Thunder survive against Timberwolves, 104-100

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 3 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 3 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.