Posts Tagged ‘Billy Donovan’

Numbers notes: The stagger question


VIDEO: Thunder hang on to top Knicks

ALSO THIS WEEK: Raptors bench stands out in East | When you can beat the Warriors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Oklahoma City Thunder almost left New York without a win. They lost to the 11-33 Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday and were in trouble against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

The Thunder trailed the Knicks by three after the third quarter and, with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, the Knicks’ lead went from three points to 11 in the first 2:29 of the fourth.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan took a timeout and got Westbrook back in the game. It wasn’t too late, the Thunder erased the 11-point deficit by the end of regulation, and won in overtime.

But the situation brought to the surface the question about whether the Thunder have to play any minutes with neither Durant nor Westbrook on the floor. The pair average 70 minutes per game between them and Donovan could stagger their playing time so that he never has to play a full bench unit.

He does stagger their minutes a little bit. Westbrook usually gets replaced with 2-3 minutes left in the first quarter and third quarters, while Durant stays on the floor for the remainder of the period. Then Westbrook returns a little earlier in the second and fourth quarters than Durant does. Over the last eight games, the Thunder have averaged about seven minutes per game with one of the two (but not the other) on the floor.

But stretches like they had in New York could be avoided if Westbrook sat earlier in the first and third quarters, returning to start the second and fourth.

Earlier in the season, I looked at the same issue with the Clippers, who don’t have as good a bench as the Thunder do and who don’t really have to answer the question with Blake Griffin out for another 4-6 weeks.

Donovan answered the question after the OT win in New York, and he’s willing to see his bench sink or swim with his two stars off the floor.

“Kevin, I think, for his rhythm, what he likes is playing that whole first quarter,” the coach said Tuesday. “He likes the rhythm of that. He feels like he gets in the flow of the game. So there’s going to be some times those guys are not going to be on the floor. I’ve said this from the beginning of the year, I got confidence in the guys coming off the bench. I got confidence in other guys. Other guys need to step up. And our bench has been playing pretty well.

“If 40 minutes are going to be played with one of those two guys on the court, we got to be able to play for that [other] six or eight minutes.”

Durant and Westbrook will obviously see a minutes increase in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if Donovan also staggers their playing time more as well in the postseason. In fact, the night after the game in New York, Donovan staggered his stars’ minutes even less. In Minnesota on Wednesday, he had one of the two stars on the floor for just three total minutes. But the Thunder were a plus-2 in the 10 minutes that both were on the bench in another close win against a bad team.

Best bench in the East


VIDEO: The Association: Toronto Raptors

One team that has staggered the minutes of its stars is the Toronto Raptors, who have kept either Kyle Lowry (who sits at the end of the first and third quarters) or DeMar DeRozan (who sits at the start of the second and fourth) on the floor at all (non-garbage) times.

That’s one reason for the Raptors’ success with reserves on the floor, which was the topic of this week’s stats video…


VIDEO: GameTime: Schu’s Advanced Stats – Raptors bench

Against the Knicks on Thursday, the Raptors’ starting lineup was outscored by nine points in 13.4 minutes, but they still won by 10. Through 46 games, their starting lineups are a minus-23 and they’ve been the fourth worst team, getting outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Only the Suns (minus-11.8), Sixers (minus-14.3) and Lakers (minus-21.9) have been worse.

But the Raps are about even in first quarters overall, because they’ve outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in the last six minutes of the period, when the reserves start taking the floor. A lineup of DeRozan and their top four subs (Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo) is a plus-14 in 126 minutes this season.

The second quarter, though, is when the Raptors have really been separating themselves. A lineup of Lowry and those same reserves has outscored opponents 279-194 in 127 minutes. Lowry (plus-255) has the best plus-minus on the team, and he’s followed by Patterson (plus-213), Joseph (plus-185) and Ross (plus-164). The Raptors rank second, behind only the San Antonio Spurs, in aggregate bench plus-minus.

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The Raptors have won 10 straight games, with a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in that time, taking a strong hold on second place in the Eastern Conference. It’s not only the third straight season that they’re heading for the playoffs. It’s also the third straight season that they’ve been at their best with reserves on the floor.

When you can beat the Warriors

The Warriors are kind of the opposite of the Raptors, in that the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters are when they’re at their worst. In their two meetings, the Raptors outscored the Warriors 53-40 in the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

Like Oklahoma City and Toronto, the champs have two elite players, and they’ve subbed them in and out more like the Thunder than the Raps. Golden State has outscored its opponents by an amazing 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 1,331 minutes with both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the floor. And in 361 minutes with one of the two on the floor, they’re a plus-8.1 per 100 possessions.

But in the 536 minutes that both Curry and Green have been off the floor, the Warriors have been outscored by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, a point differential worse than that of the Sixers this season.

Some of that is garbage time. But if you look at just the first three quarters and fourth quarter minutes where the score is within 10 points, the Warriors still have been outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in 308 minutes with neither Curry nor Green on the floor.

The champs have been ridiculously good with their two best players on the floor. No kidding. But the Warriors’ bench hasn’t been able to hold onto leads with Curry and Green off the floor as well as they did last season.

Through Thursday, Curry and Green lead the league on on-off-court NetRtg differential. The Warriors have been an amazing 29.8 points per 100 possessions better with the MVP on the floor than they’ve been with him on the bench. That number is 10 points per 100 possessions higher than that of last season’s leader (Chris Paul, 19.8) and almost 13 points per 100 possessions higher than Curry’s mark last season (17.1).

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

How Divac nearly upended Kobe trade | Curry, Barnes back in mix for Warriors | Thunder fall apart vs. Kings | Scott says Randle needs to ‘grow up’

No. 1: Divac nearly cancelled Kobe trade to Lakers — Today, Vlade Divac is the Sacramento Kings’ general manager after a 16-year NBA playing career from 1989-2005. In early-to mid-1990s, Divac was a solid young center on the Los Angeles Lakers who was a part of one Finals team with Magic Johnson (1991) and a key cog in a youthful Lakers group (including Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and others) that seemed primed for big things out West. Yet come the night of the 1996 Draft, Divac was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to rookie (and future franchise icon) Kobe Bryant. As Divac explains to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, though, he wanted nothing to do with the trade and nearly axed the deal by retiring rather than play in Charlotte:

“My feelings were that I play basketball for fun. This is not fun,” Divac recently told Yahoo Sports about the 1996 draft-day deal that sent him to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant, who is expected to play his final game in Sacramento on Thursday. “If somebody asked before, ‘Vlade, are you going to play basketball over there [in Charlotte]?’ It’s not going to happen. I talked to my wife and told her, ‘Look, I’m going to retire.’

“It would have been so bad. I would have been the most hated guy in L.A.”

The Serbian quickly fell in love with Los Angeles and was in even deeper love playing for the Lakers, averaging 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds primarily as a starter from 1989-1996.

But before the 1996 draft, then-Lakers general manager Jerry West became infatuated with Bryant, the high school kid from Philadelphia who was destined to become a superstar. West worked out a deal to send Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick in the draft, which the Hornets used to select Bryant for the Lakers. By trading Divac, who was set to make $4.7 million in the 1996-97 season, the Lakers would clear the needed salary-cap space to make a lucrative offer to Shaquille O’Neal in free agency.

