NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Westbrook tunes out criticism (and praise) of his game — When Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury during Game 2 of the first round of last season’s playoffs against Houston, the Thunder’s hopes for a Finals run left, too. Although OKC managed to oust the Rockets in the first round, they were defeated in the West semifinals by Memphis. Before Westbrook’s injury, though, many in the media had criticized Westbrook for his (pick one or many) shot selection, turnovers, refusal to cede control to Kevin Durant and more. In a great interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Westbrook explains how neither that criticism nor the praise he’s getting now as many see how valuable to OKC, has affected him:
For Russell Westbrook to admit he likes being appreciated by the basketball world that once simultaneously loved and loathed him, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard would have to confess to caring about all the endless criticism that used to come his way.
Post-injury, after the long-overdue realization that his strengths far outweighed his weaknesses and with the Thunder (13-3 entering Wednesday night’s game at the Portland Trail Blazers) looking like a title contender again, he was the guy who could wear a tutu on the court and still command respect from all corners.
Pre-injury, he was seen by some as the guy who shot too much and shared too little — of both the ball and of himself. He didn’t help his cause with the news media, often clenching his teeth and oozing impatience during interviews and — intentional or not — feeding into his devil-may-care persona that came in such stark contrast to fellow Thunder star Kevin Durant.
From being a late-bloomer at Leuzinger High School in Los Angeles County to a bona fide NBA star, Westbrook’s days of dealing with doubters may finally be behind him. As for getting him to admit that the change in tone warms his ice-cold veins? That’s another story altogether.
“The outside voices, and those people, kind of look at (me) in a different way, in a different view, but it all depends on who’s saying it, to tell you the truth,” Westbrook told USA TODAY Sports. “If it’s my teammates, and my teammates appreciate (his play), then I’m good. Everybody else? I don’t really care about. It doesn’t matter if they appreciate what I do or not. I’m not playing for them.”
His smile isn’t as much of a stranger as it was before, even if it’s clear his competitive fire still burns much hotter than most. Case in point came Tuesday night, when he was too filled with frustration to conduct this interview after the Thunder barely survived against the Sacramento Kings, but — in a move that may not have happened in years past — agreed to chat by phone a day later when those pistons that drive him had finally cooled. Little by little, it seems, he’s letting the outside world in.
“It’s just getting older, man; just getting older,” Westbrook said of the maturation process. “That’s just part of it. Getting older you learn more, you see more, you know who’s who. You know who’s what.”
Asked if he was finally letting his guard down after all these years, Westbrook chuckled and said, “Nah. My guard is just how I was brought up. That’s the only way I know. That’s what got me to this point, to where I am now. If that comes down, I’ll be in trouble.”
“(The criticism) was always something that I never really paid attention to personally, because those (people) weren’t playing with me,” Westbrook said. “My teammates weren’t ever complaining about anything I was doing, so I never really worried about it. Obviously it looked different to different people. Everybody wants me to play a certain way and all that, and they think it’d be best if we play this way and we win.
“But it’s more than just shots, or how many shots I shot and if I shot more (than others). That ain’t the whole game. There’s a lot of other things that go on in the game that you help your team out with.”
No. 2: Cuban glad Mavs aren’t ‘stuck’ like Nets are — Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has taken a lot of flak from his team’s fans (and some NBA pundits at large) for how what he chose to do with the team after it won the championship in 2011. In case you forgot, Cuban let the starting center of that squad, Tyson Chandler, bolt for New York, and last season, went with many one-year contract players on his roster to maintain cap flexibility. While doing so hasn’t netted Cuban and the Mavs the big free-agent fish (like Dwight Howard or Deron Williams) that they hoped for, the Mavs are remaining as a playoff team while also keeping their cap situation fluid for the future. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com caught up with Cuban on Wednesday night to gauge his thoughts on his roster and more:
Mark Cuban’s greatest fear for the Dallas Mavericks is playing out in Brooklyn.The Mavs owner was heavily criticized for stripping down his 2011 championship roster after the ensuing NBA lockout, opting to create space under the salary cap by not making competitive bids for several key players once they became free agents. His concern was that the franchise would deteriorate into an expensive team that wasn’t good enough to contend and didn’t have any realistic avenues to improve under the new collective bargaining agreement.
That appears to be the scenario for the Brooklyn Nets, who have stumbled to a 5-13 start despite a veteran-loaded roster with a bloated payroll that will cost owner Mikhail Prokhorov $190 million including the luxury tax this season.
“That’s exactly right,” Cuban said Wednesday night. “You get stuck. That’s exactly what I thought. … That was definitely a fear.”
Cuban had paid the luxury tax every season of its existence until 2011-12. The new CBA includes much harsher luxury tax penalties, which escalate for repeater taxpaying teams and at an incremental rate based on how much teams are over the limit.
