OKLAHOMA CITY -- Every player knows all about it. They all watch "SportsCenter." They read.
The Thunder are aware of the great expectations placed on them this season. Virtually every expert is picking them to win the Western Conference. Some even expect them to win it all.
It would be easy to feel the weight of that hype, to feel the burden of expectation. That kind of stuff terrifies fans. It's why I freaked out a little and didn't pick the Thunder to win the West in a pre-Christmas 5-on-5, despite picking them to win everywhere else. Oklahoma City is not used to this sort of thing. It's new territory. Everyone here's a little anxious, a little shaky.
Except for the actual team. The players seem to be handling things fine.
The Thunder raced out of the gates, handling the Magic 97-89 in a game that was never that close. Oklahoma City made pretty easy work of one of the East's better teams, basically shutting off the Magic's supply line. Dwight Howard had 11 points and Orlando went just 8-for-28 from the floor and shot 37 percent overall. You're not beating many teams in the NBA with that kind of output -- especially not Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But here's what made the Thunder look sort of scary: It didn't even look like they played well. Westbrook turned the ball over seven times and went 6-for-17 from the floor. Durant scored 30 but missed five free throws. James Harden had a quality game off the bench with 19 points but was just 4-for-11 from the floor. Everything about the game felt rather ho-hum, except for the part where the game wasn't competitive at all in the second half.
"I thought our defense was really good," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I am very pleased with our intensity. I knew that we were going to be in for a very difficult game because of how [the Magic] play."
Kendrick Perkins played terrific defense on Howard, holding the Orlando big man to just 4-for-12 shooting and only eight free throw attempts. The Thunder's bench completely outclassed the Magic's, piling up a composite plus/minus of plus-47. Remember: We're not talking about some Eastern scrub. This is the Magic, a team that despite the trade rumors swirling around it, is pretty darn good.
That's largely owed to the new Perk, who shed 32 pounds in the offseason and rediscovered a little of his old athleticism and quickness. He was able to seal off Howard, keep him away from the basket and limit easy points.
Perkins basically played Howard by always putting a body pressed against him, staying home and giving him a 12-foot jumper if he wanted it. Perkins wasn't afraid of Howard's first step, because Perkins wasn't carrying around a small child's worth of weight.
He's still the same old Perk, though. At one point in which Perkins was a little hot after getting tangled with Howard, referee Bill Kennedy told Perk to chill and even went over to tell Brooks to calm Perkins down. Brooks didn’t look at all interested in that.
“We like him a little angry,” Brooks said. “We like him mad at his opponent.”
It’s not like this Thunder team is just coming out of nowhere to compete for a title. Sometimes it kind of feels like that. Perhaps the scars of 2008-09's 3-29 start haven’t completely healed. I guess it just kind of feels like too much, too soon. Except this has been a process, a road the Thunder have patiently walked. It was a long-term build, one that always included instructions that said, “Not now, but in two or three years ...”
The Thunder aren't that chic, under-the-radar, indie band pick that all the cool kids are making anymore. This isn’t like picking the Nuggets. The Thunder have earned the right to play favorites.
It’s another moment of breaking new ground, but that’s just part of the necessary development. All phases of experience are equally important. Maybe the phase this season is taking one more step and obtaining the experience of a Finals loss. Or maybe the iteration is complete.
Here’s the thing: It’s much better to be considered a favorite and have the burden of high expectations than everyone agreeing you have no shot at all. The Lakers expect to win every season. Same for the Spurs. It comes with the territory, and it’s the kind of territory you want to be in. This is something to get used to.
Brooks said during training camp that the team only talked about a championship one time and it was during the first meeting the team had after the lockout. After that, the Thunder wanted to just approach everything as business, one thing at a time.
The Christmas game against Orlando was the first thing on the checklist, and the Thunder had no issues there. There are 65 more games to go and then, most likely, a bunch of playoffs games after that. It's way too early to watch one game and proclaim everyone who picked OKC a genius, but for a young team to answer the bell on opening night with a little extra pressure on its back says something.
Almost as much as beating a good team when it didn't even play that well.