Divac was in Europe and was stunned when his agent told him about the trade. Days later, Divac said he informed the Lakers he planned to retire, which would have prevented the team from trading him for Bryant.

“It felt like someone from behind hit me with a hammer,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “It was the first time in my career that something happened in a way I didn’t plan. I was devastated. I was thinking, ‘I play basketball for fun.’ My father said when I brought my first [basketball paycheck] back home, ‘Who gave this to you? Are they crazy? Do they know you would play basketball even if they don’t pay you?’

“I am not going to play basketball because I have to play. I am going to play for fun. I was 28. I am not going to go somewhere and be forced to play basketball. I told my agent that I am not going to Charlotte. I loved L.A. I loved the Lakers. For every kid that played basketball, it was basketball heaven being with Magic and the other guys.”

Within 10 days after the draft, Divac said he returned to Los Angeles ready to retire, yet he agreed to meet with West. After an “emotional meeting” with West, Divac changed his mind and agreed to the trade.

“Jerry called me and I flew back to L.A. and we had lunch,” Divac said. “The trade happened [in principle], but I was holding it up. … It was a great conversation. He said, ‘Why don’t you go over there and explore and see if you like it or not?’

“Me and Jerry had a very good relationship. He was the guy who was waiting for me at the airport [after being drafted in 1989]. It was an emotional meeting for both of us. And I trust him so much. He is the best basketball mind in the world. When Jerry tells you something, you believe it.”

Divac decided to have his wife and children stay in Los Angeles for stability while he played the next two seasons with Charlotte. Despite initial struggles, he averaged 11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Hornets in two seasons from 1996-98.

“We played sellout basketball in front of 24,000 people who love basketball in North Carolina,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “Each year we had 50-plus wins, and when you win it’s fun. But my first 10 games, I was awful. I can’t explain it. I was fumbling the ball. The funny thing was one of my first games was against the Lakers. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I felt like I started playing basketball two days ago. There was still mental stuff. I was thinking negative stuff like, ‘Why did they trade me? Was it worth it [coming here]?’ Then I said to myself, ‘Come on, Vlade, it’s just a game.’ I knew that after two years I would come out West and move closer to my family.”

Divac signed as a free agent with the Kings in 1998 with his family and a return to the West Coast in mind. Divac and the Kings pushed the Lakers to brink of elimination entering Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, but the Lakers would win the next two games to stop Sacramento from making its first Finals appearance.

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Morning shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Next man up is new normal in Cleveland | Riley says Heat not looking to trade | Howard responds with love in Houston | Shumpert truly delivers

No. 1: Next man up is new normal in Cleveland The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Cleveland having won six games in a row, but the Cavs used a strong second half run to build an insurmountable lead and win, 104-100. While Kyrie Irving has still yet to return from injury for the Cavs, LeBron James once again stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to lead the way for the Cavs. And as our Steve Aschburner writes, it’s still early, but the Cavs look locked in:

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

“Our motto is the next man up,” said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC’s Kevin Durant. “There’s no excuses around here. Whoever’s in the lineup is ready to go.”

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook‘s injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall — 11 on the offensive end — to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It’s the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It’s the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder’s checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he’s been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that’s old news in a rapidly changing game.

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No. 2: Riley says Heat not looking to trade The Miami Heat are currently 15-9, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But we know team president Pat Riley is always looking to improve the roster, which could involve making a trade somewhere along the way. A recent report had center Hassan Whiteside on the trade block, and yesterday Riley spoke to the media to say he wasn’t ready to make any moves, at least not quite yet, as Manny Navarro writes in the Miami Herald:

“I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days,” Riley said of rumors Whiteside could be headed to Houston or Sacramento. “I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed.”

Riley said he expects the Heat, which plays the Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, will be “one of [the teams] that is going to be for real” when that 40-game mark is complete Jan. 15.

What does he like about this Heat team?

“Well, we’ve got great depth,” Riley said during a five-minute interview with The Miami Herald and a two local TV stations Thursday during a holiday event for veterans at the Miami VA Fisher House. “I think we have a three-tiered team which is we have a group of great veterans, mid-aged veterans, and then we have youth. We have a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of energy with our young guys.

“Probably some of our best defenders are our young players. They’re trying to get their offensive games to match their defensive games.”

He also likes the leadership that team captains Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem have brought.

“They have no idea how proud I am of them and how they conduct themselves every single night, good or bad — to the community, to the media,” Riley said. “It’s not easy. This league is not easy, and when there’s a high-expectation level, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences of winning and the consequences of losing, and I think our guys do it very well.”

He said coach Erik Spoelstra has done “an exemplary job.”

“I think he’s finding his way to the heart of his team and how they’re going to play, how he can adjust and make those adjustments,” Riley said. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, we have a team that can play big. We have a team that can play medium. And we have a team that can play small. You don’t want to get caught up in any one thing. You just want to create your own identity, which is what I think [Spoelstra is] talking about. Whether you’re big or you’re small, that’s how you’re going to play. I think we’re showing that.”

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No. 3: Howard responds with love in Houston The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start, including firing coach Kevin McHale. Part of their inconsistent play has come from center Dwight Howard, the former All-NBA player who has suffered various injuries in recent years, and has seen his production fluctuate. But recent reports of Howard wanting out in Houston are, at least according to Howard, not true, as Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle:

“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is people to assume that because things are not going quite well for us that I’ve quit on the team and take away from all the positive things we have done, despite the loss, making the city feel like they’re unwanted,” Howard said on Thursday. “There’s a lot of negativity going around. I haven’t caused it. I haven’t said anything negative to anybody about this team or this situation. I’ve just been trying to find ways to make this situation better, trying to grow as a man, as a basketball player.

“You just try to laugh at it. I don’t want to go out and persecute the people that persecute me. That’s the hardest part. The first reaction is to go back at them. You just have to respond with love.”

A report at sheridanhoops.com on Tuesday cited sources saying Howard is “extremely unhappy” with his role with the Rockets and predicted he would be traded to the Miami Heat. Howard called the report “lies.”

Howard can expect to hear plenty from the Lakers fans tonight at Staples Center. He has often laughed at the taunts in Los Angeles, even singing along with chants in his first return to play the Lakers after signing with the Rockets.

“If they boo me, they boo me,” he said. “Just going to say, ‘Hey, I love you guys. If you boo me, I’m going to respond with love, just try to have a good game, not get frustrated with whatever happens on the floor. I don’t want to smile too much because then I’m (said to) not take it serious. I don’t want to not smile too much because then I’m (called) unhappy. Just going to stay positive.”

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has over the years talked to some players when they have been subject of trade rumors or other media reports. With Howard, Bickerstaff said they have talked often throughout the season, but did not consider that necessary with this week’s reports and that neither took them seriously.

“There’s certain guys that need to be talked to more about those situations and other guys, it doesn’t bother them. I try not to bring attention to it. If a guy does have a problem or a question and he brings it to me, then I’ll talk to him. For the most part, I try to ignore it because there’s so much noise out there.

