Durant still confident OKC among NBA's best teams

KURT VOIGT (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant isn't about to let last season's playoff disappointment affect his mindset this season.

Nor is the Thunder forward adjusting his expectations for a team that is two seasons removed from reaching the NBA Finals.

''We're very confident that we can (win the championship),'' Durant said. ''We're not going to come in and say, 'We can't win it all; we don't have enough.' We're a confident group of guys.''

Few would have questioned Durant's expectations a year ago when Oklahoma City - fresh off an appearance in the NBA Finals - was viewed across the league as a team on the rise.

Of course, that was two knee surgeries ago for point guard Russell Westbrook.

Oklahoma City, even with Durant once again leading the way, enters this season with a certain degree of uncertainty - thanks in large part to curiosity about the health of Westbrook. The Thunder, who led the Western Conference with a 60-22 record last season, are expected to be without the All-Star for the first few weeks of the season as he recovers from surgery to remove a loose stich on Oct. 1.

Westbrook originally injured his knee during the opening round of last season's playoffs against Houston, a series Oklahoma City eventually won before falling in the second round to Memphis.

He underwent successful surgery to repair a torn meniscus and appeared on track for a full recovery before the second surgery - a setback Oklahoma City general manger Sam Presti said was minimized because of Westbrook's positive outlook and already strengthened knee.

Oklahoma City is accustomed to overcoming doubt, having finished with the West's best record last year even after the trade that sent James Harden to the Rockets. That was thanks in large part to Durant's 28.1 points last season, as well as Westbrook's 23.2 points and 7.4 assists per game.

Westbrook's injury had a crippling effect at times on the Thunder's offense during the playoffs - with Durant's shooting percentage falling from 51 percent during the regular season to 42 percent in the loss to the Grizzlies.

This season, Oklahoma City must once again overcome the loss of a key offensive piece, with guard Kevin Martin - a key part of the Harden trade - leaving as a free agent to Minnesota.

Five things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to overcome Westbrook's injury and return to the NBA Finals:

VETERAN DURANT : Durant, who had his string of three straight scoring titles snapped last season by New York's Carmelo Anthony, turned 25 last month but is already entering his seventh NBA season. The forward focused heavily on efficiency last season, raising his shooting percentage to a career-best 51 percent from the field. Durant said to expect improvement in all categories this season. ''I've been through every situation,'' he said. ''I'm ready to take it head on and embrace everything.''

REPLACING MARTIN: Martin proved to be a valuable sixth man last season following the Harden trade, averaging 14 points in 77 games off the bench. However, much like Durant, Martin's shooting percentage fell in the postseason - from 45 to 38 percent. Oklahoma City is counting on several familiar faces to replace Martin's offense this season, including guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Jackson, in particular, surged in the playoffs last season, averaging 13.9 points after scoring just 5.3 during the regular season.

STAFF CHANGES: Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks enters his sixth season with the Thunder, compiling a 234-147 record during that time. Brooks hired assistant coaches Robert Pack and Mike Terpstra during the offseason after Maurice Cheeks left to become the coach in Detroit. Despite the changes, Brooks expects little to change with how Oklahoma City prepares - especially as it tries to regain its status among the NBA's elite. ''We're not an excuse organization,'' Brooks said. ''We don't make excuses.''

ON THE RISE: Oklahoma City was considered a team on the rise entering last season following its loss to Miami in the NBA Finals. Durant, in particular, isn't ready to let go of that moniker just yet - and he's hardly ready to listen to those who might think the Thunder have plateaued. ''We feel we're in a good position,'' Durant said. ''That's all that really matters. If we come in here thinking we lost momentum or anything like that, that will mess us up. So, we just try to focus on each and every day and we'll be fine.''

FISHER'S RETURN: After joining the Thunder late last season, point guard Derek Fisher decided to stick around, signing a one-year contract. The 39-year-old Fisher, who played in 24 games last season for Oklahoma City, could play a significant role early on this season with Westbrook's absence.

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