It's rather sexy in the standings, but the Oklahoma City Thunder's 24-7 record thus far isn't a reflection of the team's preferred standard of performance.
What that Northwest Division-leading mark masks through 31 games is slow starts, sketchy quarters, subpar halves and sloppy finishes. But it seems as long as the Thunder has won it's been all good, with both the team and its fans.
It's not until the Thunder suffers a setback like its shocking loss Wednesday against Brooklyn that the warning signs become magnified. Even then, when the same season-long concerns creep in and cost the Thunder, the sparkling record seems to only become justification that the team is doing just fine.
“There's no need to panic,” said Russell Westbrook following the 17-point home loss to the Nets, the Thunder's worst home defeat since Halloween 2010. “I think every time we lose around here everybody wants to go bananas. We lost a game. It's all right. We're in a good spot.”
Pump your brakes if you're going bananas.
But by all means pay attention to whether the Thunder is sustaining the level of play it has set out to this season. And over the past three weeks, not even the biggest optimist can claim that's been the case.
Oklahoma City is just 3-3 in its past six games. But even those wins, and a few victories before them, the Thunder had significant trouble stringing together four quarters of quality basketball.
“We can't play perfect,” said Kevin Durant. “Teams are going to make shots on us. Every team seems like they're hot on us. Guys that usually don't make shots make shots on us because we're the Western Conference champs and been to the Finals. Everybody wants a piece of us. Everybody wants to beat us. So we know teams are going to give us their best shot … We have to be ready for it and most times we are.”
There is tons of truth and substance in Durant's description.
The Thunder has indeed entered new territory. Getting back to the NBA Finals — and winning this time — requires better focus and even more attention to detail. Oklahoma City must now be sharper on both ends of the floor than it was last year. And while using this regular season as a tune-up, the Thunder, as Durant said, has been forced to take each team's best punch every single night.
Those were all things players and coaches knew would shake out coming into the season. They knew they would have to raise their level of play. In spots, the Thunder has. But by no means has it been the constant that the team strives for it to be.
“We want to be better,” said Nick Collison. “I think we're at the point where we see our mistakes and we know when we're not playing well and when we don't have enough. I think we knew that (Wednesday) night and so we have to change it. That's the thing with the NBA is you can recognize things aren't going well but you have to be able to change it. That's what we'll try to do.”