“We’ve joked about it. We’ve laughed about it. I don’t think it needs to be addressed. I don’t know when I’ve seen him ‘extremely unhappy.’ We’ve had plenty of conversations. We’re in a good place.”

***

No. 4: Shumpert delivers One of the Cavs out with an injury last night was forward Iman Shumpert, recovering from a strained groin. Which meant Shumpert happened to be at home on Wednesday when his pregnant fiancé, Teyana Taylor, unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin writes, Shumpert ended up having to play doctor and delivered his daughter before the paramedics arrived…

The baby, Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., was born at 6:42 a.m, according to the post. Taylor nicknamed her “Junie.”

Taylor wrote that she did not realize she was in labor until she could feel her baby’s head. She said Shumpert used the cord from a pair of headphones to tie off the umbilical cord as the couple waited for the ambulance to arrive minutes later.

The birth came about three weeks before the expected due date of Jan. 16, 2016, which Shumpert previously shared on his Facebook account.

Shumpert and Taylor got engaged in November, with Shumpert proposing to her with a ruby engagement ring on the night of her baby shower.

Shumpert was ruled out of the Cavs’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night with a right groin strain. According to the Cavs, his playing status is questionable moving forward.

Before the 104-100 win over the Thunder, Cleveland coach David Blatt said Shumpert had yet to be re-evaluated by the Cavs since the team returned from Boston, because he was excused to be with his family.

“Due to the recent events, we’ve allowed Shump to do more important things,” Blatt said. “The doctor will get his hands on him, hopefully, [Thursday] evening. Then we’ll be a little bit smarter [about his status]. But he’ll be down for a few days for sure.”

Then Blatt cracked a joke about Shumpert’s surprise delivery skills.

“Dr. Shumpert now,” Blatt said. “And congratulations to Teyana, as well.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Scary moment in Cleveland last night, as LeBron James dove for a loose ball and slammed into Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, sitting courtside. She was taken away on a stretcher and, according to Cleveland.com, treated and released from a local hospitalSteve Kerr hopes to be back on the Warriors’ bench in the next “two to three weeks” … Are the Sacramento Kings interested in trading for Kevin Martin? … Mike D’Antoni was spotted in Philadelphia, presumably there to meet with the Sixers about a job as an assistant … The Milwaukee Bucks held an “informal” meeting with Carlos Boozer in Los Angeles … The Bucks also took a team bonding trip to AlcatrazThe Currys and Drake made a postgame trip to In-N-Out …

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 14


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Irving expected back this week | Chandler back, ready to face Mavs | Thunder stars spread the love vs. Jazz | Can Warriors start another run?

No. 1: Cavaliers expect Irving to return this week — The hope in Cleveland was that Kyrie Irving would make his season debut as early as this week, perhaps Tuesday night in Boston. But it turns out that was a bit ambitious. Irving, coming back from June knee surgery, will most likely have to wait until the weekend to see his first game action of the season. LeBron James has waited this long to have his squad at full strength, what’s another week? Chris Haynes of the Cleveland.com explains:

“We’ve still got some things that we want to go through with him before we let him get back out there,” Cavs coach David Blatt said, “but he is looking good and feeling good.”

There’s a chance he takes the court against Oklahoma City at The Q on Thursday, but it’s more likely that next Sunday, Dec. 20 at home versus Philadelphia is the target date. Either way, it pretty much ensures the three-time All-Star will be in the starting lineup Christmas Day against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Irving is a couple of full practices short of having participated in a week’s worth of sessions. He added one more to his belt on Sunday. His movements and his shot looked good.

Mentally and physically he’s ready to play. He’s built up strength in his legs to where his lower body is stronger than ever. Behind the scenes, he tried to persuade the organization to activate him last week and has been upset with the organization’s response.

The Cavaliers are being cautious. It’s a marathon for a title, not a sprint.

“He still has some testing to do and we’d like him to work a few more days in practice,” Blatt said.

Irving is the final piece to the team reaching full strength for the first time this season.

“It’s great to have bodies,” LeBron James said after the Cavs beat Orlando on Friday. “Coach is going to have a great opportunity to do what he wants to do with the lineups. We’re just missing one more piece and once we get that, we can really start to see what we’re capable of doing.”

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No. 2: Suns’ Chandler returns just in time to fave former teamTyson Chandler‘s presence in the middle for the Phoenix Suns was sorely missed for eight games as he dealt with a hamstring strain. But he returned to the lineup Sunday and helped the Suns knock off the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Suns get their defensive anchor back just in time for Chandler to face his former team, the Dallas Mavericks, (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic has more:

Tyson Chandler already was back in the swing of things during Sunday’s game when he rolled off a screen for Eric Bledsoe, who sent an alley-oop pass for him.

Chandler stretched back to catch the pass and redirected the ball to the perimeter while in mid-air. But it was a sign that more than Chandler’s right hamstring might be back for the Suns.

“I feel like if I had my springs, I could make up for that,” Chandler said. “I felt like that was on me. It was just good to see the timing.”

Chandler played 23 minutes in his first game back from an eight-game absence with a right hamstring strain. He came off the bench for the first time since April 2010 with Charlotte to ease back into action while Alex Len continued to thrive, having an 18-point, seven-rebound game with rookie star center Karl-Anthony Towns in early foul trouble and playing only 18 minutes.

Chandler’s return comes just in time for him to play against his former team Monday at Dallas, where he had two one-year stints that included the 2011 championship and last season. He departed each time against his choosing. The latter came after Dallas owner Mark Cuban had intimated that they would not let him go again, only to let him do so for the failed pursuit of DeAndre Jordan.

“It’s not as emotional as the first time in the past,” said Chandler, whose return last season to New York after three seasons there was riper for emotion. “For some reason, it doesn’t feel the same. I’m happy to be in Phoenix. I was blessed to a good situation so there’s really no animosity.”

Chandler already has missed more games this season (nine) than he did last season with Dallas (seven) but his defensive impact was felt immediately upon his return. His opposing man scored once in the paint against him Sunday.

“He’s the anchor of our defense,” Suns guard Eric Bledsoe said. “He picks everybody apart and tells them what we need.”

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No. 3: Thunder stars spread the love to seal fifth straight win — They are more than just a two-man team. Granted, no one should complain when those two men are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But the Oklahoma City Thunder needed more than just their two superstars to seal their fifth straight win, an overtime thriller over the Utah Jazz. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman explains:

Overtime tipped and Russell Westbrook had already scored four points within 36 seconds — a 15-foot pull-up on the opening possession and a weaving fastbreak lefty layup moments later.

The spurt bolted OKC to 100 points. Utah wouldn’t reach triple-digits. Final score: Thunder 104, Jazz 98, with Westbrook’s two early overtime makes serving as enough late offense.

But to seal a season-high fifth straight win, plenty of other contributors were needed. The two biggest were OKC’s other two most important players, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, who both lumbered through a brutal first half before awakening in highlight fashion.

Ibaka didn’t make a shot in the first 24 minutes. Durant had a career-low two first half points, taking only two shots and committing four turnovers. The Thunder trailed Utah 51-38, with a wild Westbrook second quarter buzzer-beater the only reason it wasn’t worse.

