Thunder-Timberwolves Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated December 26, 2011
The Oklahoma City Thunder quickly proved why many believe they are the best team in the Western Conference. The Minnesota Timberwolves simply hope to show they're no longer the league's doormat. Oklahoma City seeks its 10th straight win over Minnesota when the teams meet Monday night at the Target Center in the Timberwolves' season opener. Led by two-time defending league scoring champion Kevin Durant, the Thunder are a favorite to make the franchise's first NBA finals appearance since the Seattle SuperSonics lost in six games to Michael Jordan and Chicago in 1996. Durant helped back that notion by scoring 30 points in Sunday's season-opening 97-89 victory over Orlando, hitting 11 of 19 shots. "It's something we can't control," Durant said of the expectations. "We have to keep getting better every day and see what happens." Oklahoma City led by as many as 22 points and held Magic star Dwight Howard to only 11 in winning its third straight season opener. "We know there are outside expectations," coach Scott Brooks said. "But there aren't absolutes or guarantees. Our guys just work. I know it gets boring at times, but we like that. We're not going to change. We're all in the same boat on that. You can never become complacent. It has to be about the team." The Thunder must be sure not to let their guard down against a Minnesota team they haven't lost to since their first season in Oklahoma City. Durant has averaged 31.8 points during the nine-game winning streak against the Timberwolves, scoring 47 during a 118-117 overtime victory in his last trip to Minneapolis on Jan. 26. Kevin Love had 31 points and 21 rebounds in that contest for Minnesota, which is looking for improvement under new coach Rick Adelman. The Wolves finished 17-65 last season, marking the first time they've gone back-to-back seasons with fewer than 20 victories since 1991-92 and 1992-93. They were 15-67 in 2009-10. Adelman, however, has instilled a different mentality in the team since the opening of camp, pointing out Minnesota's obvious flaws and challenging his new squad to improve. "There's a reason why they didn't win a lot of games," Adelman said. "Stats don't lie." Wes Johnson, entering his second season, said he believes Adelman has brought positive changes to a team that badly needed them. "We sensed it the first day we got into Target Center for practice, in the first meeting before we got on the court," Johnson said. "You can sense it is going to be a totally different year." Love is the cornerstone of the Timberwolves' potential turnaround, averaging 20.2 points and a league-best 15.2 rebounds last season. His inside-outside game makes him one of the toughest players in the league to guard, as he shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range in 2010-11, and he arrived for this season in even better shape. "I don't know if huge jump is the right word. I don't know what it's going to be," Love said. "But I do feel like not only with our coaching staff, but just everybody on the same page, just the feel of training camp, it's just different, and different in a good way." Another positive change is the addition of Ricky Rubio, the international superstar point guard whose much-anticipated debut comes after a lengthy wait. Minnesota chose Rubio - now 21 - fifth overall in the 2009 draft, but he initially decided to continue playing in Spain before making the transition to the NBA. Adding Rubio's quickness and floor vision to potential stars Love, Michael Beasley and rookie Derrick Williams, and the Timberwolves are setting much higher expectations. Minnesota also added J.J. Barea, who won an NBA title with Dallas last season. Love, a teammate of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook at UCLA, missed the most recent meeting with Oklahoma City on March 25 with a groin injury. Westbrook had 19 points and a game-high eight assists as the Thunder won that one 111-103.
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