If you walked inside the Thunder's locker room a year ago, you would have found a loose group, guys who didn't care much about how the stakes were growing higher as the season wound to a close.
Today, it's a similar aura, yet it's extremely different.
As the 2011 NBA postseason looms, confidence has replaced carefree as the vibe inside the Thunder's locker room. The difference between the Thunder of now and the Thunder of a year ago is felt immediately upon crossing the threshold of the team's dressing room.
“We are more relaxed,” said Kevin Durant. “Last year, we were just like, ‘Ah, we're in the playoffs. Nobody's really ever been here before with the exception of a few guys. So we're just going to go out there and play and see what happens.' But now, we know what it takes.”
We think we know the opponent, too.
With Dallas clobbering Phoenix on Sunday night, the Thunder could be headed for a first-round showdown with Denver.
But like last year, the matchup matters little.
“We know that we're a good team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Last year, we were hoping to be a good team. Going into the playoffs, we know that we can win. We know that we can compete at a high level.”
The experience of last season's riveting six-game series against the world champion Lakers created the confidence. And it's an invaluable resource for what many forget is still a tremendously young team.
“It always helps to have your first taste of the playoffs because now we don't have to worry about the first playoff experience,” Brooks said. “We've done that. We know how it feels. We know the excitement we have going into our home crowd. That was overwhelming. Games 3 and 4, you can't prepare for that. You can't simulate that in practice or the regular season. Our fans were just off the charts. Our players experienced it and now they want that again. They can't wait for that opportunity.”
There's still room for improvement. But players and coaches think the defense has been dialed in, and the offense continues to develop.
“We still can get better if we want to do the things we say we want to do,” said reserve guard Eric Maynor.
But, as Durant said, the team is in a good place, a similar yet strange one.
“We got home court for the first round. And we won the division,” Durant said. “But we can't be satisfied with that. We're looking for bigger goals, and hopefully we achieve them. But we're just confident knowing that we can come out here and play with anybody.
“We're all confident that we can go as far as we want to go if we stick to our concepts and we stick to playing together. Anything can happen. Anything's possible.”
Sounds like the same type of statement we heard as the playoffs neared last year.
Only now, the Thunder knows it's true.