“Just getting a bit frustrated with myself,” Durant said. “Had to calm down. Told myself to calm down.”

When he was younger, Durant’s godfather would pull him aside during in-game struggles and tug on his jersey while looking straight into Durant’s face, sternly telling him to focus.

The past two games, both starting slowly and ending with a flurry, Durant’s morphed that memory into a celebration. After big shots in both wins over the Jazz, Durant strolled down the court tugging on his own jersey and yelling at himself.

He had plenty of chances to do it on Sunday night.

Durant scored seven points in the first two minutes of the third quarter and combined with Westbrook to score OKC’s first 20, erasing that 12-point deficit by the 7:38 mark.

From there, the game tilted back and forth deep into the fourth quarter.

With 49 seconds left, the Thunder trailed 94-91. Durant, who was scorching by that point, had the ball isolated in the post. He had a smaller defender on him, so the Jazz doubled. Durant surveyed the floor, identified a weak spot and made the kind of late-game trust pass coach Billy Donovan can only hope becomes habit.

“I seen them shift all the way over and leave Serge wide open,” Durant said. “That’s a bad move because he can shoot that.”

Durant whipped a cross-court laser right to Ibaka. Derrick Favors tried to recover, sprinting back toward Ibaka and jumping. But Ibaka stayed patient, pump-faked, let him soar by and then knocked in the game-tying three.

“I see him working on that every day,” Durant said. “The pump-fake, fly-by three. Huge shot.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook talks about OKC’s comeback win

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No. 4: Do the Warriors have another streak in them? Now that the Golden State Warriors know what it’s like to be a mere mortal team, courtesy of their historic start to the season being interrupted by that loss in Milwaukee Saturday night, they can get back to normal. But do the mighty Warriors have another streak in them? Could they get on another roll and crank out another double-digit win streak this season? With Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson leading the way, Marcus Thompson III of the Bay Area News Group believes the Warriors are built for another wicked run:

So the Warriors lost. Finally. They are just a regular great team again. This must be how Wolverine felt with regular bones.

But let’s get this on the record now. The Warriors have another long streak in them. They aren’t done blitzing the NBA.

What’s so impressive about what they pulled off was how regular it was for them. They didn’t play lights out for six weeks. They ran off 24 wins to start the season without being at their best.

Their system is that good. Their roster is that deep and versatile. Their best player is that special.

And they still haven’t peaked.

“Love competing with my brothers every night!” Draymond Green tweeted. “Now it’s time to focus on getting better each and every day. Let’s get it.”

In the final seconds, Curry — when it was clear the Warriors would lose — stood there and watched Milwaukee party like it was 1999. And the look on his face, a half a smile beneath weary eyes, was one of a star who’d found motivation.

Milwaukee was celebrating as if it had clinched a playoff series. Better believe the Warriors noticed, and will remember that when the Bucks come to Oakland.

Klay Thompson after the game: “We get to see them again Friday.”

But that’s how high the Warriors had gotten. Beating them — even if it was an exhausted, short-handed version of the Warriors — was celebration worthy.

Starting a season 24-0 puts the Warriors on a level we haven’t seen before. Their trajectory defies logic. Saturday’s defeat may be one of only nine this season, if they break the record for most wins in a season.

Judging by what it took to finally beat them, Milwaukee might be in rare air. When it’s all said and done, they might have made the greatest team ever look normal.

And that’s not normal.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame is making major changes to the election process, which could produce a mega class including Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming in 2016 … Thunder fan Shane McKinzie breaks the $20,000 half-court shot drought … ICYMI, the Washington Wizards will be without Bradley Beal for at least two weeks … DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors own the Philadelphia 76ers like no one else in the league …

ICYMI of the Night: What’s better than an alley-oop? How about a double alley-oop?


VIDEO: Jon Leuer finishes off the alley-oop with a jam

Back and Forth with Bones: Going beyond Durant and Westbrook


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade scores 28 points as the Heat defeat the Thunder.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Miami Heat got their best win of the season on Thursday, edging the Oklahoma City Thunder 97-95 in a back-and-forth affair.

It was a matchup of the league’s No. 2 offense (Oklahoma City) against the No. 3 defense (Miami). And the No. 3 defense won out, holding the Thunder to barely a point per possession.

Did the Thunder help them out, though? Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the most potent offensive pairing in the league, but the Oklahoma City offense can sometimes rely too much on their talent and get stuck when the primary options aren’t available.

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann and NBA TV’s Brent Barry went back and forth after the game, discussing the Thunder offense, what works and what doesn’t.

Schuhmann: The Thunder are a team that defies the idea that a great offense has to have great ball movement. They’re No. 2 in offensive efficiency, even though they rank last in passes per game and 25th in assist rate. But it always feels like their inability to move the ball comes back to bite them on critical possessions where their one-on-one stuff results in contested jumpers off the dribble.

Barry: They’re really sporadic in involving players other than Durant and Westbrook. The way that those guys get their offense doesn’t necessarily come out of execution to get them shots in spots where they can be most effective. It’s just that they end up getting shots because … they got shots.

It’s very unpredictable as to how and when they’re going to get involved in the offense, which is a testament to those guys being ready to shoot.

One of the things that was evident is how unsettling some possessions are for their defensive balance. They give up a lot of transition opportunities because the floor isn’t balanced. Even though their offensive numbers are great, the way that they’re scoring is unsettling their defense for 10-15 possessions a game.

Schuhmann: Turnovers is a part of that, but also the way that Westbrook attacks.

Barry: Unpredictable attacks, shots off of actions where guys might be on the weak side doing something and they’re really not noticing that the shot has gone up. And a longer shot often produces a longer rebound, which can give the other team a head start.

Miami exposed that a little, but we know that Miami doesn’t want to play fast. If they can do that, you got to think that against Western Conference teams that can really go – the Clippers, the Warriors – that’s a little bit dangerous.

Note: Miami’s 15 fast break points on Thursday was their fourth highest mark of the season, but just one less than their season high.

Schuhmann: While the Thunder offense is functioning mostly from the talent of two guys, they’re not just giving the ball to Durant and Westbrook and saying “Go to work.” There are some some really devastating plays and actions that they run … a Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll, a Westbrook/Ibaka pick-and-roll where Durant’s defender is responsible for tagging Serge Ibaka on his roll to the basket.

Barry: Billy Donovan is probably stressing to them to make the extra pass, but there’s not a lot of outlets for them. I wrote down a couple of plays…

Early second quarter, Durant has an offensive possession where he’s posted up. You want KD in iso, but there’s no outlet for him.

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The very next possession, you’ll see Dion Waiters moving around in space where there’s nobody to be the release valve for him.

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Then on Miami’s side, there’s a play where Bosh scores on a pick-and-roll, because he’s the outlet for Dragic. I’m watching Miami and where it is that they have guys spaced for the ball-handler so, if he gets into trouble, he has parachutes on either side. He can pull the ripcord and he’s got guys to go to.

In OKC’s offense, some of their possessions just leave guys out on islands where they have to take difficult shots. They’re put in positions where there’s nowhere else to go.

