Pardon the mixed sports metaphor, but last year's NBA playoff appearance came out of left field for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A 23-win team from the year before somehow won half-a-hundred games, got into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and was rewarded with facing the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round.
This season, OKC won 55 games, claimed the Northwest Division title and secured homecourt advantage for the first round. The No. 4-seeded Thunder (55-27) will open with a best-of-seven series against No. 5-seeded Denver (50-32).
Last season, OKC fell 4-2 to the Lakers, losing at home in Game 6 on a Pau Gasol put-back with 0.5 remaining.
This season, expectations are higher, and Thunder players admit their nervousness is lower.
"We're different," All-Star forward Kevin Durant said after playing a season-low 23 minutes in Wednesday night's 110-106 loss at home to Milwaukee. "I think people were expecting us to be a (No.) 1 seed this year rather than an 8 seed, so we didn't quite make that expectation. I think we're in a good position. Having homecourt advantage is always good, so we'll see, man. Moving up from 8 to 4 is a big change, a big step, so hopefully the team will keep getting better."
OKC convincingly swept two games from the Nuggets last week and won the season series 3-1, which players agreed doesn't amount to much.
"It doesn't really matter," guard Thabo Sefolosha said. "We've just got confidence in our team to win games. It's a fresh start. It's a new season for us. Nothing that we did before really matters. It's back to trying to win every game. Nothing is going to be given to us."
Although both teams closed out the regular season with a loss on Wednesday, the Thunder and Nuggets are two of the hottest teams in the league.
"We know it's going to be difficult," power forward Nick Collison said. "Anytime you're in a playoff series, you soon realize those games are kind of individual games on their own. What happened in the regular season doesn't always matter. We did play them well the last couple of games, but we have to realize we have to be ready to go and ready to battle, because they're playing great basketball."
Reserve guard Eric Maynor admits feeling more at ease this postseason, but stressed what previously happened against Denver doesn't matter.
"Those games don't mean nothing, so we've got to go out and play like we have all year, but with a little bit more force," Maynor said. "Now everything is you win, or you go home."
Center Kendrick Perkins joined the Thunder in a Feb. 24 trade and said he sees a group of confident teammates.
"We feel good about ourselves," Perkins said. "We're not cocky, or nothing to that nature, but we feel good about ourselves and we're supposed to. I feel like we're a pretty good team."