As the defending Western Conference champion, the Thunder no doubt is wearing a target this season.
Judging from the early results, the bull's eye is mighty big.
After Wednesday night's 107-97 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder is 6-3 heading into Friday's 7 p.m. game at New Orleans, which is hardly a disgrace. That's a .667 winning percentage, which equates to a 55-27 regular-season record, which likely would result in home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Are teams playing OKC tougher than usual, or is the Thunder not playing up to snuff so far?
“Obviously teams are going to play better (against us),” center Kendrick Perkins said. “Guys hit shots that you watch them play against anybody else and they don't make those shots, but against us they make shots.
“We've got to know … we are the hunted. We're not sneaking up on teams anymore. Guys are really preparing for us, so we've got to make sure we come out with a great focus and have a killer mentality, and that's on all of us.”
Entering Thursday night's slate of games, the Thunder's power ranking (Relative Percent Index) was 11th and its strength of schedule was 22nd out of the 30 NBA teams.
OKC has beaten only one team with a winning record, that being Chicago (5-3) on the road.
The Thunder has been favored to win every game except its season-opener at San Antonio, where it was a two-point underdog and lost on a 20-footer from Spurs guard Tony Parker at the final buzzer.
OKC already is minus-2 in games it was projected to win. The Thunder was a 5½-point favorite to beat the Grizzlies and lost by nearly twice that. OKC was favored by 8½ at home against Atlanta on Nov. 4 and lost by nine.
“Teams look at us differently,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There's no question when they play us it's a lot different than three or four years ago.”
Does Brooks also feel differently about his team? At any time Wednesday night did Brooks look at the determined Grizzlies and think, “That's how tough we used to be” or “That's how hard we should be playing”?
“No, there was a time I was looking (at Memphis) and said, ‘Wow, that's a very good team,' but I knew coming in they were good,” Brooks said.
Perkins has played the role of the hunted before — winning the 2008 NBA title at age 23 with the Boston Celtics — and said this season so far has felt similar to the year after claiming the crown.
“The only thing is we've got a team full of young guys (in OKC). There, we had a team full of veterans,” said Perkins, who turned 28 last Saturday. “If there's such a thing as being young and having success too early, we've got to make sure we continue to work and continue to do what got us to this point.”
Memphis has been one of the league's toughest, most physical teams the past three seasons, and the Grizzlies certainly didn't flinch playing the defending Western Conference champs on the road Wednesday night.
“That's us,” said Memphis forward Rudy Gay, who scored a season-high 28 points against OKC. “That's not just (against) this team. That's us. We don't back down from anybody. We're a tough team, too. They're a tough team, but I think we're just as tough, if not tougher. As you could see today, they didn't back down from anything and we didn't expect them to.”
If Gay still sees some fight in the Thunder, perhaps that means everybody else has turned it up a notch.
Thunder at New Orleans
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: New Orleans Arena, New Orleans
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* The Hornets are 2-2 at home this season and are coming off a 100-96 loss at Houston on Wednesday night.
* Projected rookie of the year Anthony Davis missed two games earlier this season because of a concussion.
* New Orleans is solid defensively, allowing just 90.5 points per game, but is only scoring 89.5 points itself.