OKLAHOMA CITY -- On Sunday morning at shootaround, before he gave a small speech about his relationship with the media, Kevin Durant was asked about the Oklahoma City Thunder's previous meeting with the Miami Heat.
“So long ago, man," he said. "We’re just a totally different team, in my opinion. We do things differently now. So I look at that as preseason.”
That game happened on Dec. 3, and was a 97-95 loss that dropped the Thunder to 11-8. Forty-four days later, the Thunder pummeled the Heat 99-74 to improve to 30-12. And certainly had a different look about them.
The Heat struggled in a number of ways offensively, especially with Goran Dragic still out. Backup Beno Udrih sat with a sore knee, so Tyler Johnson got the start and while he filled in moderately well, Chris Bosh (12 points on 5-of-16 shooting), Luol Deng (two points on 0-of-5) and the entire Heat bench (eight points on 2-of-15 shooting) struggled. In the end, the 74 points are the fewest allowed by the Thunder this season.
Billy Donovan called this performance the Thunder's "most complete" defensive game, noting the consistency from start to finish. That has been a buzzword around the Thunder the past month or so, particularly on the defensive end. At times, the Thunder can present a formidable defensive shell, swatting shots, contesting everything, swarming ballhandlers and jumping passing lanes. Other times, they're unfocused and lazy, allow simple drive-and-kick action that breaks them down all over the floor.
The Thunder were able to take advantage of the Heat in a number of ways, but specifically with a small-ball group with Serge Ibaka playing the 5. With him there, shotblocker Hassan Whiteside was pulled away from the rim, and had issue staying locked in on Ibaka's midrange shots. When the Heat went traditionally big against it with Bosh and Whiteside, Durant held his own and created major matchup issues the other way.
While Ibaka had the primary hand in Bosh's off night, Durant played a heavy role as well. Speaking of growth, that's one area Durant has come a long way in.
"I take pride in playing defense," Durant said. "I think I shed that bad rap of being a bad defender a couple years ago. My coaches and teammates trust in me every single night to bring it, no matter if I'm guarding point guards or bigs. I just try to set the tone as a leader because everybody's following me."
That's where the Thunder can go from good to great, to reach the level of special it's going to require to compete with the likes of San Antonio and Golden State. Offensively, the Thunder have made clear gains, moving the ball more constructively and growing their system to include a lot more side-to-side action that frees Durant and Russell Westbrook (13 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists for his fifth triple-double) to play in more space than they have in previous seasons.
But it's the other side they're trying to stabilize.
"Our defense continued to move in a positive direction," Donovan said. "We did a lot of good things. We guarded them well, didn't give up a lot of 3s. We really used our length and size, and I thought from a sustainability standpoint we sustained tonight for a long period of time which was great to see."
The Thunder's changes haven't been jarring, and at times, they certainly can appear to be the same team they've been in the past. But this is what they want, to build into something better, and it's starting to hit the point in the schedule where they start turning that corner. Early on, they could play the patience card. They're past the halfway point now, and have their work cut out for them to catch the two teams in front of them.
And the key to getting there is for Durant to say the same thing he said this morning in another 44 days.