Morning Shootaround — Dec. 22


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

The Thunder are rolling | As the Bulls turn | Garnett makes final(?) visit to Boston | Blazers’ backcourt in good hands

No. 1: The Thunder are rolling For a team with championship aspirations, it was exactly the kind of game they needed to win: A close game, on the road, against another contender. And for the Oklahoma City Thunder, just as important was how they beat the Los Angeles Clippers, with their superstar duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking over down the stretch, hitting key shots and getting a huge defensive stop. It was the Thunder’s eighth win in nine games, and don’t look now, but the Thunder have climbed among the Western Conference’s elite. As Anthony Slater writes in The Oklahoman, they’ll take it…

With 5.8 seconds left on Monday night in the Staples Center, Kevin Durant’s all-world offense put the Thunder in front.

Then just before the buzzer, his underrated defense sealed OKC’s biggest road win of the young season — 100-99 over the Clippers in Los Angeles.

As an emotional but surprisingly sloppy game navigated toward the finish, the pendulum of momentum swung wildly in the final minutes. Both sides nailed big shots, but committed equally huge turnovers.

With 10 seconds left, after a Chris Paul steal and layup, the Clippers had a one-point lead. OKC called timeout and then Billy Donovan called Durant’s number.

Off the ensuing inbound, Durant raced toward the right wing, created enough space against solid defense from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and then rose for a 19-footer with the game in the balance.

“It was the most care-free I felt the whole game,” Durant said. “Try not to think about it. If I miss it, store it in the memory bank and be better next time. If I make it, move on.”

On this night, Durant’s made it. But it may not have been his biggest play of the game.

Now leading 100-99, the Thunder still needed a stop. And it had trouble creating them against Chris Paul on Monday night.

Paul finished with 32 points and 10 assists, done on an efficient 11-of-19 shooting. But his biggest attempt was a miss.

Paul, like Durant, drove right as the final seconds ticked down and found one of his most comfortable spots. From about 12 feet out, Paul hit Serge Ibaka with a little stepback and seemed to create enough space to get off a short fadeaway.

But Durant left his man, Wesley Johnson, in the corner and surprised Paul, reaching over just in time to slightly block the fadeaway, causing it to fall far short of the hoop.

“He had no other choice but to shoot it,” Durant said. “I knew he was gonna shoot it, so I wasn’t gonna sit there and let him. It was a second on the clock. He had no other options. And he’s 6-feet and I’m 6-11.”

As the ball bounced away and time expired, Durant let out a yell and huge fist-pump, untucking his jersey and staring down the courtside row that featured Drake and Floyd Mayweather.

“I feel like my defense has grown,” Durant said. “Coaches challenged me at the start of the year just to step it up to another level on the defensive end. I’ve just been trying to play as hard as I can.”

***

No. 2: As the Bulls turn The Chicago Bulls had a high profile coaching change during the offseason, swapping out Tom Thibodeau for Fred Hoiberg, while mostly keeping their core players intact. Yet there has been more than enough drama early on this season, with the most recent bump in the road coming from Jimmy Butler, who said Hoiberg needed to “coach harder.” Getting a win can fix a lot of things, but last night the Bulls couldn’t even get that against the struggling Nets, losing 105-102, and possibly losing big man Joakim Noah for an extended time. As Nick Friedell writes for ESPN.com, right now the Bulls have a few things that need fixing…

“We had no togetherness at all,” Hoiberg said. “We had no toughness.”

When the eulogy of the 2015-16 Bulls is written at the end of the season, that may well be the opening line.

All the flaws the Bulls were supposed to fix in the wake of Jimmy Butler calling out his new head coach after Saturday’s loss to the New York Knicks were as clear as they ever were on Monday. Players coasted through much of the game against a weaker opponent. Rotations and pairings didn’t have consistency and went through spells of inefficiency. The defense, which has been solid much of the season, was porous most of the night. For all the talk and good vibes emanating from the Advocate Center on Monday morning after Butler said he cleared the air with both his teammates and coach, the Bulls still looked like a team with no identity and no answer on how to find one.

“What was missing tonight, I feel, has been missing a lot of the games,” Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. “I think it’s just a sense of urgency. We cruise for most of the game and then when we have our backs against the wall we turn it up, we pick it up and we try to give ourselves a chance. But some of those times it’s just too late and then other teams are in rhythm, they’re confident, and you lose games like this one.”