Schuhmann: That’s partly on them, though. Durant and Westbrook clearly like to stop the ball and play one-on-one.

Barry: I’m OK with those guys, but if you play deeper into the clock and the ball ends up in the hands of someone else … if it’s Anthony Morrow and he doesn’t have an open three, you have to give him some place to go. If it’s Waiters, instead of inviting for him to take the shot all the time, sometimes you have to provide the option where you can go back and say, “Dion, you got to make that next pass.”

There was a great play later in the second quarter where Enes Kanter sets a pin-down screen for Durant, who comes up and flips the high screen-and-roll. Westbrook blows by his defender, the big has to step up, and he drops it off for Kanter.

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That kind of possession? Money, because there’s a guy in the corner for Russ and he’s got Durant drawing attention, so there’s less help. That kind of initial thrust is good. It’s just a one-pass possession, but a good one.

The most difficult possessions to guard are when, if you don’t get something off your initial thrust, the ball moves from one side of the floor to the other. Strong side to weak side. This is everything the Warriors predicate their offense on. This is what San Antonio does. This is the way the Triangle worked for years.

You’re asking five guys to defend five guys. If you explore, you’re going to find two guys that are not willing to play defense for 24 seconds. Great teams will do that, but within the first 12 seconds of the shot clock, going side to side, you can expose one or two defenders who aren’t willing to respond. Maybe they don’t want to put in the effort or maybe they’re just out of position because the ball moved and bodies moved, and they’re susceptible to the next action.

Obviously, with Durant and Westbrook, OKC is a dangerous team, and they’re still working on things.

Schuhmann: How do you defend the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll?

Barry: The biggest thing you have to do, as Durant’s defender, is get that screen pushed up as high as possible, because your best chance in guarding Westbrook is to slide under that Durant pick.

If I’m Durant’s defender, I want to come up with him and be physical with him up to the screen. And at the point of the screen, I want to give him a push, release and step back. That gives Westbrook’s defender room to slide in between, so that he can catch Russell on the penetration.

You’re trying to avoid the switch, so you don’t have Westbrook isolated against your three man or Durant in the post against a smaller guard.

Now other question is, if Russell are Kevin are involved on the strong side, who are you fearing on the weak side? If you do end up switching, you can front KD in the post and bring help from the back side, especially if Andre Roberson is in the game. He’s not an offensive threat.

They’re still learning how to execute this play to be very effective at it. And it changes on a nightly basis, depending on who’s defending them.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 19


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant closing in on return | Nash lauds Curry’s play to date | Ainge: McHale has a ‘spot’ with Celtics

No. 1: Durant closing in on return to lineup — Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Kevin Durant hasn’t played in the last four games, but OKC has held down the fort pretty well in his absence. They are 2-2 in that stretch after last night’s win against the New Orleans Pelicans and may not have much longer to go until Durant returns to the fold. The Oklahoman‘s Erik Horne has more:

Kevin Durant looks like he’s getting closer to making a return to the court with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A week after he was diagnosed with a left hamstring strain, Durant was seen after Thunder practice Wednesday taking some jump shots and showing more mobility than the last time we saw him on the practice court late last week. Last week, Durant was only seen taking a few set shots, but on Wednesday, he went through a series of drills with assistant coaches Monty Williams and Royal Ivey.

In addition to jumpers, Durant also went through a drill with Ivey and Williams in which he had to beat the double team while dribbling from halfcourt then pull up for a 3-pointer in transition. Williams and Ivey also did some light jogging with Durant the length of the court.

“I hadn’t really talked to anybody medically about him,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he’s doing more than certainly he was a week ago. How close he is to being able to return, I’m not really sure; I haven’t been updated on that, but I know that he’s doing more physically just me watching and seeing what’s happened over the last week.”

The Thunder initially said last Wednesday that Durant would be re-evaluated in seven-to-10 days following the MRI on his strained hamstring.

“Looking good,” Anthony Morrow said of Durant. “Looks like Kevin Durant.

“I think that our staff is doing a good job with him. He’s doing a great job of being patient. I’m glad to see him getting up shots, taking it one day at a time. One thing he’s doing is really staying in guys’ ear, even from the sideline when he’s out. To me, that’s a sign of growth and leadership. He’s doing that even more so than last year.”

Durant’s return could come in the next two games. The Thunder plays the New York Knicks on Friday and the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, both at Chesapeake Energy Arena.


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook discusses OKC’s win against New Orleans

*** (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 9


VIDEO: The Fastbreak: Sunday, Nov. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe fades in what could be his final call at MSG | Drummond joins giants with another 20-20 night | Thunder embrace their true identity | Grizzlies rotation will tighten during tough times

No. 1: Kobe fades in what could be his final call at MSG — His first points in 1996. The 61 he dropped on the crowd in 2009. Some of Kobe Bryant‘s greatest memories have come on the floor at Madison Square Garden. He added 18 more in what could very well be his final time playing on that floor Sunday in a loss to the New York Knicks. Lakers coach Byron Scott admitted that he and Kobe have spoken about the fact that his 20th season could indeed be his final season in the league. If so, the farewell tour took a decided twist at MSG, where our very own Lang Whitaker was on hand to witness what could very well be Kobe’s final call at the Mecca:

Following Sunday’s game, Kobe reminisced about that first appearance at the Garden — “It was like one of those VHS tapes when someone hit the fast-forward button and the TV was moving really fast.” — as well as that ’98 All-Star game — “In the locker room, I look to my right and there’s Stockton, and I look to my left and there’s Drexler.”

“I don’t think you understand how much I watched this building growing up,” Bryant said. “I mean, Frazier and Monroe and all those teams, DeBusschere and Reed and all those guys. I was like, truly, truly a fan of watching all these games. Then the Bulls, obviously, and the Pacers battles, and all that stuff. To be able to come here and have the performances I’ve had in this building, it feels extremely, extremely fortunate.”

Accordingly, Bryant is still respected like few opponents at MSG. Even Sunday, whenever he pulled up for a jumper, there was roar of anticipation. When Bryant pump-faked on the wing with three minutes left and the game in the balance, several fans sitting behind him leapt to their feet in anticipation of a big bucket, one that never came.

These days, the riddle the Lakers find themselves trying to unravel is exactly what they want and need out of Bryant. Do they need a volume shooter who occasionally flirts with a 40-point game? Or is the best course for the franchise to focus on the future? The Lakers used a lineup in the fourth quarter on Sunday featuring Kobe playing alongside a seven-year vet (Roy Hibbert), a second-year player (Jordan Clarkson), and two guys who, for all intents and purposes, are rookies (D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle).

“I think they’re developing extremely well,” Kobe said of the younger players. “They continue to improve reading on both ends of the floor, actually. My communication with them has been very tactical. The little things.”

“All he has to do is be himself,” said Bryant’s long-time teammate Metta World Peace. “He doesn’t have to do anything extra. He don’t have to be what his fans want him to be. He don’t have to try to prove to the media that he can still jump over the rim, or he don’t have to prove to anybody that he’s not who he was a couple of years ago. All he gotta do is enjoy us, just be a part of us, and we’ll be a part of him. We’ll do it together. It’s not about any individual on the team, it’s about us. As long as we continue to have that mindset, we’ll be fine.

