There was a moment in each of Team USA's five preliminary-round games in the FIBA World Championship that spoke to what kind of season the Oklahoma City Thunder could be in store for.
The scene didn't unfold on the court or the sideline. In fact, you didn't see it at all. It was heard, emitting from the broadcast booth like a sonic boom.
Whenever Kevin Durant manufactured a fall-away jumper or a fast-break dunk, the fawning would begin. ESPN color commentator Fran Fraschilla invariably insisted Durant, 21, is so immensely talented that he would be among the top two players picked, perhaps even the top overall selection, in any hypothetical world basketball draft.
As if the Thunder hasn't harvested enough hype following a stirring 50-win season that ended with a rack of awards and a riveting playoff series, OKC must now bear the burden of possessing a player some are openly considering the best in the world. A part of it doesn't compute considering the Thunder won just 23 games in 2008-09. But there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for the high praise.
As Team USA enters into the knockout round today against Angola, Durant and teammate Russell Westbrook are four wins shy of international glory — a gold medal in the world's most prestigious basketball tournament. Four more wins and expectations for the Thunder could skyrocket beyond belief. Mentions of Durant and Westbrook could then be prefaced with "gold-medal-winning teammates."
The two already have stolen the spotlight as the U.S. has amassed a 5-0 record in the prelims, winning by an average margin of 24.8 points.
Durant has been Team USA's best player.
Westbrook has been its most electrifying.
There will be natural expectations for the Thunder's twosome to bring their impressive international stretch back stateside — Durant continuing his improved defense and rebounding and Westbrook maintaining his high-flying antics as well as his smothering defense.
In some respects, those might be unreasonable hopes. Durant and Westbrook should indeed return as better players. But a good amount of what we're seeing from them in Turkey doesn't translate to the Thunder.
Durant is playing most of his minutes at power forward, so his rebounding production is bound to increase as he spends more possessions playing closer to the basket. But with the Thunder, post players Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and rookie Cole Aldrich will be relied upon to do most of the board work. And both Durant and Westbrook have looked better as defenders because of coach Mike Krzyzewski's international philosophy of allowing perimeter players to overplay and be more aggressive in man defense and in the passing lanes. That gambling approach goes against the Thunder's defensive principles.
But those facts won't prevent the hype from hanging around in Oklahoma City this season — especially not if Team USA finishes off these final four victories.
"We have to know what it took this (past) year to get where we were this year and make that next jump," said Westbrook. "Hopefully we'll come back next year with the same mindset of coming out and working hard and competing every day."
The bull's-eye, for better or worse, will just be a lot bigger in 2010-11.