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Thunder Maintain Humble Approach Despite Success

Apr 17, 2010 – 4:28 PM
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Sam Amick

Sam Amick %BloggerTitle%

LOS ANGELES -- Nearly two months before Lakers coach Phil Jackson would suggest that Kevin Durant's path to stardom was partly paved by the league's officials, Oklahoma City's aw-shucks All-Star was answering questions about the gamesmanship of a different opponent.

The Denver Nuggets were talking tough again in early March, the irony being that the yapping had taken place in a game against the Lakers. Durant was asked if it was a method he and his teammates would ever employ.

"We don't talk ourselves up," he quickly answered while at his locker inside the Ford Center. "I'm sure that gets other players hyped for the game, but it doesn't do that for us. We've just got to come out, be focused, respect our opponent, and at the same time be competitive. That's what we're going to do."

But, Durant was asked, doesn't a team need a certain bravado and edge to survive in the postseason?

"I think you can have that balance, and we've been doing that," he said. "Each time we step on the floor, we're going to play that team tough and respect our opponent. If we do that, it's going to be easy for us."

The Thunder's first-round matchup against the defending champion Lakers will be anything but easy, but don't expect their modest personality to change. They are the NBA's most unassuming team, the Beaver Cleavers of this postseason who insist they don't need to channel their inner Eddie Haskell to be at their best.

It's a style that starts at the top, where general manager/wunderkind Sam Presti looks and talks like your neighborhood accountant. The 32-year-old has every reason to puff his chest, having quickly and deliberately rebuilt the Thunder into a team that looks primed to contend for years to come.

Just don't heap too much praise on him. You might make him blush.

"We don't have all the answers," Presti told FanHouse late in the regular season. "We're far from being able to say that we've accomplished anything significant other than being able to say that we've become a better basketball team since last season. And that's what we're focused on.

"I don't think anyone in our organization will tell you that we think we know something more than anyone else. There's certainly a lot of luck involved in everything."
- Thunder GM Sam Presti
"We've been very fortunate. I don't think anyone in our organization will tell you that we think we know something more than anyone else. There's certainly a lot of luck involved in everything."

Landing Durant certainly qualifies, as the 21-year-old just became the league's youngest scoring champion of all-time and is considered an MVP candidate. The Thunder have enjoyed incredible health this season as well, a gift of fate that many of their counterparts can't claim.

Still, Presti has been pretty proficient for being on the job less than three years.

Presti, who started as an intern with San Antonio in 2000 and became the Spurs assistant general manager in 2005, took over for the then-Seattle SuperSonics in June 2007. He then proceeded to do what so few executives do, acting quickly and deliberately to build a young base of talent rather than hold on to a veteran-laden roster that was mired in mediocrity.

That meant trading Ray Allen and the Sonics' 35th overall pick to Boston on his first draft night, a move that brought current starting forward Jeff Green by way of the fifth-overall pick acquired. It was hardly the biggest addition of the evening, though, as the Sonics took the long, likable, lights-out talent from Texas with the No. 2 pick after Portland's ill-fated selection of Greg Oden.

With the Sonics having won just 31 games in the previous season, Presti knew he had to commit to this new, younger direction. So he said goodbye to Rashard Lewis, negotiating a sign-and-trade with Orlando for the then-free agent that netted Seattle a $9 million trade exception and a second-round pick.

Growing pains -- and more moves -- would follow. The Sonics won just 20 games in Durant's rookie season, with then-coach P.J. Carlesimo being criticized for entrusting too much of his team's load to a 19-year-old. Carlesimo would last just 13 games (and 12 losses) into the team's first season in Oklahoma City before being fired. He was replaced by then-assistant Scott Brooks (right), who saw hope in his team's 10-14 finish after it had a mark of 13-45 in late February.

Results aside, Presti felt good about Brooks for some of the same reasons he did his newly-added players. Brooks fit into the humble, high-character culture, having used a legendary work ethic to make the most of his limited talents during a 10-year NBA playing career as a 5-foot-11 point guard who played for six teams.

Brooks -- who was an assistant under George Karl in Denver and nearly won the Sacramento head job in 2007 after serving as an assistant with the Kings -- had applied the same salt-of-the-earth principles to his coaching career that he had used as a player. He had overcome rough starts before, too, none moreso than the beginning of his pro career.

Charles Barkley was among those who wondered if Brooks would make it at this level. As the future Hall of Famer and then-Philadelphia star watched his undrafted teammate compete in Sixers training camp in 1988, he was convinced Brooks' NBA stay would be just like the player himself -- short. So Barkley extended a rent-free invitation to his apartment, his act of goodwill intended to help Brooks save his paychecks for the rainy days to come.

Much to Barkley's surprise, Brooks' checks kept coming long after they lived together that season. Brooks would average 16 minutes in his inaugural campaign while backing up Maurice Cheeks for a team that fell in the first round to New York.

Of course Brooks' latest team hopes to avoid a similar fate against the Lakers. Yet despite the Thunder's understated approach, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said his squad is well aware of the challenges the upstart Thunder present.

"Any team that can win as many games as they did (50) is a dangerous team," said Kupchak, whose Lakers won the season series 3-1 but were routed 91-75 in Oklahoma City on March 26.

Kupchak would know, having won a title with the Washington Bullets in 1978 despite winning just 44 games in the regular season.

"In terms of young, proven talent, (the Thunder) are certainly up-and-coming," he said. "They have a legitimate MVP candidate (in Durant) who led the league in scoring. If there was one thing they can't flip a switch and get, that'll be experience, and that will come in time. Then again, after a game or two in the playoffs, you can say that you're experienced."

And should Oklahoma City have its humility challenged by winning one or even two of the opening games at Staples Center, they'll have a reminder waiting for them at Game 3 back home. During introductions at the Ford Center, various players shrouded in billowing smoke are shown on the hanging video screen saying words that embody the Thunder way.

James Harden: "Resiliency."

Nick Collison: "Humility."

Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka: "Community."

And finally, Durant: "But the only way to reach our goal ... (dramatic pause) ... is together."

"I think everybody knows that we have to be humble, because just last year we were one of the worst teams in the league," Durant said. "And we didn't get there this year by talking ourselves up. That's the attitude we've always got to have."

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