SALT LAKE CITY — It isn't easy being the NBA's preseason darlings.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, Sports Illustrated's cover boys for its NBA preview issue, have had a difficult time living up to enormous expectations after reaching the playoffs last season and being dubbed the league's team of the future. The Thunder were 5-4 entering Monday night's game against the Jazz, and coming off a lethargic 13-point loss to San Antonio on Sunday.
But just as Utah got its first win of the season in Oklahoma City after a dismal start, the Thunder may have earned a victory that can spark a turnaround after beating the Jazz, 115-108.
For Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, the difference in his team's win over the Jazz compared to other games this season was its effort.
"Like we tell our guys all the time, you have to leave it on the floor," he said. "Tonight if we had not won this game we would not have been disappointed. We left it on the floor and we can go home and tell ourselves we improved today."
The Thunder, who were last in the league in scoring defense and 26th in 3-point defense entering Monday's game, put together a complete effort against the Jazz. Kevin Durant scored 30 points, while Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka each had 22 points. Ibaka's total was a career-high.
Oklahoma City shot an incredible 97.1 percent from the free-throw line, making 33-of-34 attempts.
"We work on it," Durant said. "It was a good job for us. That shows that we're working on our free throws. It's a small part of the game that counts."
The Thunder were able to rally from a double-digit deficit against the NBA's comeback kids. Utah doubled up Oklahoma City 24-12 in the first quarter. The Thunder, however, fought back and erased the deficit before the end of the second quarter.
"They started off very hot and I think we did a good job of bouncing back, and that's the type of team we are," Durant said. "We're a resilient team."
Oklahoma City made a statement to all the people that have jumped off the team's bandwagon in the season's early weeks with the victory. Living up to extraordinary expectations has been an adjustment for the Thunder, who have played with a target on their backs after all the preseason love they received. They had no problem with the target in EnergySolutions Arena.
"We understand the expectations are there," Brooks said." We can't control the external expectations. We just hope to control what we do as a team. I like our guys. I like what they're about."
The Thunder only have one player (Nenad Kristic) in their starting lineup with more than five years of experience. The future should still be bright for the young team, despite a slow start to the 2010-11 season.
"There's a lot of season, a lot of games left, and we look forward to keep improving," Brooks said. "We are young. We don't use that as an excuse. We look to go out there and compete like NBA players — every night like a champion. We're going to be young next year, two years from now, three years from now. You just have to keep battling, keep getting better and keep grinding every game."