HOUSTON -- Any time coach Scott Brooks is asked about the Oklahoma City Thunder's situation, their need for urgency, their anxiety level, he goes to a common refrain. He cites how long the season is and names the current number of games remaining.
A few weeks ago, it was 65. Then, it was 55. Before Thursday's game, it was 45.
They're 18-20, 3½ games behind the Phoenix Suns for eighth in the Western Conference and just two in the loss column. With 44 games to go, that's more than enough time for a roster powered by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are probably a 60-win team, or close to it, if those two don't miss the first six weeks of the season with injuries.
Except they're back now and the Thunder are playing some infuriatingly inconsistent basketball. Against the Rockets, the Thunder scored the first four points of the game, then watched Houston rattle off 21 of the next 23 en route to a 40-18 first-quarter lead.
"We have to start the games better," Durant said. "That's on me as a leader. We have to start better. I can't afford to come in here and say that after every game."
The Thunder were coming off a stretch of five days' rest, something Brooks called a "minicamp" of sorts. The expectation was a refreshed perspective on the season, featuring high-intensity defense and improved offensive execution. They won the final three frames 83-72, but their grave was already dug. Maybe it was rust from the time off, or maybe the message didn't get through. Either way, the Thunder weren't ready.
"We can't afford to lose like this, but I gotta take it on the chin," Durant said.
The Rockets were the beneficiary of some good luck -- they banked in four 3-pointers -- but that's the problem with the Thunder's current predicament: There's no room for mercy. If they were 27-10, they could shake off Thursday's loss as some breaks not going their way and an opponent getting hot on them. But in a playoff scrap, every night carries a different kind of weight, and, at times, it doesn't appear the Thunder truly understand that.
"There's not a lot of season left," Reggie Jackson said. "Tough conference. Shoot, to make the 8-seed last year it took 49 wins, damn near 50. We know how difficult it is. We're going to do our best to make a strong push at it. We understand we have to get things under wraps and things going well. We have no room for error."
There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and the Thunder have leaned on the former the first two months of the season. They know who they are; they know what they're capable of at full strength. This is one of the most talented teams in the NBA, but basketball is about rhythm and momentum, and outside of a seven-game win streak following Durant's initial return, the Thunder haven't found much.
And as the clock ticks on them, the benefit of the doubt is starting to fade. The Thunder have real, tangible issues and there seems to be an inability to remedy them. Their defense is often shoddy and their offense often too top-heavy. Against the Rockets, though, the Thunder tried to strike some offensive balance, but that backfired. Shot distribution played out with Durant taking 12 shots, Westbrook 13, Serge Ibaka 11, Dion Waiters 16 and Jackson 12. (Relevant to note: Waiters put up four of those in garbage time.) More offensive balance is good, but not at the expense of Durant getting only 12 shots in 40 minutes.
The five days off was supposed to be a time to fix problems, but outside of an impressive opening possession that featured some slick ball and player movement, the Thunder looked pretty much the same. They've lost their past three road games by double digits, falling behind early in all of them. They're sloppy. They're unfocused. They're unstructured. This is a team that hasn't been immune to midseason issues the past few seasons, but a strong record was able to cover those blemishes. With the ditch they're currently in, there's no hiding them anymore.
Durant was asked at what point it becomes less about what they need to fix and more about this being who they really are. Why is he confident in turning things around?
"Because we did it before. We did it before," he said. "We've struggled before and we got out of it. We don't make no excuses and we figure it out. That's the type of city we are, that's the type of franchise we got. It's just a matter of time."
It might indeed be, but the Thunder don't have too much more of it.