Thunder return to playoff chase in a hurry

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It didn't take long, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have already wiped out what was supposed to be their season storyline.

After a November filled with injuries and a 3-12 start, will they make the playoffs?

Uh, yeah, looks like that's probable.

With a 112-88 thrashing of the current eight-seed, the Phoenix Suns, the Thunder have moved within a half game of the West's postseason picture, with only 58 games to go.

"We're only 24 games in," Kevin Durant said. "We're not even close to the halfway point of the season yet. It's too early to think about that. We just want to continue to build our habits and play good basketball."

The Thunder have won six straight games, and eight of their past nine to get within two games of .500. Their past two games have been the kind of explosive, dominant kind of performances we're used to seeing, never trailing in either game. The rhythm is returning and the sweat equity put in from November's adversity is paying off as Durant and Russell Westbrook have rejoined a far more complete, dynamic team.

"I knew that we could help," Durant said of his and Westbrook's returns. "I knew that we've played here so long and had some success, so I knew we could help. But I was proud of our guys. I was proud with the way they competed. I knew that they needed an extra push and that's what Russell and I have provided."

Five big things stand out from Sunday's beatdown:

1. Thunder coach Scott Brooks wouldn't be specific, but Durant's minute restriction has been raised. Previously held to 30 minutes, Brooks described the new limit as "more than 30 and less than 48," which of course, is not very helpful. But Durant played 19 minutes in the first half -- but only 25 total -- suggesting if the game had been closer, he might've been in the 36-38 range.

The Thunder have won six of the seven games Durant has been back, but those have all been with him limited by the restriction that has caused awkward substitution patterns. Durant is a rhythm player, someone who often feels his way into games, looking to pick spots to heat up. With more time on the floor total, he can play longer stretches, which means the Thunder are really only scratching the surface of how good they can be.

2. Since his return, Westbrook has been a wrecking ball, completely overwhelming every team he plays. In all eight games he has been back, Westbrook has had at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Sunday against Phoenix, he did that ... in the first half. In a total of 27 minutes Westbrook totaled 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. He has played in only 10 games this season because of a fractured hand that kept him out most of November, but he's forcing his way into the MVP conversation whether people like it or not.

3. The Thunder have been reworking some of their offensive principles this season, but were unable to implement a lot of the tweaks because of the injuries. Now with everyone back, some of the fruits of that labor are showing. The idea behind the adjustments were to create more space for their attack-minded perimeter players to use, with more screening and better passing. It's natural the offense was going to improve with Westbrook and Durant back, but it's clear there's a better foundation for them to play in.

"I feel like everyone is touching the basketball and cutting hard," Durant said. "We are playing with a lot of force."

4. The Thunder stayed somewhat afloat in November by relying on a gritty defense, deploying lots of zone as they tried to confuse opponents. For the most part it worked as they were able to remain competitive by keeping scores low, although they lacked the cutting edge in crunch-time to close most games. In November, the Thunder allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions and the thinking was, if they could maintain something close to that level when they got back to full strength, they were set to run off plenty of wins. Well, in the seven December games, they're better, allowing just 95.9, while the offense has jumped from 96.6 to 107.5.

"I think defensively is where we are getting out and running in transition, getting to our sets quicker," Durant said. "So defense has been helping us on offense."

5. The real fireworks happened pregame as Kendrick Perkins responded to Kings forward Rudy Gay, who called him a clown. Relevant note: The Thunder play the Kings next, in Sacramento on Tuesday.