The rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the last three seasons has turned them into media darlings, but if you just scratch the surface, this team isn’t as nice like some make them out to be. Not villains, but Kevin Durant is leading a very tough group towards another NBA final, because you don’t win NBA championships by being nice.

You just need to look at Durant being one of the NBA’s leaders in technical fouls to see the attitude adjustment. Some thought they gave the Heat too much respect; LeBron James getting too much respect from the players. Now, the Thunder might not be the baddest teams around, but they’re dirtier than their image, with players like Serge Ibaka swinging at the private areas of others.

What is improving for the Thunder is the respect they get from the referees at times, although that might change if they keep up getting caught. Their 108-104 win over the Los Angeles Clippers came with a tiny assistance from referees, who gave them 12 more free throws despite not necessarily deserving to have that lead. Sometimes, home court advantage doesn’t give you the benefit of calls, especially with Kevin Durant being on the receiving ends of them.

And while it’s nice to show imperfect sides of Durant and the Thunder, it doesn’t change the fact of how good he is offensively, taking over the game with 35 points, adding 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Russell Westbrook, with 29 points and 10 assists, was surprisingly credited by both Durant and Scott Brooks for calming the troops in the closing moments, right after the Clippers took a 100-99 lead with 1:30 to play.

He told us to keep playing. Everyone in the huddle was calm. We had a tough stretch but it was about how we bounced back. His leadership is getting better year by year and it should be. Tonight was a classic example of what he’s done. He’s an emotional guy, but he keeps everything together.

And maybe that’s the big news for the Thunder from the game. Russell Westbrook keeping things calm, and outplaying the superstar point guard playing in front of him. Chris Paul is more important to the Clippers than Westbrook is to the Thunder, but that didn’t change the fact that one player made less mistakes than the other when it mattered the most.

The defense was the key in the first half, although the Thunder squandered the lead, as Chris Paul said about the difficulty of getting into the lane early on. Serge Ibaka didn’t grab too many rebounds, but he didn’t make any mistakes in coverage, and Kendrick Perkins was the same in another impressive defensive performance from the man who wasn’t made for small-ball, but does very well against pick n’ rolls and other formidable big man who don’t play too cleverly.

A defining win? A statement win? The Thunder just keep on getting more of them, but it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in the way. The natural place for them to finish the season is on a podium, holding the NBA championship trophy. Up until then, everything’s kosher en route to victory and success, especially if it clears the Clippers and the Spurs out of the way.

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