***

No. 2: Drummond joins giants with another 20-20 night — If you’ve overlooked a struggling Detroit Pistons team in recent years, now might be a good time to end that practice. The Pistons, 5-1 and off to their best start in eight years, look for real. They’ve got a wild card in point guard Reggie Jackson (who led the team with a career-high 40 points, 26 in the fourth quarter, in Sunday’s comeback win in Portland) and an absolute double-double monster in center Andre Drummond (29 points and 27 rebounds in the win). Drummond is averaging 20.3 points and 20.3 rebounds, the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1970-71 to do so through the first six games of a season. He joins Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to record three 20-20 performances in the first six games of a season. Drummond is elevating his game, and his name, into the realm of giants with his start to this season, as Rico Beard of the Detroit News explains:

Another night with a double-double — and in the case of Sunday night’s 120-103 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, an almost-absurd 29 points and 27 rebounds. It’s becoming common for the fourth-year center, who boosted his jaw-dropping averages to 20.3 points and 20.3 rebounds through the first six games.

He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players with three games 20-20 games in the first six games of a season.

On the offensive end, he displayed a fluid jump-hook and was a menace on the offensive glass, with nine, fueling the Pistons’ double-digit comeback, for their second win on the six-game West Coast trip.

“Andre’s numbers are phenomenal. I just told somebody if he didn’t get a rebound the rest of the trip, he’d be in the top three or four in the league in rebounding — he’d be averaging over 12 a game,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “What he’s doing on the boards is phenomenal; he was just swallowing the ball down the stretch. It was an incredible turnaround.”

But even as Drummond started to get more comfortable — hitting 14-of-19 from the field, Reggie Jackson started to break out, scoring 26 of his 40 points in the final period. Van Gundy said he wanted to get the ball to Drummond more, but with Jackson on a roll, there wasn’t a need.

All season, Drummond has focused on team success rather than individual stats, but with his All-Star-caliber numbers, it’s hard to ignore.

“Whatever night we win is a great win,” he said. “Individually, I’m just doing my part to help my team win, no matter what the numbers are — 5 rebounds or 20 rebounds. As long as we win the game, it was a good night for me.”

With his third game of 25 points and 25 rebounds, Drummond leads all active players, surpassing Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson, who have two apiece.

***

No. 3: Thunder embrace their true identity — Playing to your strengths is always the best plan for a team adjusting to a new coach and a new system. And the Oklahoma City Thunder are certainly still adjusting to Billy Donovan and his system. But as long as the strength in Oklahoma City remains Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the most explosive scorers in the game, and a lineup filled with quality scorers, there’s really no mystery as to what will make the adjustment period tolerable for a team with designs on competing for a championship this season. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman witnessed the Thunder’s offensive burst Sunday in a win over the Phoenix Suns:

Russell Westbrook entered at his customary time, early in the fourth quarter, and joined a unique but increasingly more customary lineup.

At shooting guard: Dion Waiters. At small forward: Kevin Durant. At power forward: Serge Ibaka. At center: Enes Kanter.

“Dangerous, man, dangerous,” Waiters said. “Lotta guys out there that can get buckets.”

When the group convened at the 7:56 mark of the fourth quarter, the Thunder led by 12. When the next substitution was made, at the 4:22 mark, the Thunder was up 22. In a spurt of fastbreaks and feathery jumpers, that offense-heavy five-man group sealed a much-needed 124-103 win over the Suns.

Westbrook started it with a layup off a nice Waiters assist. Then the favor was returned, with Waiters nailing a 3 set up by Westbrook.

Then it was Durant’s turn to take over. KD had 21 points at the time. He had 32 before the night was done.

Seven of those came within a 90-second span midway through the fourth, when he sandwiched a 3 and a 13-foot baseline turnaround with one of those patented Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaways, uncontestable for 6-foot-1 Eric Bledsoe, who found himself stuck on Durant in the high post.

As he sauntered back down the court — his team on a 14-3 run, KD on a personal 7-0 run — Durant laughed and chirped at Bledsoe.

“E-Bled talks a lot of (stuff),” Durant said. “And I’m a (stuff)-talker myself.”

Durant followed his mini-spurt by turning from scorer to facilitator. His fourth assist of the night set up Kanter for a 12-foot jumper. Then the next possession down, the 12th of Westbrook’s 13 assists led to a Kanter dunk.

In less than four minutes, that five-man pairing rattled off a dominant 15-5 run, breaking away to a 22-point cushion. During the run, Ibaka, who had 10 himself on this night, was the only one who didn’t score.

“Everyone can score the ball crazy,” Kanter said. “Never played with a lineup like that.”

***

No. 4: Grizzlies rotation will tighten during tough times — Desperate times in Memphis require desperate measures from Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, who is trying to figure out why his team cannot seem to find a rhythm this season. Joerger’s response, at this early stage of the process, will be to tighten the rotation. Something had to give and the first thing is the rotation, despite some insisting that it might be Joerger who was on the hot seat. But the Grizzlies are experiencing an identity crisis that Joerger will solve by tweaking his rotation. Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal details the looming changes:

Suddenly uncomfortable in their own skin, where do they stand?

The grit is all but gone.

The grind seems as fleeting as a gotcha moment.

Memphis (3-4) enters the final outing of a five-game trip perplexed as to how to get its mojo back. The Griz take more than a two-game losing streak into their game Monday night against the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center.

The Griz still are experiencing an identity crisis as they try to salvage a West Coast swing, having lost three of four. Last week began with an unfathomable 50-point loss to Golden State. Memphis beat Sacramento but dropped its next game to Portland.

That Memphis fell behind Utah by 21 points before an 89-79 loss last Saturday has coach Dave Joerger on the verge of shaking up the lineup because he can no longer stand by and watch his players not compete.

“I’m going to tighten the rotation,” Joerger said without saying which players will have minutes reduced.

However, Joerger did give a clue as to which way he’s leaning, based on his substitution pattern in that Utah game.

Joerger has routinely inserted Jeff Green for Tony Allen with the first substitution. But against Utah, Matt Barnes was the first to spell Allen, and Green later came in for Courtney Lee.

Joerger has increasingly grown fond of a lineup that has Barnes and Green at the wings. In fact, that combination was on the floor most of the fourth quarter. Allen didn’t play at all and Lee played just 94 seconds in the quarter.

