Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 4/15/12
MINNEAPOLIS Four years ago, they were a different team altogether, the SuperSonics, the worst in the West. A year later, they moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, but still they failed to shake that losing record, improving by just three wins to 23. Now, the Thunder are championship contenders for the first time after two straight playoff berths, and while so much about their expectations and approach has changed since Scott Brooks took over in 2008, the team has remained outside the NBA norm. With all that change, a new city and a redefined set of expectations, Kevin Durant has remained a constant. He's been there through it all, a star from Day 1, but as his numbers have evolved from 20.3 points per game in his rookie season to 27.6 so far this year, Durant has remained a man of buttoned-up polo shirts and backpacks. For a few months in 2010, when he quietly signed a five-year extension in the same week as LeBron James' "Decision," he became the anti-LeBron, and during the lockout he became known for streetball games in places like Rucker Park.He's the kind of player who sees sitting for five minutes each half as being benched, Brooks said, a player who deserves every measure of success he receives. He credits teammates before celebrating himself, and even when he does take credit, like he did for the pass that led to Russell Westbrook's alley-oop on Friday, it's often tongue-in-cheek."He doesn't ever want anything," Brooks said. "He gives everything he has to the team."That was easy to see after the Thunder's 115-110 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, a night when Durant finished with 43 points and Westbrook with 35, and the team came this close (again!) to a loss to the faltering Timberwolves. But instead of taking credit for a 20-point fourth quarter that decided the game, Durant focused on his "unfortunate" foul trouble and gave credit to Westbrook, who sacrificed to give him easy baskets.That doesn't sound like a 23-year-old star, a former teen pro of the one-and-done era whose name is being batted around in nearly every MVP conversation. As legitimate as Durant has become, he's done it on his own terms, with a maturity beyond his years."He definitely has a lot of maturity for being a young player, and he has a lot of respect for his teammates and the game, which is nice," Brooks said. "It's nice to see. He's a special kid on and off the floor."And that all of that, his summer connection to the game at its grittiest, his quiet dedication to one small-market franchise, his dedication to coaches and teammates played a large part in Oklahoma City's redefinition into what it has become today. Durant's attitude has shaped the team and kept celebrity and flash as much as bay as is possible.Which is pretty difficult when you watch these guys.This isn't a team that dresses in 15 variations of the same designer suit before heading to its bus postgame. These guys don't wear sunglasses in the locker room or scarves. They aren't the Lakers or the Heat, and they really don't want to be. Over and over, Brooks talks about doing "what we do," as if the Thunder have built some new brand of basketball, and he may not be too far off. His team is young, promising, and no matter how much other coaches and analysts insist the Thunder are leapfrogging over years of development to become contenders, Brooks will push back."Is it faster than normal?" Brooks asked. "I don't know. I just know how we do it."Brooks said that his team has never looked at themselves as exempt by virtue of talent or even luck from every step it takes to win a championship. He's all about creating habits and working on those habits, sounding more like a man training a dog or a toddler than the coach of the Western Conference's best team. But as overly pragmatic as it might sound, Brooks has found a way to win, a way to make his team a threat to teams like the Lakers, Bulls and Heat that it will most likely face as it gets deeper and deeper into May.It isn't always pretty, as Saturday's game proved. Sometimes two stars having two big nights is only just enough, but the Thunder's late-game poise whether it's in a somewhat meaningless game on April 14 or a significant one next month is a deciding factor that should prove to be an asset down the stretch."I don't know if they're lacking anything," Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman said before the game. "I think those guys have to play at a very high level when the game's on the line."It was as though he was predicting what would happen not three hours later, the Thunder's intensity that kept an upset at bay for the final time against Minnesota. But for Durant and company, it was more than just one game; they've clinched their playoff spot, but they're still in the hunt for the top seed in the Western Conference, just one game ahead of San Antonio. Brooks insisted pregame that his team isn't focused on that spot, that it's just concentrating on improving and staying healthy as the season wraps up, but it's hard to deny that claiming the top spot in the conference wouldn't be just a little bit satisfying.The best team in the Western Conference is a big title for a team like the Thunder, not only because of where they've come from in the past five years but also because of who they are and whom they've topped. This is Oklahoma City, after all. Oklahoma City, population barely 1.2 million in the metro area. This isn't Los Angeles or Dallas or even San Antonio, but these guys have a solid shot to best the traditional powerhouses with prettier cities and more storied backgrounds. They're far from perfect, but they're even further from the entitlement and celebrity that can plague the NBA's elite. And yet somehow the Thunder have staked their territory, laid claim to their status as one of the best on their own terms.The Thunder are growing up. Look closely. The collar of Durant's buttoned-up polo on Saturday sure seemed a lot like a Luis Vuitton. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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