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Back to .500, OKC looks to hit reset button

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was as promising a sign as any during this tumultuous, injury-riddled season that Oklahoma City finally appears to be regaining its rhythm.

With the Thunder closing in on their most lopsided victory of the season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook peeled away in laughter as they approached teammate Dion Waiters in the middle of his impromptu dance routine during a timeout late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.

Waiters rocked his shoulders left to right, shook his hips, kicked one leg into the air and simultaneously spun around before turning his full attention to whatever was being said in Oklahoma City's huddle.

Actually, the message mattered little at that point.

By the time the Thunder put the finishing touches on a 127-99 rout of the Magic -- after setting a franchise record with 79 points in the first half -- the night was long done for the rotation regulars. But the reality is Oklahoma City's work, essentially, is just beginning.

"Anytime you get a chance to sit out the fourth quarter, it feels good," Durant said of the festive atmosphere around the Thunder's bench down the stretch. "It's good for us and great to see everyone smiling and happy after a win coming into the locker room."

Durant, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists through three quarters, enjoyed the scene from the bench too much to even think about coming back into the game to chase the two additional assists he needed to secure his first triple-double of the season.

But the reigning league MVP didn't hesitate to make his strongest point of the night before he exited the visitors' locker room at Amway Arena: "We have to keep fighting."

The Magic didn't put up much of a fight from the outset, which allowed the Thunder to cruise in the second half. That certainly won't be the case over the course of the second half of the season. After posting their most dominant offensive performances in consecutive wins against Golden State and Orlando, the Thunder improved to 20-20 as they hit the midpoint of the schedule Tuesday in Miami.

The next four games on this five-game trip -- at the Heat, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers -- could either propel the Thunder firmly back into the playoff picture for the first time this season or push them into a sizable deficit that might be too steep to overcome in the ultra-competitive West.

Durant and the Thunder don't need 20-20 vision to see that though a .500 record might be sufficient to garner the sixth seed in the East, it'll land you in the lottery in the conference in which they compete. It's why Durant left Sunday's game delivering fighting words, considering what his squad is facing.

Now that they've endured the worst and have broken even, the Thunder seeks to hit the reset button.

Hampered by injuries to Durant (foot, ankle) and Westbrook (hand) that caused the two catalysts to miss a combined 37 games, Oklahoma City has gone from a team that struggled to find seven healthy players for a game to the healthiest the team has been all season.

After the initial awkwardness of settling into a regular rotation after acquiring the volatile Waiters from Cleveland earlier this month, the Thunder are taking steps toward cohesion while giving the newcomer the shots, freedom and encouragement he believes was lacking with the Cavaliers.

"It's a great situation for me," said Waiters, who had 16 points off the bench Sunday as one of seven Thunder players to score in double figures. "I get to play my game, and that is what it's about: being able to play and not having to look over your shoulder. It fits my style. They are giving me the ball. They want you to be successful. I came into a great situation."

Still, the Thunder aren't quite yet in an ideal situation themselves.

They sit just outside playoff position -- tied with New Orleans for ninth place and three games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final spot. Both the Thunder and Pelicans enter the week two games ahead of Denver in what is shaping up to be a four-team race to face the No. 1 seed in the first round.

That top team right now would be Golden State, which won the first three games of the season series against OKC before Durant and Westbrook got their confidence-boosting breakthrough Friday at home. In that game, Durant scored 36 points and Westbrook had 17 points, a career-high 17 assists and 15 rebounds in a 127-115 win over the Warriors.

The irony is OKC coach Scott Brooks recently stressed his team's need to become more sound defensively, if they had any chance to turn the season around. But over the past two games, at least, the Thunder have become a far more efficient and lethal offensive team.

Skeptics might point to the small sample size and wonder if OKC can sustain this production. But the Thunder have found success by getting to smaller lineups with Durant, Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka supplemented by a combination of shooters and scorers such as Waiters, Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow.

"We passed the ball really well," Durant said of what's worked lately. "That's the formula for us. When everybody is touching the ball and everyone is involved, we feel good. Our point guards and our wings did a great job of getting everyone the ball and being aggressive as well. We have to continue that."

Just the thought of a team as talented and explosive as OKC missing the playoffs seems outlandish. They were in the Finals three seasons ago and are a top title contender in the West when healthy. But a series of unfortunate circumstances have left the Thunder with a serious deficit to overcome. They've got 22 of their final 42 games at home, but they finish with 24 matchups against teams currently in playoff position. And 15 of those 24 games against potential playoff teams are against West competition.

Brooks knows it's probably best to keep his team focused on the moment and in the day-to-day. When asked about the Thunder's bigger-picture prospects, his answer drifted to how his team could have played better in the fourth quarter of a game they led by 30.

That's typical coachspeak.

Usually, players are on a different vibe. The only thing tougher than the dilemma OKC is facing down the stretch just might be the ordeal the team has already overcome to get in this position.

"We had a lot of injuries and different things that have happened to us throughout the season, which are going to happen, but I thought we did a good job of just sticking together," Westbrook said. "And now, I think we're in a good spot."

Durant agreed.

"We can't look too far into our own mind," he said. "We can't worry about the future because we can't control it right now. Worry about what we can control and keep fighting. But I like where we are."

Healthy, humbled and hungry again, the Thunder appear to be finding their rhythm.

But securing a precious playoff spot now requires them to maintain this stride.