“I was pleased with our effort overall,” Joerger said after the Grizzlies’ latest debacle. “We can get better. We know we can get better. We will get better and will keep plugging away.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James offered some constructive criticism to Kevin Love (egos checked at the door) and it worked. … Phil Jackson wanted more emotion from Derek Fisher and got exactly that in Sunday’s win over the Lakers. … Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is a traveling man. … The Miami Heat’s second unit proves to be first rate. … The Washington Wizards have been extremely generous, but vow to end their frivolous ways with the basketball. …

***

ICYMI: Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson helped lift the Pistons to their fifth win in six games with yeoman’s work Sunday in Portland …


VIDEO: Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson go off for the Pistons in a comeback win over Portland

Morning shootaround — Oct. 31


VIDEO: Top plays from Friday’s action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Joakim Noah said he never asked to come off the bench | Brook Lopez is strictly a post player but an all-around person | Billy Donovan finds the right fit in OKC | A Q and A with Gordon Hayward

No. 1: Joakim Noah said he never asked to come off the bench — The Bulls are looking a bit different under new coach Fred Hoiberg than they did under Tom Thibodeau. Specifically, Joakim Noah isn’t starting. As the Bulls try something new, there was a bit of a mixup. Did Hoiberg tell Noah to be a sixth man, or did Noah volunteer? The center set the record straight, when asked if he took himself out of the starting lineup: “No.” Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago has further details:

The topic has been hovering around the Bulls since training camp, as Hoiberg explored all his options and ultimately decided to insert second-year big man Nikola Mirotic into the starting lineup on opening night instead of Noah. The story line came back to light on Thursday when a Hoiberg Q-and-A with Grantland’s Zach Lowe was posted. In the exchange, Hoiberg said Noah was the one who started the conversation about coming off the bench this season.

“Jo actually came to me and talked to me about that,” Hoiberg told Lowe. “He said, basically, ‘I’ve always played well with Taj [Gibson].’ He said he thought Niko and Pau played very well together, so let’s go that route. It was actually Jo that started the whole conversation. He came to me. That says a lot about him.”

Before the Bulls’ 98-94 overtime loss at Detroit on Friday, Hoiberg said he didn’t feel a need to clear the air with Noah.

“Did he specifically say I want to come off the bench? No. Nobody wants to come off the bench, but it’s the decision that we came up with,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been great. He’s been as enthusiastic as anybody over there on the bench when he’s not in the game, and he’s always going to bring it when he’s on the floor, so no, things are fine.”

For his part, Noah has never seemed outwardly angry about what’s going on and doesn’t want to rock the boat as a team leader.

He has struggled in his first two games off the bench to find his rhythm, though, failing to register a point. Noah does have 15 rebounds and six assists in his first two games and appears to be feeling good after struggling with the effects of offseason left knee surgery a year ago.

“I just want to do what’s best for the team,” Noah said. “I think we’re 2-0 right now. We still have a lot of room for improvement. What I said doesn’t matter. I think right now we’re doing what’s best for the team, and we just got to keep building off that.”

***

No. 2: Brook Lopez is an all-around person — The Renaissance man of New York works in Brooklyn and stands over seven feet tall. They don’t come more educated or diverse than Brook Lopez, the Nets’ center who might be one of the bright spots for the rebuilding team this season. The former All-Star opened up recently about his upbringing, his twin brother Robin (who plays across town with the Knicks) and his passion for many things. Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York was there to write it all down:

He reads. He writes. He sketches. He loves Batman comic books, Disney movies and Michael Jackson’s music.

He already has pitched an animated television pilot, politicked to play a Wookiee in a future Star Wars picture and hopes to pen an action-adventure novel someday.

Oh, and you likely didn’t know, Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez is also learning to play the piano and speak Japanese.

Yes, Japanese.

“I always go to Japan in the offseason, so I’m trying to get better at it,” Lopez told ESPN.com recently, noting that he’s also working on learning “the Kanji,” Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system.

“I know some words. I’m getting there.”

Basically, if Lopez isn’t the most fascinating man in the NBA, he’s certainly up there. His best competition might be his own 7-foot twin brother Robin, who now plays for the rival New York Knicks.

Brook Lopez made up his mind pretty early on — he was going to follow in his mother’s footsteps.

“I can remember in second grade coming back from school and telling my mom, ‘You know what, before I play in the NBA, I want to go to Stanford,'” Lopez said. “Because of her, I had everything figured out.”

To her comic book aficionado sons, Deborah Ledford might as well have been Wonder Woman, raising the four of them — Alex, Chris, Brook and Robin — as a single mother on a high school mathematics teacher’s salary.

“She sacrificed so much for us,” Brook said. “She’d always be driving Alex and Chris around, getting them to basketball practice, and then she’d go pick them up and get Robin and me to wherever we needed to be. She was constantly chaffeuring us around. And then she’d get groceries for us and come back with bags upon bags upon bags, just loads and loads, and they’d last for like…two days.”

At 6-feet, Ledford had flirted with swimming in the 1968 Olympics before not making the squad and eventually attending Stanford herself.

“Our mom used to read to us every night,” said Chris, who has lived with Brook in New Jersey ever since he was selected by the Nets with the No. 10 overall pick in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft.

“And she just went through a plethora of children’s books and stories, so that was instilled in us from an early age.”

The Lopez’s maternal grandmother, Inky Ledford, had a massive library of children’s books at her Fresno, California, home — and the boys were frequent visitors.

***

No. 3: Billy Donovan finds the right fit in OKC — Well, here we are, one week into the NBA season and Billy Donovan hasn’t changed his mind and gone back to the University of Florida. That’s what happened years ago when he took the Orlando Magic job and then called it quits just, oh, 10 seconds later. Anyway, you can hardly blame Donovan for waiting until the right gig opened up. And when you have the chance to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their primes, that qualifies as the right gig. Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel has more:

 He was hired to lead an even stronger NBA club — the Oklahoma City Thunder. This time, he’ll coach three players with All-Star Game credentials: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.

“This opportunity came across that was very unique in my opinion,” he said. “If it didn’t, I’d still be at Florida.”

Donovan, who won back-to-back national championships at UF, said other NBA teams had reached out in the ensuing years. Reportedly, Cleveland (pre-LeBron’s return), Minnesota and Detroit were among the suitors.

He insists that there was no grand plan to leave the Gators for the pros.

“I’ve always believed you wake up and where you are that day, you do the best job you can,” he said. “Then if opportunities open up, they open up. It wasn’t anything about having a plan.”

The OKC job surprisingly opened after Scott Brooks was fired with another year on his contract.

Donovan was lucky because a lot of terrific college coaches – from Rick Pitino to John Calipari – usually are stuck with bad teams.

“The one thing for me..I knew it was a good team, but you have to feel good about it. Happiness inside a job has to do with the people you work with everyday,” Donovan said.

Especially if those people are named Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.

Donovan’s no dummy. He’s also aware of the pressure coaching the contending Thunder, particularly since Durant can become a free agent this summer.

Durant says he “enjoys” being around Donovan, who seems to be adjusting well to life as an NBA coach.

“I’m working equally as hard or harder as I was in college,” he said. “It’s just things are a little bit different.”

***

No. 4: Gordon Hayward opens up with Q and A — The Utah Jazz are off to a decent start, which includes a blowout victory in Philadelphia, and one of the intriguing players is Gordon Hayward, naturally. After having his big contract matched by the Jazz two summers ago, Hayward was a borderline All-Star last season and hopes to take the next step this season. He discussed that and more when he sat for a quick interview with Scoop Jackson of ESPN:

Scoop: How big of an adjustment can it be to inherit that “No. 1 option” role for a franchise?

Hayward: It’s just a learning curve, honestly. I think it’s one of those things where, you know, if you play one way probably the first three years in the league and then you are asked it do something different. It’s just a role change, something you have to get adjusted to. You know, defenses are now keying on you and playing things differently to where you are at all of the time. That’s a huge step and something, like I said, that I was able to kind of learn and do for two years.

