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.”
To understand the Thunder's inconsistency, just start with Wednesday's loss and trek backward.
Against the Nets, the Thunder allowed 33 points in the opening quarter and 61 in the first half. Brooklyn ultimately shot 50 percent for the game.
Against Phoenix, the Thunder gave up 53 points and 51.2 percent shooting in first half and struggled to put away the Western Conference's worst road team until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Against Houston, the Thunder's 30-point blowout win overshadowed how OKC played undisciplined for the game's first 20 minutes, allowing the Rockets to score 50 points with four minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Against Dallas, the Thunder had a slow start, allowing 29 first-quarter points (and 36 in the third quarter) and watched the Mavs shoot 52.2 percent.
Against Miami, the Thunder reverted to isolation offense in the fourth quarter and had numerous defensive breakdowns throughout the game that allowed three players to score at least 20 points.
Against Minnesota, the Thunder gave up 30 points in the opening quarter and couldn't stop the Timberwolves' rapid ball movement.
Against Atlanta, the Thunder needed heroic halves from Durant (28 points in the second half) and Westbrook (21 points in the first half) to squeak out a win.
Against Sacramento, the Thunder nearly blew a 24-point lead in the final eight minutes of the game.
Against New Orleans, the Thunder looked lethargic against the Western Conference's worst team and was nearly upset at home.
The Thunder had just one dominant performance in the past 10 games. That was a 14-point home win against San Antonio. The Spurs, however, were without Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, two of their best four players.
It's entirely possible that this stretch simply is a product of a marathon season. No team stays sharp for 82 games. The season is too long, the road too tough.
But the Thunder has become increasingly reliant on talent rather than principles.
When that becomes the norm, there's a problem, even if the record doesn't reflect it.
“We always have something to work toward and to get better at, and we're definitely not there yet,” Collison said. “So we've got to be better in the next one. I think that's the best mind-set to have is who are we today and what are we going to do today?”