Losing games is one thing; losing games fewer than 48 hours after your best player called out your first-year head coach is another. For the Bulls to perform this way against a Brooklyn team that came into this game with a 7-20 record and a five-game losing streak is embarrassing to a group of players that came into this season believing they could contend for a championship.

“We were outplayed in every aspect of the game,” Butler said.

When asked for an explanation as to why the intensity isn’t there consistently for this group, Butler didn’t have a good answer.

“There is no explanation, truthfully,” Butler said. “It’s supposed to be there all the time. We talk about it. Obviously it’s not. It is a concern. We have to fix it as a group.”

In order to fix these problems, that would mean the Bulls would have to come together as a group. With the way they have performed this season, and for much of last season, there’s no reason to believe that’s actually going to happen. The Bulls look like a group that doesn’t like playing with each other. The unity that was prevalent in years past is gone. Butler has been vocal about being the leader of this group, but in order to be the leader players have to want to follow what a person says. Up to this point in the season, the Bulls still don’t have a leader. They haven’t taken to Hoiberg’s system and they haven’t responded to Butler’s challenges.

“We all have to take responsibility,” Gasol said. “We all have to take it personally. This has to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, then we have a problem that might not be correctable.”

That’s the problem for the Bulls. They say the right things but they don’t follow the words up with the right actions. When asked about Butler’s comments, Gasol, who wasn’t in New York City on Saturday after being given the night off to rest, actually seemed to agree with Butler’s sentiment. The veteran believed Butler should have kept his commentary “indoors” but didn’t condemn him the way he could have.

***

No. 3: Garnett makes final(?) visit to Boston Minnesota big man Kevin Garnett has been sitting out the second half of back-to-back games, a kind of self-preservation employed by many NBA veterans. But it meant that Garnett didn’t play last night in Boston, a homecoming game of sorts for the Big Ticket, who won a title in 2008 as a member of the Celtics. With the clock ticking on Garnett’s career, it was perhaps KG’s last visit to Boston, and even if he wasn’t going to get off the bench, as Steve Bulpett writes in the Boston Herald, fans in Boston couldn’t wait to shower KG with love…

Kevin Garnett was stoic for nearly 47 basketball minutes and the time in between.

The Garden crowd had gone from several “We want KG” chants to a “KG-KG-KG” shout to a “Thank you, KG” refrain, but the object of the affection, in uniform but not playing for the Timberwolves on the second day of a back-to-back, held his emotions in check.

Then Brad Stevens called a 20-second timeout with 1:02 left, ostensibly to get his starters out of the game — and maybe to help Jordan Mickey get his varsity letter.

Then the disco beat began to thump from the speakers above.

Then “Gino,” the Celtic video victory cigar, appeared on the video screen in all his American Bandstand glory, and Garnett could hold it in no longer.

He smiled. He pointed to the screen. He laughed. He turned and acknowledged the crowd that had been showering him with love all evening.

Yes, Kevin Garnett — the man so compulsively competitive that he swats away opponents’ shots taken after the whistle — was digging the scene with his team down by 15 points.

With the home team ahead by as many as 22 in the last quarter, the given was that Gino would make an appearance. The only question was whether KG would have the same reaction he used to when the video was a more frequent part of Celtic home games, a love affair that began for Garnett during the 2007-08 championship season.

But Gino was the irresistible force last night.

“That was classic,” said Garnett after the 113-99 final. “That was like cherry on top for me. My teammates were looking at me like, ‘What is this?’ I was like, ‘I’ll explain it later.’

“But thank you. Thank you for whoever put the Gino on. I know my guys here put it on for me, so I appreciate it. I appreciate that.”

Longtime Celtics fan Wilson Tom got Garnett a “Gino” T-shirt before the game, but KG chose to wear Wolves’ warmups instead of civilian clothing, which probably served to raise the fans’ hopes.

“On back-to-backs, very difficult for me, regardless of what I look like out here,” Garnett said as he stood by a wall in the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room. “I think that’s a tribute to, you know, obviously a work ethic and things I put into this. Making 39 look like 25 these days. But it’s very hard. It’s hard to even come into this building and not want to, want to play.

“But the appreciation that not only the city, but the Mass. area and the northeast, they’ve given me, the love is unconditional. I’m very appreciative. I definitely heard all the chants.”

