improvement from last season is one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history -- their youth showed at the end of the Golden State game, which they lost after leading by 20 points. With less than a minute to play, the Thunder tried to inbound the ball to KevinDurant. He slipped, panicked and tried to throw the ball to Sefolosha, who dribbled it off his leg and out of bounds, giving it back to Golden State.

On their ensuing possession, Sefolosha was having trouble inbounding the ball. As the five-second rule neared, he tossed the ball awkwardly off the leg of Russell Westbrook and it caromed out of bounds.

Even with the miscues, the Thunder had a chance to tie the game at the end. But two Oklahoma City players passed up wide-open threes to toss the ball to Durant, the league's leading scorer, who rushed an errant three as time expired.

"The way we played tonight is unacceptable," Brooks said afterward.

And this is just the end of the regular season. Imagine what happens when the intensity is ramped up for the postseason.

The Thunder got a little flavor of that in Utah on April 6. At the end of an overtime thriller with the Jazz, Durant, his team trailing 140-139, tried to loft a potential game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. His arm clearly was hit on the attempt, but the referees swallowed their whistles and Durant's shot came up well short. The next day, the league took the unusual step of announcing that its referees missed the call -- little consolation for the Thunder, particularly if they finish the season in eighth by one game.

But it did serve as a teaching lesson for Brooks: This is the way games are officiated in the postseason. Get used to it.

"Right after the game, we used that as a positive," he said. "That is a part of sports. When things don't go your way, you have to put it behind you and go on to the next play, your next play, your next season. That is the way we treated it."

It is pretty easy to root for the underdog Thunder. At a time that it is only too convenient to complain about the seemingly lackluster attitudes adopted by many haughty and entitled professional athletes, the Thunder embody what we want our pro teams to be. They take their jobs seriously and exude that fleeting and infectious college atmosphere even though they are paid like movie stars. They talk about, and actually put in, hard work, Brooks drilling them diligently even in these late stages of the season.

Their public relations staff has been instructed not to promote any players or coaches for individual awards because they believe in winning as a team. Brooks has a clause in his contract that gives him a bonus for getting the team to the playoffs, but not for winning Coach of the Year.

Just minutes before the game in Golden State, general manager Sam Presti emerged from a back room at Oracle Arena where he was watching the Thunder's D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers, in a playoff series against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

It is refreshing, in a sense, to see this type of commitment and appreciation at this level. It also makes you wonder if they know exactly what they are getting into as the playoffs approach. If the slightly built Durant thinks he's faced rugged defense throughout the season, wait until he has Ron Artest or Carmelo Anthony leaning on him quarter after quarter in a seven-game series.

"It has been physical since the All-Star break," Durant said. "I have seen everything. I am looking forward to seeing how things are going to play out."

What he will likely see is a steady diet of double teams and even more trips to the free-throw line (he leads the league in attempts) because teams will emphasize the need to prevent easy baskets. Westbrook will get picked up at half court and bodied by stronger defenders. Sefolosha, a strong defender, will have his hands full with a locked-in Kobe Bryant or Anthony or another top scorer.

The hope is that the Thunder are too young and naive to know any better. The reality is that Brooks can tell them whatever he wants and Collison, Krstic and Sefolosha can expound on their own brief postseason experience, but there is only one way to gain the knowledge.

"There is no doubt we are a young team," Brooks said. "The numbers say that. But when I talk to our team, I never mention their age. I view our guys as NBA players. And I really believe we can beat whoever we play. It is very close. It is a very competitive Western Conference. There are a lot of good teams and we will give ourselves a chance to play and win with the way we commit to each other. A team is going to have to play really well to beat us."

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