Philadelphia, PA – Complacency can be the enemy of any NBA team, no matter how talented.
The moment a club feels satiated with itself, it's embarking on a dangerous path that likely ends up on the golf course sometime before June rolls around.
For 3 1/2 quarters in Philadelphia Wednesday night, the 28-7 Oklahoma City Thunder looked like the cat that had already eaten the canary. In the final five minutes, they looked like a bear that was poked by a stick.
In the end, Kevin Durant and Company destroyed the Sixers on the boards and used their impressive length on defense to force them into 11 straight misses during the final minutes en route to a 92-88 win.
"I think we did a really good job," Durant said after finally finishing off the 76ers. "I think we did a great job contesting shots and making some tough shots. It was a really good game defensively, especially in the fourth quarter."
Most NBA coaches with good teams spend the majority of their time trying to fight off any sense of satisfaction. In fact, any mentor worth his salt understands the true greats never stop working and never feel the job is finished.
That's why coaches are always looking for something they call "teaching moments," even during lopsided wins. Many feel hammering home a point is best done after a victory, not a setback.
Scott Brooks got neither a convincing win in South Philly nor a loss, but he did get plenty of things to harp on for a team that is rapidly becoming the heavy favorites in the Western Conference.
"It was a little sloppy -- too many turnovers," the Oklahoma City coach said. "We will correct it. We just have to do a much better job with the ball."
Brooks already has a lot to be satisfied with these days. His club was deadlocked with Miami atop the NBA standings coming out of the All-Star break and he just piloted the West All-Stars to a hard-fought win over the East on Sunday.
But, Brooks has been far from content with his team and has been constantly preaching about getting better, particularly on the boards and in regards to sharing the ball without turning it over.
The Thunder were careless as usual against the Sixers, turning it over 17 times and recording a season-low 12 assists, but they absolutely blitzed Doug Collins' team on the glass, compiling a 56-39 advantage. Russell Westbrook's seventh offensive rebound in the waning seconds secured the outcome.
"Westbrook really hurt us on the offensive boards," Collins said. "We talked about that going into the game. That guy is a little pit bull and you have to play all 24 seconds of the clock with him."
"The kid is an amazing athlete," Brooks added when talking about Westbrook. "He is dynamic. That last offensive rebound was huge. It was a big one. I don't know where he came from. He just jumps over bigs and finds a way to snatch it out of the air."
Conventional wisdom says the road to the NBA Finals is a slow and tedious one filled with missteps along the way. OKC took a big leap forward last season, making it all the way to the West finals before finally bowing out at the hands of the eventual champs, the Dallas Mavericks.
That's quite an improvement for a team that was one of the NBA's worst a scant two seasons before that.
"I mean, we was on the bottom, so we worked our way to the top," Westbrook said. "So it's not a bad thing to be on top and be where we want to be at this halfway point of the season. It's a great feeling. It shows we're getting better, and that's definitely a big step for us."
A big step for sure, but now its time to take the final one.
The Thunder are unquestionably the most gifted team in the West, spearheaded by All-Star MVP and two-time scoring champion Durant as well as Westbrook, the spectacular point guard who scored 22 and had a season-high 13 boards against the Sixers.
With that 1-2 punch leading the way, the Thunder can score with anyone. Entering Wednesday's matchup, Oklahoma City was third in the NBA in scoring and ranked in the top five in both field-goal percentage on offense and defense, meaning they can get out in transition for easy buckets.
This is no two-man team, however. OKC's stars are supported by perhaps the top pure shot blocker in the game, Serge Ibaka, and a player who Kobe Bryant calls the best interior defender on the NBA, center Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka and Perkins were so dominant in the final four minutes against Philadelphia that every shot turned into a contested nightmare for the Sixers.
"We have a team full of competitors that really do a great job of getting into the ball and getting into the man and making them miss shots," Brooks said.
Meanwhile, third-year swingman James Harden has turned into one of the best sixth men in the game and Thabo Sefolosha, although sidelined right now with a sore right foot, remains one of the better perimeter defenders.
Few teams outside of South Beach and the Second City can boast those kinds of pieces.
Brooks was especially happy with Harden against the Sixers.
"James is having a terrific year," the former NBA Coach of the Year said. "I love the fact that he just keeps getting better and better and keep improving. He keeps finding ways to help us win games. He is one of the best in the business at coming off the bench and providing what the team needs."
There are areas to clean up, however. In fact, in a lot of ways the Sixers and Thunder can look at each other and be envious.
Philadelphia can't score a lick. Its leading point producer is sixth man Lou Williams at 15.5 ppg and the team hasn't reached the century mark on the scoreboard for 19 consecutive games, the franchise's longest streak since a 25-game drought from Nov. 14, 2003-Jan. 5, 2004. Durant, meanwhile, is second in the league at 27.7 ppg and Westbrook isn't far behind at No. 5 with 23.5
On the other hand, the Sixers protect the basketball like it's a precious jewel, leading the NBA is assists-per-turnover ratio as well as steals per turnover. Oklahoma City, however, commits the second-most miscues in the league, just behind the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks, and is 27th out of 30 teams in assists per contest.
Westbrook (4.2) and Durant (3.6) handle the ball a ton, obviously, and are responsible for nearly half of the Thunder's 16.9 turnovers per game.
If Brooks is as savvy as he seems, that could be the one teaching tool he latches onto as he watches his Thunder roll all the way to The Finals.