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Men In The Mirror: Thunder's Title Hopes Hinge On Individual Improvement

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

It's the first official week of the Thunder's offseason. With that comes reflection on the season's heartbreaking ending blended with optimistic projections for another championship run next year.

But if Oklahoma City wants to take the next step toward that elusive title, it first has to look itself in the mirror and examine its own weaknesses.

Part of that examination takes place in the front office, where GM Sam Presti and his staff will evaluate which players should (and should not) remain Thunder employees. But the other large portion of the process comes from the players taking a look at their individual games and finding ways to improve for next season.

Listening to each guy speak about the necessary improvements at their end-of-season interviews, there was a consistent theme: coming back next year with a different mentality. Reggie Jackson perhaps said it best.

"I think we've gotta come out with the mindset that we wanna humiliate who's in front of us each and every possession," Jackson said. "No mercy."

Jackson wasn't the only one discussing Oklahoma City's need to improve mentally. Kendrick Perkins, a longtime leader in the Thunder locker room, agreed.

"I think the biggest thing with our team is our mental," Perkins explained. "We have more than enough talent to win a championship this year, I thought we just fell short because of the mental things we did wrong."

Perkins used the Spurs as an example of what can happen if a talented team takes the next step between the ears.

"The Spurs, they weren't more athletic than us, they weren't more talented than us, but they outsmarted us and they won the series off of that," Perk said. "Going into next year we've gotta do a better job of valuing the ball. I thought (in Game 6) turnovers is what cost us the game."

Although important, mental lapses aren't the only thing that cost Oklahoma City a trip to the NBA Finals. Execution (or lack thereof) also played a large role.

And that's to be expected with such a young team. The Thunder's top six players (going on talent/value) are Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Jackson. The average age of those six players is 23.3 years old. In other words, these guys aren't even close to mastering their games yet.

Take Lamb, for instance. A supremely talented shooting guard who can use his length and skills to score in multiple ways, but his lack of consistent defense and propensity to zone out caused a slippage in playing time. For the Thunder to take the next step in 2015, guys like Lamb will have to solidify their weaknesses.

"I'm definitely, definitely gonna work on my defense," Lamb explained. "At first, I didn't care about my defense at all. But seeing a player that'll lock you up and then go score on you, that motivates me. So I'm gonna work on my defense and come back a much better defensive player. I think that's gonna help me be a better overall player. When you disrupt on both ends of the floor, I think that's huge."

Or Jackson, who like Lamb, can score all day but struggles defensively.

"Poor closeouts, definitely gotta improve on that," Jackson emphasized. "I think just more mental than anything. When I lock in, I feel like I can pick anybody up for 94 feet – it's not a problem. Just a mental task of doing it and pushing myself beyond the limit, knowing that I can do it at both ends of the floor each and every night, each and every possession."

Or Adams. Who acknowledged his improvement on the defensive end this season, but knows that the journey has just begun.

"I've got a ton more to learn," Adams said. "I think I made a good step this year but it's nowhere near what I need to learn. Definitely gonna stick around here for as much as I can to try and get as much knowledge and try and learn the game."

Even the NBA's MVP talked a bit about how the only thing he can control this summer is his work ethic toward improving. But what can someone as good as Durant actually improve?

Perkins knows.

"I feel like he can get stronger, in my opinion that'll help him a lot," Perkins said. "I told him all the great players that have played the game, from Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, they all put size on and it helped ‘em. That's what he needs to do and it'll help him on the defensive end."

Perk went on to explain how KD gaining weight can better help him to shoulder his minutes load – the heaviest in the NBA.

"It seems like there were possessions where he was tired. But like I said, that's where going to the weightroom plays a factor. Because then you can let your body take over."

Perkins even acknowledged that if he wants to make an impact on next season's team, he's going to have to step up his own game.

"I know this offseason is gonna be the biggest offseason of my career," Perk said. "It's my first time ever approaching a time where I'm an unrestricted free agent so I definitely gotta come back in better shape and try to get back to the basketball that I played in Boston. That's my goal."

The Thunder's talent level is undeniable. And with pending roster improvements coming in the offseason, OKC will be one of the two or three title favorites again next season.

"One day, this team's gonna have a championship trophy," Derek Fisher said.

The road to that trophy begins with OKC's young talent taking the next step.

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