Actions appeared to speak louder than words Wednesday, however, as Thunder coach Scott Brooks played four of his starters at least eight minutes in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets. One night earlier, Brooks allowed his second- and third-string players to play the entire final period in an eight-point victory over Minnesota.
“I'm not one to manipulate who we play and who we don't play,” Brooks said. “You play who you play. If you're going to win a championship, you've got to go through four very, very good teams. And you're going to have to play them all. The strategy was I wanted Kevin and Russell (Westbrook) to get in the mid-30s (minutes). I probably played Kevin maybe two or three minutes longer than I wanted. But the game was close and he wanted to stay in.”
The Thunder finished 47-19, a .712 winning percentage that would translate to a 58-win campaign in a normal 82-game season. Along the way, OKC blossomed so much that it finished the season with an MVP candidate in Durant, a likely All-NBA selection in Westbrook, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Serge Ibaka and the projected Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden.
“I'm proud of what they've done this year,” Brooks said. “They've made some improvements in areas that we wanted to get better at … so there's a lot of good things that we've done this year.”
The mediocre finish, though, raises the question of which Thunder team we'll see in the postseason. There's the Oklahoma City squad that at one point in time was 32-9 and in command of the conference. And there's the Thunder team that finished 15-10 and could neither grab a rebound or stop turning it over.
“I think we're playing OK,” Westbrook said. “I think we could be playing better. But I think we got another level in us and hopefully that comes out.”
What would make anyone confident it will?
“I've seen it before,” Westbrook said. “I've seen us turn it up a notch. Everybody's seen us turn it up. We started the year off on that level, and we definitely can hit that level again.”