NORMAN — After winning 60 games last season and holding the best record in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City is no longer the young darling of the NBA. In less than five months, the L.A. Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors have replaced them as the teams to beat in the West.
That makes the 2012-13 campaign one in which the Thunder are not just looking to get back to the NBA finals, but prove a lot of people wrong who believe their window for a title run has closed.
It begins at 8 p.m. tonight when the Thunder face off with the Jazz at Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
“I think we are all excited to play against somebody other than each other,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to start the season. We know what we have to do. We know some of the important things we want to get accomplished.”
However, the Thunder will not be at full strength. All-star point guard Russell Westbrook is still healing from surgery of the lateral meniscus tear he suffered during the playoffs. He is not expected back for a few weeks.
Despite that, Brooks wants to see his team continue to play at the same pace and intensity without one of their floor generals in the lineup.
“We have a style of play we want to show whoever we played every night,” Brooks said. “It’s important that we continue to play our style. We have a core group of guys that have had a lot of success together, but you can’t just rest on them expect that it will continue to happen night in, night out. You still have to execute and play for one another.”
One of the reasons Brooks thinks his team can ride along without Westbrook for a time being has been the emergence of third year pro Reggie Jackson. The 6-3 guard out of Boston College replaced Westbrook in the starting lineup during postseason and become a critical part of the rotations.
“We expect him to come in and play aggressive and be a good leader to the team he’s on the floor with,” Brooks said. “He does a very good job at that. I think he is ready to improve and take the next step.”
Veteran Nick Collison is entering his 10th season in the league and knows opening night is just one step toward where they want to be by the time the season ends.
“I think this season needs to be a season where we really need to improve as they year goes on,” Collison said. “We will bring everything we have (tonight). Hopefully who we are tomorrow will be a different team later in the year.”
Much of that will depend on what the Oklahoma City bench can contribute, how much Serge Ibaka has improved and the development of young players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Steven Adams.
But the Thunder will only go as far as Kevin Durant and Westbrook can take them. With both players yet to reach their 26th birthdays, they are nearing the peak of their individual game.
“I’ve always said 27-33, that you are at your best physically, mentally,” Brooks said. “I think they are definitely approaching it. Both of them will be better players. Statistically, that’s going to be hard to improve. Just from a better understanding of the game, knowledge of the league, I think they are really close to being in it.”
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