OKLAHOMA CITY — When Scott Brooks got the Oklahoma City Thunder back together for the first time since losing in the Western Conference finals and enduring the NBA lockout, he told his players he believes they have what it takes to be the next world champions.
He wants that to be the last word on the topic for a while.
Two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook and the youthful Thunder proved last season that they can make a deep playoff run. They fell short of the NBA finals, losing the final three games of the conference championship to eventual champion Dallas after taking a 2-1 series lead.
All 10 players are back from Oklahoma City's two-deep rotation and ready to take another crack at winning it all, even if that's not on the tips of their tongues.
"It's not something that we talk about. I think that true champions don't talk about it. They just go about their work, about their business that this is another day that we have to work together," said Brooks, heading into his third full season as head coach.
"Teams that talk about it and don't accomplish it are the teams that you don't respect. We're not like that. We don't talk about it. We just do our job and the next day do our job again. If you have a bunch of days like that, you're going to have some success."
Beyond the dynamic tandem of Durant and Westbrook, general manager Sam Presti has put together a deep roster that is now playoff-tested.
Center Kendrick Perkins, a key piece of Boston's run to the 2008 title and the 2009 NBA finals, joined the Thunder at the trade deadline last season and is healthy again after injuries to both knees. He also dropped about 30 pounds during the offseason after getting close to 300 during his injury-induced layoff.
The Perkins trade also opened the door for power forward Serge Ibaka and guard James Harden to take on increased roles. Ibaka went on to lead the league in blocks while Harden became one of the top-scoring reserves, fueling talk that he could supplant defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha as the team's starting shooting guard.
Fellow backups Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed also return to make Oklahoma City one of the few teams that entered a shortened training camp able to focus on improvement instead of teaching new concepts.
That brought back positive memories for Perkins of his time with the veteran Celtics leading up to their championship run.
"One thing that we have to realize as a team is that we're not the young Oklahoma City team that's going to sneak up and surprise people," Perkins said. "By us making it to the Western Conference finals last year, that puts a target on your back. Going into the regular season, you've got to understand that every game is going to be a playoff-atmosphere type of game whether you're at home or on the road."
Perkins said he was encouraged last season because he had "never seen a superstar work as hard as" Durant, who frequently shows up at the gym at 7:45 a.m. when practice doesn't start until more than 2 hours later.
During the offseason, Durant played in about a dozen charity exhibition games and also made headlines by scoring 66 points at Harlem's famed Rucker Park. Of course, the lockout also gave him time to dabble in flag football and star in his first movie.
That work ethic sets a high bar for the rest of the Thunder, Perkins said, and that's the kind of approach it will take to win a title.
Last season's run ended with a tactical series against the veteran Mavericks, whose stars were about 10 years older than Oklahoma City's regulars. But this team has already shown it can grow up quickly. After starting 3-27 just three seasons ago, the Thunder went to the playoffs two seasons ago and were the West's No. 4 seed last season.
"We've had two years now where we've been to the playoffs, so I think we're over being really excited about being in the playoffs," Collison said. "It's a huge goal and accomplishment of ours to get to the playoffs but our mindset has to be on becoming a better team and being able to win a tough series like that because we weren't good enough in that series to win."
The season begins Sunday with a home game against Orlando. As Brooks preached, just saying they want to improve enough to win the championship won't get the Thunder anywhere. What they're able to do on the court will determine whether they're successful.
"It's not because we have a lot of talent and a good team and everybody's talking about the Thunder that it's going to be easy," Sefolosha said. "I think all of us know that."