OKLAHOMA CITY -- With consistency being a primary issue this season, there was curiosity about how the Oklahoma City Thunder would play Thursday after putting together their most complete 48 minutes two days prior.
Would the ball snap around as effortlessly as it did Tuesday against Memphis? Would they make second and third defensive efforts? Would they execute unselfishly, especially down the stretch if the game was close? Would they step forward or take another irritating step back?
In a 107-94 win over the Atlanta Hawks, it was only forward, and it might have even been a big one.
Durant did it by taking only one shot in the first quarter.
"I can shoot whenever I want," Durant said. "I worked hard to get that privilege. But I just try to play the game as simple as possible. It's fun seeing the game slow down for you, things start to get really fun."
On four consecutive possessions early in the first, Durant assisted on Thunder baskets -- three going to Serge Ibaka -- before taking his one shot for the quarter, a 10-foot baseline fadeaway, which he made. He finished the first quarter with five assists and just two points.
Westbrook did the same, taking just four shots to four assists in the first quarter, opening the game with back-to-back assists to Steven Adams. Not coincidentally, the Thunder rushed out to 35 first-quarter points against the Hawks' ninth-ranked defense.
"I think it's contagious when your top guys do that," Durant said. "Russell did a great job setting the tone and I was able to be aggressive and make some plays, and it opened it up for me at the end of the game."
In the Thunder's quest to evolve, to find a "better brand of basketball" as general manager Sam Presti likes to put it, they are working for a more democratic approach to offense. Yes, they will always be about Westbrook and Durant, but it's about how they score, not how much. And to get there, it only works if the two stars buy what coach Billy Donovan is selling.
"Kevin and Russell know, everybody knows, a lot of what we're doing offensively is going to revolve around those two guys," Donovan said. "But trying to get them to maybe think about things at a higher level, in terms of being efficient offensively and that it's not about necessarily the points, it's about the efficiency in how you get the points."
For the first time in their careers, both Durant and Westbrook finished with at least 20 points and 10 assists in the same game. It was only the second time they both finished with double-digit assists in a game. Of the Thunder's 24 total assists, they combined for 20. Durant put a bow on his seventh career triple-double -- 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists in 37 minutes -- setting up Westbrook for a 3 with a minute left. There was certainly some intent to that play as well, with Durant cracking a big smile back down the floor.
"Both of those guys want to win," Donovan said. "They work too hard not to want to win. I think they understand that in order to do that they've got to make the people around them better. And that's what I think great players do. Great players to me make the people around them better."
Against Memphis, Durant took 14 shots, making 11. Westbrook took just seven, making five, while dishing out 16 assists in three quarters. While that's not necessarily the formula for success for the Thunder, it isn't happenstance that they play their best when it's not a two-man scoring show.
"I've just got to make the right plays," Durant said. "You never know. Tomorrow, they might get me one-on-one and I have to go score. I try not to come into a game and say, 'All right, I've got to score 30 points' or 'I've got to get 10 assists.' I've just got to play how the game is being played and see what happens."
Like Donovan said, the whole team falls in line behind Durant and Westbrook, following lock-step to the beat they set. Durant never pressed a second against the Hawks, accepting his "slow" scoring start to instead distribute. And then just waited for it to come back around to him. Because as it goes for Kevin Durant, he just can't not score 25.
"If you're efficient on a fewer number of shots, there's that much more to go around," Donovan said. "He gets 25 tonight and Dion Waiters took as many shots as he did. That to me is an unbelievable level of sacrifice in terms of him making a commitment to the team, to himself and to everybody that winning is important to me. When you do that, it creates a responsibility and accountability for everybody to want to raise your level of play because you've got your two best players doing that."
The Thunder are making strides, obvious ones, finally. Their slow start didn't quite reach the point of ringing alarm bells, but there were a few eyebrows raised around the league. Patience can be preached, but there eventually has to be a payoff. They're starting to click, and starting to find that better brand they've been searching for. The question is: Are they going to keep it up?