OKLAHOMA CITY -- They ask you to be patient in Oklahoma City. Implore you, really. They don't get too high here, not after back-to-back 50-win seasons and a trip to the second round. Just like they didn't get too low when the team was enduring a 3-29 start to the 2008-09 season on the heels of a 20-62 finish in the franchise's final year in Seattle.
This is a process, they tell you. Over and over and over again.
But that process has never looked as close to completion as it did Tuesday night, when the Thunder evened their second-round series with Memphis with a convincing 111-102 victory. It had the usual highlights. Kevin Durant popped in 26 points, Russell Westbrook rebounded from a tough Game 1 with 24 points and six assists, and the trio of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison held Zach Randolph to just 15 points -- on 2-13 shooting.
The big names were good. The smaller names were even better. There was Collison bumping and grinding with Randolph in the third quarter while Ibaka was dinged up with a knee injury. There was sixth man James Harden pouring in 21 points on nine -- repeat, nine -- shots and standing nose to chest with 6-foot-9, 225-pound Darrell Arthur after the Memphis forward shot one too many elbows in his direction. There was backup point guard Eric Maynor, who turned Westbrook into a well-paid cheerleader in the fourth quarter, finishing up a 15-point, 6-of-7 night.
"That's what they have done all year," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his bench. "They do a good job of catching up or extending leads. They were outstanding tonight."
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Maynor doesn't complain about a limited role. Instead, he works. He shows up before every practice and runs through shooting drills with Westbrook, Harden and Daequan Cook. There's no jealousy, no hidden agendas. They are united by one goal: winning.
"You hear people say you can stay in this league a long time if you know your role," Maynor said. "My role is to back up Russell and do what I can to help this team win."
Said Harden: "Since he got traded here, we have tried to build chemistry off the bench. It's working out."
Yes, it is. Oklahoma City got 48 points from its bench in Game 2 (compared to 29 for Memphis) and each bucket mattered. It was Harden who rallied the team when Durant went out with his second foul in the first quarter. And it was Maynor who buried three three-pointers during an 18-6 run to open the fourth quarter that increased an eight-point lead to 20.
The Thunder will have their hands full when the series shifts to Memphis on Friday. FedEx Forum is as hostile as it gets these days and this young Oklahoma City roster has yet to be tested in that kind of environment. The spotlight will be on Durant and Westbrook, to see if the Thunder's thoroughbreds can rise to the challenge.
But that spotlight will eventually shift toward the sideline and the supporting cast will once again step in it. Great teams are more than just a collection of superstars. A solid supporting cast is critical, and in Oklahoma City, they have the makings of a pretty good one. The process isn't finished -- but it's certainly getting closer to completion.