Thunder gets off to solid start

Playoffs?

(Cue up Jim Mora's famous quote).

Sure, it's too early to project whether the Thunder can stay in playoff contention all season.

But with wins over Orlando, San Antonio, Miami and Utah, some Thunder fans are buzzing about possibly making the playoffs.

"The fact we're getting better gives fans something to look forward to," Kevin Durant said. "Hopefully down the line the playoffs are in our future. That would be pretty cool. But we're just taking it game to game."

That's been the approach of coach Scott Brooks and general manager Sam Presti. Don't worry about the standings. Focus on improving day to day.

"Even though everybody is encouraged with our start, it's only November," Nick Collison said. "There's a lot of Basketball left. We're happy with how we've played some games. Other nights we haven't played as well."

One reason for optimism is the Thunder is above .500 while playing a schedule stacked with playoff teams.

Oklahoma City has only two games left with last year's finalists. They're done playing Orlando and have two games left with the Lakers.

The most encouraging sign is the Thunder is 5-4 on the road. Last season, OKC won eight road games. All season. The road success has included statement wins in San Antonio, Miami, Detroit and Salt Lake City.

Once the schedule flips to 2010, OKC's schedule gets easier.

The Thunder hasn't even faced probable lottery teams like New Jersey, Minnesota, Memphis, Charlotte, Indiana, Golden State or Philadelphia, teams a combined 56 games below .500.

Oklahoma City also has a dozen games left against the Kings, Bucks, Pistons, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls and Raptors, similar teams hoping to finish above .500 to earn a playoff berth.

"It's good people are saying good things about us," Collison said. "But .500 usually doesn't get you in the playoffs in the West."

True. But the Thunder is two games above .500, a pace that would produce 46 wins. With some teams in the West slipping, it might only take 42 or 43 wins. The key could be how many games the Rockets, Jazz and Hornets win.

San Antonio is off to a subpar start but figures to join the Lakers, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Mavericks and Suns as playoff locks. But that still leaves two playoff berths. The Clippers might make a run when Blake Griffin returns.

Since November and December are the toughest parts of the Thunder's schedule, play .500 or better through the holidays and staying in contention is realistic.

If the Thunder reaches the playoffs most would agree the league's second youngest team arrived a year ahead of schedule.

"Have we improved? Yes," Brooks said. "But it's going to level off. We'll have to find other ways to get better. It's going to keep going up. But we'll never get to a point we've arrived. We're going to keep chipping away and see where that puts us at the end of the season."

Last summer at his Basketball camp, Durant said this season would be a disappointment if the Thunder didn't reach the playoffs. Over the next four months, he backed off that statement.

"If I would have said we're not going to make the playoffs (the media) would have made a big deal out of that, too," Durant said. "I'm the ultimate competitor. I'll always want to be at the highest level, that's the playoffs, eventually the Finals."

Playoffs? That remains to be seen. But having survived one of the toughest road stints on their schedule, the Thunder should at least make monitoring the standings worthwhile far beyond the All-Star break.

The magic number

For all the talk about needing 47 or 49 wins the past two seasons to make the Western Conference playoffs, those are rare exceptions.

Since the NBA expanded to 14 Western Conference teams 20 years ago, there have been only two other seasons where a team in the West won 44 or more games and didn't make the playoffs.

No. 9 West team

Year Team W-L 2008-09 Phoenix 46-36 2007-08 Golden State 48-34 2006-07 Clippers 40-42 2005-06 Utah 41-41 2004-05 Minnesota 44-38 2003-04 Utah 42-40 2002-03 Houston 43-39 2001-02 Clippers 39-43 2000-01 Houston 45-37 1999-00 Dallas 40-42 1998-99 lockout 1997-98 Sacramento 27-55 1996-97 Sacramento 34-48 1995-96 Golden St. 36-46 1994-95 Sacramento 39-43 1993-94 LA Lakers 33-49 1992-93 Denver 36-46 1991-92 Houston 42-40 1990-91 Clippers 31-51 1989-90 Seattle 41-41

TEMPERATURE GAUGE

Who's hot

Portland: The Trail Blazers are 11-2 the past three weeks to move into the upper tier of the Western Conference.

Center Greg Oden finally is becoming a defensive force many projected when he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2007. With Travis Outlaw out three months, Portland decided to remove veteran point guard Andre Miller from the starting lineup to give the second-team unit a spark.

Who's not

Minnesota: The Timberwolves won their season opener on former Thunder forward Damien Wilkins' buzzer-beating basket but haven't won since, losing 14 consecutive games.

It's been a tough debut for coach Kurt Rambis, the former Lakers icon who played for the "Showtime" teams that won four NBA titles. After serving as an assistant to Phil Jackson for seven seasons, Rambis is discovering how the other half lives.

Answer man

The shoes belong to the Wizards' DeShawn Stevenson.

The tattoo belongs to the Wizards' Mike Miller. It reads "Faith"

Funny story about shoes: Miller showed up one day wearing LeBron James' signature shoes, Stevenson wasn't thrilled. "He got to get them out of here," Stevenson told the Washington Post. "LeBron shoes - we off that. We already got war against them. He can't wear that. It's all beef right there." Stevenson was likely kidding.December 11th & 12thOKC State FairgroundsCox PavilionFriday Doors Open 4pmSat. Doors Open 9amAdmission Only $5.00


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Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 2, 2009