NBA: Improved Thunder spark title talk from Durant
By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant came into the season uttering words no one thought possible for the Oklahoma City Thunder: the playoffs.
Having accomplished that outlandish goal, he's trotting out a new one. Less than 24 hours after the Thunder were eliminated in a competitive six-game series with the defending NBA champions, Durant was referring to his team's potential to win a title of its own.
"You hear me say championship a lot a because last year I said playoffs and we made the playoffs this year," Durant said Saturday. "I've seen that we have that talent and that work ethic to get to the championship. But chemistry is a big part of it. We just want to continue to be a group that sticks together no matter what."
Oklahoma City won only 23 games last season and was considered the worst team in the NBA after a brutal 3-29 start. What followed was an epic turnaround that resulted in the Thunder winning 50 games this season — the best improvement in the league — before giving the Los Angeles Lakers a legitimate test in the postseason.
The unbelievable run only ended when Pau Gasol came up with a last-second tip-in that allowed the defending NBA champions to advance.
"I doubt I'll watch any more playoff games this year, knowing that I could have had an opportunity to win the championship. That's where I want to be, no matter what," said Durant, who at 21 became the youngest player to win an NBA scoring title. "No matter how many points I score, no matter how many rebounds I get, I want to be a champion.
"I could be the last man on the bench and be the best cheerleader. I want to be a champion. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about for me. I could care less about anything else. It's just all about winning."
Durant came back this season with a new dedication on the defensive end and a more efficient offensive attack, bolstered by his league-leading 756 free throws. Russell Westbrook also improved markedly after a rookie season in which he committed the most turnovers in the NBA, transforming into the team's most dependable offensive threat in the playoffs as Durant struggled with his shot.
The Thunder also got key contributions from rookies Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Maynor, while sticking with their strategy of building through the draft and with fiscally responsible trades.
"It's going to be tough to improve 27 games next year," NBA coach of the year Scott Brooks said with a chuckle. "With our guys, the message is going to be the same. Kevin needs to come back a better player. Russell needs to come back a better player. We have a team full of guys being committed to the team, being committed to playing for each other. We've created a pretty special unique bond with the group of guys that we have, and that has to continue to be the focal point."
This summer, general manager Sam Presti will face some key financial decisions if it wants to keep his young nucleus intact. Durant and Jeff Green, the first cogs in the roster overhaul that followed the departure of former Seattle stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, will become eligible for high-dollar contract extensions in July that will shape the small-market franchise's budget for the next five years.
Durant, a first-time All-Star, is already talking about "being a part of this organization for as long as I can."
"We can't start talking until July, so I'll just continue to keep working," he said. "I'm sure once I get a call, hopefully everything is done and I'll be a part of this organization. I have faith that it'll get done. I'll let my agents handle that but you never know with anything."
As they did last offseason while creating the foundation for this season's improvement, Durant and his teammates were formulating plans to get together in each other's hometowns — beginning with Maynor and Harden heading to Washington, D.C., with Durant this weekend.
But this time, it's with the sour taste of a playoff defeat instead of a whole season filled with losing.
"The big thing is next year we need to come back and say, 'We won 50 games last year and made the playoffs. We can't feel like it's just going to happen because we're a year older,"' Nick Collison said. "It's another 82-game season and another long stretch against really good teams in the West. We'll have to earn it again."