As he sat at his locker Monday night, getting peppered with one question after the next about how the defending Western Conference champions came back better, Kevin Durant quickly tried to put a stop to any premature coronation that was creeping into the conversation.
“We got a good chance to be in every game if we play hard, play defense and play together. That’s the ingredient for us. We just got to keep plugging away every single day,” Durant said before taking on the league-worst Washington Wizards. “We can lose to any team in the league, so we got to be prepared and not take these guys lightly.”
Three hours later the unthinkable happened.
The Thunder suffered a two-point loss to the Wizards largely because it took them lightly. If anyone assumed Durant’s message before the game was nothing more than a cliché, the embarrassing loss validated his pregame sentiments.
“We can be beat by anybody,” Durant said again after the defeat. “And everybody’s going to bring their best against us, man. No matter who we play, they want to beat us. We just can’t be too relaxed.”
It took a loss to the worst team in basketball to reinforce that to the league’s best team.
What the setback also proved is that the Thunder, regardless of its record and superior talent, still isn’t quite capable of consistently playing up to its standard. Durant labeled that challenge the team’s toughest this season as it seeks to return to the NBA Finals.
“No matter who we’re playing, we know what we have to do,” Durant said. “We have to hold teams under 43 percent. We have to out-rebound them. We have to get 20 assists.
“Playing up to our standard is tough to do every night. But we set a high standard here, and every guy coming in has to know what we’re building for.”
A part of what made Monday’s loss so shocking is how it was so different from the Thunder’s track record this season in games which it has been the heavy favorite. Oklahoma City has had two blowout wins at New Orleans, a thrashing of Toronto, cakewalks against Cleveland and Charlotte and sound victories over Sacramento and Phoenix.
Then, against a Wizards team that had previously won just four games, the Thunder laid an egg. Worse of all, Washington was decimated by injuries, playing without its best three players and two key reserves.
Did those circumstances play a factor in the forgettable trip to the nation’s capital?
“I think that it can be depending on what your mindset is,” said Nick Collison. “We want to be a team that isn’t affected by that, though. We want to be a team that’s worried about how we’re playing and where we’re trying to go. And it wasn’t a good night for us.”
With the Minnesota Timberwolves coming to town Wednesday without the services of star forward Kevin Love because of a broken hand, the Thunder has another chance to show the proper level of focus against a short-handed team. If Monday taught us anything, it was that the first quarter will be pivotal.
Oklahoma City prides itself on being a defensive-minded team yet yielded 30 points in the opening period at Washington, the league’s lowest scoring team. Breakdowns, lapses and all-around bad energy filled the quarter, and that level of play carried on throughout the final three periods.
“Defensively, we talked about it a few games back, giving up a large number in the first quarter. And we gave up 30. … That put us in the wrong mindset,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We win by defense. We score by our defense. We do everything by our defense.”
Brooks then broke it down much more briefly.
“We just got to play better,” he said.