Caron Butler remembers studying the Oklahoma City Thunder when their evolution had hardly begun.
He had plenty of time to watch closely in May 2011, after a New Year's Day knee injury sidelined him for the Dallas Mavericks' championship run and left Butler serving as an unofficial assistant coach. The teams' five-game series win in the Western Conference finals was closer than it might have seemed — a 1-1 split through two games, followed by Thunder losses of six points, seven points (in overtime) and four points in the finale.
Butler, like many others, saw the Thunder, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, were building something special.
"Me and (then-teammate) Brendan Haywood were having a conversation, and he was like, 'Man, I hope they don't figure that out; whatever it is, I hope they don't figure it out,' " said Butler, who signed with the Thunder in early March.
"That following season, they figured it out."
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This season, the remarkable reality is that the Thunder, who enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in a Western Conference that is more loaded than ever, still have it despite the seismic shifts to their rock-solid foundation.
James Harden, the third member of the Thunder's Big 3, was traded to the Houston Rockets in October 2012, four months after their NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat. Westbrook endured two knee injuries from there, the first ending his 2013 playoffs run after two games and the second costing him nearly two months this season before his Feb. 20 return.
But Kevin Durant just kept getting better, coach Scott Brooks kept the team together, Westbrook returned and Oklahoma City's organizational culture that was inspired by the unofficial founders of the "it" quality, the San Antonio Spurs, withstood it all.
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Technically speaking, the latest Thunder season qualifies as a setback.
For the first time since their rise began with a 50-32 record and a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010, they finished with a worse regular-season record than they did the previous season — 59-23 in 2013-14 compared with 60-22 in 2012-13. But considering all they've been through, the undeniable truth is that this has been a rousing success and another affirmation of their methods.
It's appropriate that the Spurs and Thunder are atop the West. Couple great talent with a selfless creed and a sound system, and you get teams like these that find a way to get it done more often than not, no matter the unforeseen obstacles.
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And just as Tim Duncan has been the bellwether for the Spurs during their era of success, Durant long ago became the Thunder's equivalent.
The seventh-year pro could be considered a future Hall of Famer even if judged on skills alone, but his latest performance is likely to land him his first MVP trophy.
"Him and (Dallas Mavericks star Dirk) Nowitzki are the two hardest offensive players in the league to guard, and it's a lot to do with (the fact that) they're just bigger than everybody as far as their length," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Durant recently. "Durant runs around like (the Clippers') J.J. (Redick), but he's (6-9), and that makes him very different. We haven't seen a player like Durant, ever. Ever. So we're all still trying to learn how to guard him."
"I think Durant's had the best year. I still think (the Miami Heat's) LeBron (James) is the best player, but I think Durant has had an MVP year. I really believe that. I don't know who has had a better year."
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The added genius of Durant has more to do with his personality than with his play. Through Harden, Westbrook and every other structure-threatening subplot that came his way, Durant eschewed the typical superstar script of applying public and private pressure to his bosses.
Instead, Durant continued to swear his allegiance to the Thunder ownership and management that so many others were questioning.
There were no critical comments about how their train had been derailed, no leaked stories with anonymous sources about how Durant might have to think about skipping town when his contract expires in the summer of 2016 if Oklahoma City didn't fix what was broken.
The Thunder know how lucky they are. Brooks, who has been their coach since 2008, is always the first to remind anyone who will listen that he's blessed to have a player such as Durant. It's a message that's genuine and familiar, a page taken from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's playbook that he's still using today.
When asked recently how to explain the Spurs' run in which they have won 70.6% of their regular season games since 1997 (950-395 entering Wednesday) and won four championships, Popovich said with his typically-dry wit regarding Duncan and 1987 No. 1 pick David Robinson, "Get the No. 1 pick in the draft every 10 years, and make sure it's a franchise player."
The "it" factor is a multifaceted thing, to be sure. But it started with the Thunder getting lucky back in 2007, when the Portland Trail Blazers took big man Greg Oden No. 1 overall in the NBA draft and Oklahoma City landed Durant at with the No. 2 pick.
All these challenges later, their evolution continues.
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