He appreciated, too, the spontaneous outpourings from the crowd, though the one about wanting him begat some mixed emotions.

“I really wanted them to stop that, because I didn’t know if Sam (Mitchell, the coach) was going to actually put me in,” KG said with a laugh. “I was like, please, please. But it was cool. Like I said, appreciation is . . . unconditional appreciation is overwhelming. So thank you guys for that. I appreciate that.”

(Little chance of Mitchell being sentimental. He seemed perturbed when asked about the fans’ shouts for KG. “It was nice,” he said after a pause.)

Garnett drank it all in, as he did when he first returned as a Brooklyn Net.

“I think I’ll always have that kind of reaction here,” he said. “Boston’s always been a special place in my heart, probably always will. That outcome tonight wasn’t the way I wanted it to be, (but) it was a great homecoming. It felt really good to be in the building.”

Asked what Boston meant to him, KG didn’t hesitate.

“Everything,” he said. “It meant everything. I like to say that Minnesota made me a young man. I grew up when I came to Boston. I learned a lot coming from the Minnesota situation and I applied it in my Boston situation. I got all but great memories here.”


VIDEO: Garnett receives standing ovation in Boston

***

No. 4: Blazers’ backcourt in good hands When LaMarcus Aldridge announced this summer that he was leaving for Portland for San Antonio, and Wesley Matthews also decamped for Dallas, it raised as many questions in PDX as it did answer them in their new cities. But the emergence of C.J. McCollum, alongside All-Star Damian Lillard, seems to have answered a lot of doubters. And as our Shaun Powell writes, the Blazers have a backcourt ready to carry them for the foreseeable future

The teammates that play together, hang out together and carry the Blazers together also managed to get injured together in the same game. And so, we’ve learned something else about the quickly-formed bond between guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum: They even limp alike.

This is bad, because the Blazers were missing their heart and soul Monday against the Hawks. But in a warped kind of way, this is good, because their two most important players once again have shown to be clearly in step even when those steps are painful.

“They’re so much alike,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That’s why they’re great together. They compliment each other well because of the problems they cause for other people and their ability to create for each other.”

Lillard has plantar fasciitis in his left heel and missed a game, a first for him in four-plus seasons; his streak of 275 straight games played is third-longest among active players. Also on Sunday against the Mavericks, McCollum sprained both of his ankles; he also sat against Atlanta but could return sooner. Lillard and McCollum perhaps carry bigger backpacks than any tandem in basketball, definitely from a buckets standpoint. They generate 44 percent of Portland’s points and just over half of Portland’s assists. Any basketball that the Blazers use have more fingerprints from Lillard and McCollum than pebbles.

With the Blazers in the beginning stages of a rebuild, Lillard and McCollum are all that separate the Blazers from being the Sixers of the Western Conference. Or close to it. The hope in Portland is that once the Blazers are ready to win again, McCollum and Lillard will still be in their prime and not worn down from the experience.

At the moment, they’re dangerous together, two smallish guards with the right amount of quickness and shooting to cause headaches and matchup issues for teams, and their development has been both effortless and rapid. They are more peanut butter and jelly than oil and water, showing no signs of conflict or inability to share the wealth and load.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” said McCollum. “We knew this was inevitable. We knew it was going to happen eventually. We just didn’t know when.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah will have an MRI today on his injured shoulder … John Wall injured his ribs during a win against the Kings, but says he doesn’t expect to miss any gamesDeron Williams says maybe he just wasn’t built for New YorkDavid West on his decision to leave Indianapolis for San Antonio … The Rockets say reports of Dwight Howard‘s unhappiness brought them together … The Sixers say Joel Embiid is making stridesKristaps Porzingis would like to sell you a mattress

2 Comments

  1. Let’s Go Hawks!!!!!!

  2. John Darnall says:

    When was the last time that a team with the starting guards as the leading scorers (by a ten point per game margin over any teammate) won or even challenged for the NBA championship? Lillard and McCollum sat out the game last night with Atlanta so this may not be a fair critique but prior to the visit to Atlanta last year a very pointed article indicated Lillard and Portland were rested and ready to dominate the Hawks. Well, not so much actually. As I recall Lillard was no better than Jeff Teague and Portland was sent packing for a sweep of the season series by the Hawks.