Kevin Durant was caught off guard by recent accusatory comments by the Denver Nuggets.
“We cocky?” Durant asked, as if the Nuggets couldn't be pointing the finger at his Oklahoma City Thunder.
But Denver is indeed.
Two days before the 4-5 matchup in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs was even set, the Nuggets took aim at Oklahoma City, serving up a subplot to what already should be a scintillating series.
Reserve point guard Raymond Felton on Monday went on the record with Denver reporters saying he hoped to draw the Thunder in the opening round. Felton, according to the Denver Post, said he felt like his team owed Oklahoma City because the Thunder was talking trash in the teams' final two regular season meetings, both Thunder wins. Nuggets coach George Karl was even more candid. Karl was quoted as saying, “There's no question there's a cockiness to Oklahoma City.”
The Thunder finally responded after Wednesday's loss to Milwaukee assured Oklahoma City and Denver would meet in the first round.
“I don't think that, man,” Durant said. “I mean, we play with an edge. That's what you have to play with in this league. I don't think we're cocky. We don't go out and say that we want to play the Denver Nuggets because we think we can beat them. We respect them as a team. We always have a humble approach to everything.”
Professionalism and humbleness. Those are two traits that make up the ‘Thunder Way.' The Nuggets' comments this week, though, brought that reputation into question for the first time in the franchise's three-year existence in Oklahoma City.
“We have a standard that we put in place and if we go below that we talk about it as a group. I discuss it with our team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I haven't discussed that yet since I've been the head coach. I'm proud of our guys. They conduct themselves as professionals.”
Nonetheless, Karl reiterated his claim to Denver reporters on Thursday.
“We know what they were saying after the game here,” Karl is quoted as saying. “We know what they were saying. We know. I'm not going to bring it to the public, but we know. It gets back to us.”
The Thunder's resident trash talker and all-around tough guy, Kendrick Perkins, said his teammates haven't said anything about the Nuggets. Following the April 5 win at Denver, Thunder players almost fearfully avoided admitting they had just won a big game.
“We haven't (done anything) but win basketball games,” Perkins said. “But if you feel that way, the only thing you can do is do something about it. If not then be quiet.”
Durant made a point to explain the difference between playing with fire versus poking fun at an opponent following the final buzzer. It suggested there was indeed some sort of in-game smack being tossed about.
“You can't be too nice in this league,” Durant said. “I guess that's what they're referring to. But we don't do any talking in the media. I make sure guys don't do any of that. So I don't see where they get those comments from.”
Of course, there is a fine line between cocky and confident. And there is no doubt the Thunder has built up a boatload of confidence.
Only two years removed from a 23-win season, Oklahoma City secured 55 wins this season and the Northwest Division crown. Durant and Russell Westbrook were both selected as All-Stars, Serge Ibaka led the league in total blocked shots and James Harden developed into one of the league's best sixth men in the last half of the season.
“If you've got Kevin Durant and Westbrook on your team, you should be cocky,” said former Oklahoma coach and current Milwaukee assistant Kelvin Sampson. “And then you throw Perkins in there, you probably should be a little arrogant, too. You look at those other guys, Harden coming off the bench, you should run around here thinking, ‘We have a chance to win it all,' and they do because they're that good.”
The Thunder, however, will never boast about how good it has become. The franchise finds is much more professional to all others to do the talking if they so choose.
“We're not going to really get into that, talking and going back and forth,” said Daequan Cook. “That's not what it's about. We're going to go out there and play hard, which is important for us. What's going to get it done is actually going out there and getting it done through actions.”