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Coach Scott Brooks is ignoring the critics as the Thunder make push in playoff chase

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Brooks has heard noise from the doubters before.

In 1987, there were questions about whether the 5-foot-11 sharpshooter from Cal-Irvine could make it in the NBA. Turns out, after a few detours, the undrafted guard had a long NBA career and won a title with the Houston Rockets.

Now, as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the doubters are out in force again.

Some say that despite injuries that have kept reigning MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star MVP Russell Westbrook out for significant stretches, Brooks' team should be higher than ninth in the Western Conference standings. Some question whether he's the man to coach a team that hasn't won an NBA title despite three trips to the Western Conference finals in the past four years.

"I understand a lot of people out there are criticizing," he said right before the All-Star break. "It's not something I worry about. My mother gave me a lot of great lessons, and one of the biggest lessons — don't listen to 'They.' 'They' never should impact how you think, how you prepare, and what are the things that you want to accomplish. 'They' said I couldn't play in the NBA, and I played over a decade."

With his team taking an us-against-the-world approach, Brooks has led Oklahoma City back from a 3-12 start. The Thunder won five of six before the break to pull within a half game of the eighth spot in the West.

Durant, outspoken in defending Brooks during All-Star Weekend, said the only thing that has changed is injuries. The team is 28-25, but 17-9 with Durant and Westbrook in the lineup.

"Last year, we struggled, too," Durant said. "We had times when we struggled, ups and downs. It's an NBA season. So we're always normal. It's a matter of our guys being healthy."

Oklahoma City's last game before the All-Star break was a 105-89 victory over Memphis. Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said the Thunder look as dangerous as ever.

"When they're healthy and fully loaded, and San Antonio is healthy and fully loaded, those are the best two teams in the NBA," he said. "Some of the rest of us have good records and we're looking forward to seeing what we can all do in the playoffs this year. But those two teams will always be the favorites going into the playoffs as long as they're healthy and ready to go."

Durant had missed just 16 games in seven years before this season, but he broke a bone in his right foot before this season started and missed the first month. He also has sat out with a sprained right ankle and a sprained left big toe. In all, he has played in just 26 of 53 games. He has been dominant when he plays, averaging 25.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists while playing just 33.7 minutes.

Brooks said uncertainty about Durant's health has made the season "challenging." He said there is an adjustment period whenever Durant gets hurt, and just as much of an adjustment when he returns.

"The thing I love about our team — there's no excuses," he said. "This is the season that we are dealing with. It's not over. There's plenty of games left. We don't know how it's going to end, but I do know — I'm positive about this — that our group is going to continue to play hard and for each other."

Westbrook, the All-Star MVP, broke a bone in his left hand two games into the season and was out for a month. He returns from the break ranked third in the league in scoring (25.8 points), sixth in assists (7.6) and second in steals (2.16).

"We want to look at the things we've done well the last week or so and just try to recreate that and kind of take control of our season ourselves," forward Nick Collison said. "It helps to get guys back healthy. Obviously, hopefully, we keep that going. But the big thing for us is every single night, we've got to realize that we control how we play, and we are in control of our season."

Durant said the team is trying to focus on the small things.

"We can't look at the standings," he said. "They'll be out there every game. We've just got to play and play good basketball, and that will take care of itself."


Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

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