However, it’s not necessarily the money that concerned Cuban. Rather, it’s the difficulty of improving a roster as a team paying the luxury tax under the current set of rules that led him to bid farewell to key championship pieces such as Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and current Nets guard Jason Terry.
“Those two go hand in hand,” Cuban said. “If we were [a team full of 25-year-olds], the massive luxury tax bill is nothing. But when you know as you get older, you get stuck. … It’s not just that you’re stuck for a week or a half a season, you’re stuck. Now that the rules got even more stringent, you’re even more stuck.”
The Nets did manage to make bold moves last summer, acquiring 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce and 36-year old Terry in a trade with the Boston Celtics. Their contracts are worth a combined $33.4 million plus luxury-tax penalties this season. Garnett and Terry are signed through next season.
“There was a reason they were trying to get rid of them,” Cuban said of those contracts.
That trade created a lot of positive publicity for the Nets at the time, but it hasn’t panned out so far. The production of Pierce (12.4 points per game), Garnett (6.5) and Terry (5.3) has dropped off dramatically from last season in Boston, much less the prime of their careers. Now, the Nets are in the news for the wrong reasons.
“It was almost like the Lakers, right?” Cuban said, referring to last season’s heavily hyped Los Angeles team after its summer acquisitions of Howard and Steve Nash. “It was just preordained, a super team, and it’s just tough. We went into last season thinking the Lakers [would be great]. The discussion was, would they win 70 games? Super teams are tough, particularly as guys get older. Again, they could still turn it all around. It’s just not easy.”
Asked if he had any advice for Prokhorov, Cuban cracked, “Drink more? I don’t know.”
No. 3: Report: Doctors able to preserve all of Rose’s meniscus — The season for the Chicago Bulls and their fans took a decided turn on Nov. 22 in Portland when Derrick Rose suffered a torn medial meniscus and subsequently was lost for the season. Some good news for Bulls fans, though, comes courtesy of BleacherReport.com’s Ric Bucher, who reports that doctors were able to keep all of Rose’s meniscus during the surgery:
One small bit of good news on Bulls point guard Derrick Rose: Apparently, the surgeon was able to preserve “100 percent” of the torn meniscus in his right knee, according to a source. He will miss the remainder of the season, but retaining the meniscus offers a much better chance that he can avoid the kind of chronic knee issues that Dwyane Wade and Tim Hardaway Sr. endured after having their meniscus removed.
No. 4: Jazz finally get a glimpse of what Kanter, Favors can do together — When the Utah Jazz decided to forgo re-signing veterans Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson in the offseason, it was clear they were turning the low-post keys to the offense over to youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Throughout most of the season, though, the duo has failed to perform well together in the same game, but that wasn’t the case last night against the Pacers. Trevor Phibbs of the Deseret News writes on how the Favors-Kanter matchup gave Utah fans a glimpse of what they’ve long been waiting for:
In Wednesday’s 95-86 loss against Indiana, however, the Jazz witnessed the potential they’ve expected from their two young post players.
For only the third time this season, and the first time against a quality opponent, Favors and Kanter both reached the double-figure plateau in points and rebounds. Favors finished with a game-high 22 points and 13 rebounds, his eighth double-double, while Kanter added 20 points and 10 boards, his fourth double-double.
“There were some things there that you can grow from,” Jazz coach Ty Corbin said. “You look at numbers and they’re a great game, but there’s still some improvement. We’ll break it down and we were glad to see them give us the effort (we) were looking for.”
“Obviously we can pull either one of them away from the basket with D-Fav hitting that jump shot more consistently now,” said Jazz rookie point guard Trey Burke, who finished with a career-high nine assists. “It’s really a matter of continuing to find out the best way we play with them out there on the court. I wouldn’t want to say experiment, but we really are. We’re trying to see the areas we’re best at.”
Kanter returned to the starting lineup in Marvin Williams‘ absence after coming off the bench for several games. He played a team-high 39 minutes.
“I’m just a player and I’m just doing my job,” Kanter said. “It don’t matter if it comes from the bench or the starting five, in the end you play for the Jazz. That’s fine for me.”
There were several bright moments, including Favors’ successful and-one with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter in response to a jumper by Indiana’s David West, but there were also moments for growth. Kanter missed several squared-away hook shots, and Favors mistakenly finished softly on a blocked layup after failing to recognizing Hibbert’s presence.
“Nobody likes to lose, but at the same time that was one of the best teams in the NBA,” Favors said. “We learned a lot tonight mentally and physically.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rockets center Dwight Howard was none too pleased with the team’s loss to the Suns last night … Former Kings center Keon Clark has been sentenced to eight years in prison … Rookie Otto Porter Jr. is close to making his debut with the Wizards … Pistons center Andre Drummond makes some history in Detroit’s win over Milwaukee …
ICYMI Of The Night: The Pistons are just a game shy of .500 and have become a pretty exciting team to catch on League Pass, as this Brandon Jennings-to-Andre Drummond sequence illustrates …