Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are primed to challenge for the Western Conference title this season, three years after the core of one of the most promising teams in the league was assembled.
Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves are a few years behind them, but hope to follow the same path.
Durant scored 33 points to lead the Thunder to a 104-100 victory over the Timberwolves on Monday night.
Russell Westbrook added 28 points, six assists and six rebounds, and James Harden scored 16 points for the Thunder, who have started off a season loaded with expectations at 2-0.
”These are definitely games you got to be able to knuckle down, concentrate and get a win,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook and Durant took their lumps in 2008-09, when they won just 23 games. Three years later, they’re the ones giving them.
”We have a lot of guys that can get a basket: Russell, of course, James is really stepping it up scoring the ball,” Durant said. ”I think we feed off each other really well; it’s not like guys are being selfish playing one-on-one basketball.”
Love had 22 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and Ricky Rubio had an impressive debut with six assists, six points, five rebounds and no turnovers for the Timberwolves, who hung with one of the best teams in the league all game long.
”That’s a team that’s a contender and we took them down to the last minute. … The best thing is we gave ourselves a chance and if we play like that the rest of the season and continue to get better we’re going to win a lot of games,” Love said.
The Wolves led 96-95 with three minutes to play when Westbrook drove the length of the floor, hit a layup and the free throw for a three-point play to put the Thunder ahead.
Oklahoma City never trailed the rest of the way, but this one was in doubt from start to finish.
Michael Beasley scored 24 points on 11 for 27 shooting, and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams scored 13 for the Wolves, who were 3 for 22 from 3-point range.
With new coach Rick Adelman on the bench and Rubio, Williams and JJ Barea added to the roster, there is a buzz surrounding the Timberwolves, who lost 132 games over the previous two seasons and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, for the first time in ages.
The Wolves sold out their home opener for the first time since 2007, and there is a new hope coming from one of the league’s most hapless franchises. Much of it centers around Rubio, the dazzling, 21-year-old point guard who arrived from Spain this offseason after being chosen fifth overall in 2009.
”I’ve been hearing about him for six years and I saw him for the first time 30 minutes (ago) and it was like he is real,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before the game, with only a hint of sarcasm. ”Like a folk hero.”
Rubio entered with just over three minutes to play in the first quarter, and he electrified Minnesota’s offense with his sensational passing. He zipped a pass through the lane that nearly took Thunder forward Nick Collison’s head off before finding Barea for a layup. That started a run of three straight assists that got the crowd on its feet and gave the Wolves a 32-26 lead in the second quarter.
”I feel comfortable on the court and I feel like I helped the team,” Rubio said. ”We didn’t get it in the end, but we have a chance. If we go this way, we can do a lot of good things.”
Oklahoma City knows all about expectations.
After beating Orlando to open the season on Sunday night, the Thunder had a little trouble finding their shooting legs early. They missed 20 of their first 28 shots, and Durant started the game 2 for 8.
Westbrook was equally quiet early, but he finished the first half with a jaw-dropping flourish to help the Thunder take the lead. He scored on a layup, knocked down a jumper and then crossed Luke Ridnour over so severely at the end of the half that the veteran point guard fell to the ground on a drive that gave Oklahoma City a 52-46 lead at the break.
”We’re letting the game come to us,” Durant said. ”If we continue to do that we’ll be fine.”
As discouraged as the Wolves were about the loss, they also took some solace in going toe-to-toe with one of the league’s best.
”We played the best team in the West and lost by four points,” Williams said. ”We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
NOTES: The Thunder have beaten the Timberwolves 10 straight times. … Durant, Westbrook and Harden combined for 63 of 97 points in the win over the Magic on Sunday. … Thunder SG Daequan Cook hit two huge 3s early in the fourth. … Barea scored 14 points.