By MICHAEL KINNEY
OKLAHOMA CITY — For five years the Thunder have lived a charmed life since they arrived in Oklahoma City, almost everything the franchise has done has been praised and lauded.
However, for the first time, the Thunder are receiving real criticism as they struggle to put away Houston in their first round, best-of-seven series. Media members, fans and former NBA players have started to question if Oklahoma City has what it takes to be a champion.
Those critiques are falling on the shoulders of the team’s superstar Kevin Durant and its coach, Scott Brooks. It’s the first time either is having to deal with sharp comments directed at them. Durant for his leadership and Brooks on his coaching ability.
Despite all of that, Brooks is encouraging his team to enjoy it all.
“This is the best time of the year for every organization that is in the playoffs,” Brooks said. “You always have hope whether you’re up or down. This is what you live for. This is a great opportunity for all of us.”
As Oklahoma City heads into Game 6 tonight at the Toyota Center in Houston, Brooks knows only one thing is going to pull the team out of the spiral they have been in the past two games and that’s defense.
Since demolishing the Rockets in Game 1, Oklahoma City has allowed Houston to get more and more comfortable offensively each game. Houston has topped the 100-point barrier in four straight games. That includes Wednesday when they twice scored more than 30 points in a quarter. That’s something for which the Thunder have to find an answer.
“We just have to play better basketball,” Brooks said. “We have to play consistently, tough-minded defensive basketball.”
While the loss of Russell Westbrook for the rest of the season could be seen as a valid excuse for struggling, Durant isn’t using it.
“We have to forget about (Game 5),” Durant said. “We have a quick turnaround and have to get ready for the next game. Of course it is tough not having our starting point guard, but we can not make an excuse. All together, we have to do a better job and bring more energy on the defensive end. We have to do a better job on defense from top to bottom.”
If the Thunder lose and have to return home Sunday for a final Game 7, they will have to play with untold pressure. The chance of being the fourth No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in a seven-game series doesn’t even compare to being the first team in NBA history to lose a series after going up 3-0.
“It’s going to be big,” Thabo Sefolosha said. “Everybody has got to do their job.”
But Brooks isn’t going to push the panic button just yet. Both defeats easily could have been victories if they had made one or two plays. That’s the message he wants to get across to the team.
“There are a couple areas that we have to get better with,” Brooks said. “Our standards are always very high but we did some good things. We rebounded the ball very well, we didn’t turn the ball over much. We’re going to make shots. We’re getting open looks. I have a lot of confidence in the guys that are taking them.”