Scoop: Have you ever walked into an opponent’s locker room before a game and seen your name at the top of the white board just to see their defensive strategies they have planned for you?

Hayward: I have not [laughing]. I’ve never seen that. Or a scouting report on me or on our team.

Scoop: You have to sneak and do that. It’s one of those “No. 1 option” things.

Hayward: I should definitely do that.

Scoop: Do the media and other players underestimate you?

Hayward: I don’t think they do anymore. I think they probably did when I first came in the league — 100 percent did. But this is my sixth year, and I think they definitely respect me as a player now.

Scoop: I’ve heard you referred to you as “the Jazz’s version of LeBron James” in that you do everything for the team. When you hear that, how does it make you feel?

Hayward: It’s definitely pretty humbling to think that someone would say that, but I think it’s just something where I just try to be an all-around player and try to do a lot for the team. And yeah, I think LeBron’s a guy that obviously does that for his team no matter which team he’s on, and he’s probably one of the best ever to do that. So, but for me, if I’m not scoring I need to be assisting or making plays for other people or rebounding or just doing whatever I can to get guys in position where they can be successful.

Scoop: Do you think of yourself in that vein? In that, you “have to be LeBron” for this franchise?

Hayward: I think so. I think that it is a lot of responsibility but something that they have trusted me with and I definitely have to be active and have to affect all parts of the game in order for us to be a successful team. I’ve never been a guy that’s going to go out and just affect one part of the game. I think that I’ve always been somebody that tries to affect multiple parts of the game, and I think we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, so it’s not just me. We’re a versatile team. I’m excited about where we can go.

Scoop: Utah went 19-10 after the All-Star break while holding opponents to a league-low 94.8 points per 100 possessions. Was that just a good two months or was that indicative of what this team had become?

Hayward: Yeah, I think that’s definitely our identity and definitely what’s going to have to be our identity moving forward if we want to be successful, especially in the West. Defense is something that can go with us wherever we are at. We are going to have times when people’s shots are off and we’re just not feeling it offensively, but if we continue to play defense like we did at the end of the year — something that I think we are very capable of doing — we can always stay in games and give ourselves a chance.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jodie Meeks will be out for a while in DetroitSteph Curry is about to be immortalized in wax … The Suns were “equipped” to show their respect for Steve Nash, whose jersey has been retired … There was a Mother Nature problem in San Antonio so Tony Parker had an excuse to miss practice.

Blogtable: One thing you’re watching early in 2015-16?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: One thing to watch early on? | Predicting Golden State’s season | First-time All-Stars



VIDEOOpen Court’s discusses Billy Donovan’s impact on OKC’s future

> There are a lot of great storylines heading into the season, but what is the one thing you will be watching very closely, very intently, the first two-to-three weeks of this new campaign?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Can the Bulls get off to the same kind of white-hot start that Golden State did last season with a new coach? The same dynamic is at work: excellent defense team that needs to diversify its offense. I have no doubt Fred Holberg will make it work, but how long will it take? With all the injuries the Cavs are playing through at the moment Chicago has a great chance to jump to the top of the east. But with Derrick Rose‘s status for the start of the season also uncertain, the Bulls may struggle. A lot of pressure on Jimmy Butler to be dominant from jump.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Kobe Bryant’s latest return. Let’s face it, the NBA has been a more fascinating, competitive place because of Bryant’s game and tenacity. It’d be nice to see him finish strong, relatively healthy and providing lots of snapshots and, OK, plenty of GIFs before it’s all over. I think we’ll have a pretty good feel by Thanksgiving as to how it’s going to go for him.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Kevin Durant’s health and how he fits in with the new offensive plans of Billy Donovan. No other team or franchise in the league is under more pressure than the Thunder this season with Durant’s happiness and his impending free agency looming over it all. If K.D. can’t return to his old form and the Thunder don’t make it to The Finals, everything about the NBA world in OKC could change.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comThe first two or three weeks is a pretty small window into a season, since everyone may still be living off the positive vibes, but to pick one situation with implications for the much longer term: Tristan Thompson and the Cavaliers. He is an important part of a championship contender. Nothing has changed so far, through the summer and about a month of camp and preseason. Games starting to count for real and missed paychecks adding up, though, that has a way of shaking things up.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat are two teams that can vault from the Lottery to (near) the top of their conference if they’re healthier than they were at end of last season and if they make the most of what they got. For Miami, I want to see how well their offense is clicking with Goran Dragic and Chris Bosh playing together for the first time. And for Oklahoma City, I want to see if their defense automatically returns to a top-10 level with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka back in the lineup, or if Enes Kanter is still a big issue on that end of the floor.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: It’s hard to turn away from the drama that will unfold in Los Angeles this season with the Clippers. They had a wild and crazy summer, added what appears to be quality depth and the expectations are through the roof. But they’re admittedly still in the process of trying to figure it all out and fold the new faces into their “culture,” as coach Doc Rivers put it. They don’t have the sort of time you need to nail down championship chemistry in a training camp and preseason that some other teams have enjoyed in recent seasons. This is going to be the best reality show in the league this season.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m fascinated by the Thunder, the influence of NBA rookie coach Billy Donovan and the comeback of Kevin Durant in his free-agent year. There are a lot of moving parts — and in spite of them OKC could yet win the championship. This is going to be the most interesting reality show of the new season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI know the Atlanta Hawks, despite winning 60 games last season, still are mostly overlooked. But I am very curious to see how the Hawks will replace the departed DeMarre Carroll. I actually think Carroll’s offensive contributions are being a bit overrated a bit in hindsight — he was a nice offensive player for the Hawks, but so much of his scoring came as a result of Carroll cutting to the basket and receiving smart passes from his teammates. Where I think the Hawks will miss him more acutely is on the defensive end, where Carroll was their best option and could stop multiple positions. Thabo Sefolosha brings a different skill set to the starting five, and the Hawks will have to figure out how to incorporate him. I don’t think the Hawks will win 60 games again this season without Carroll, but I do think fifty-plus is well within reach.

One Team, One Stat: Much Russ


VIDEO: Schuhmann’s Advanced Stats: Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the 2015-16 season with a key stat for each team in the league and shows you why it matters. Today, we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, who leaned heavily on their one healthy star.

The stat

20151019_okc_usage

The context

20151019_okc_basicsUsage rate measures the percentage of a team’s possessions a player uses when he’s on the court. And with Kevin Durant playing just 27 games, Russell Westbrook recorded the highest usage rate of the last nine seasons.

Via his points and assists, Westbrook accounted for 60.1 percent of the Thunder’s points when he was on the floor. That mark was much higher than that of Stephen Curry (52.3 percent), James Harden (54.4 percent) or LeBron James (53.5 percent).

When Durant did play, Westbrook’s usage rate went down, as you’d expect. But his efficiency went down too. Westbrook actually shot better and scored more efficiently when Durant wasn’t on the floor and when his usage rate was higher.

20151019_okc_rw_shooting

And the Thunder offense was more efficient with only Westbrook in the game than when he shared the floor with Durant.

20151019_okc_kd_rw_eff

Of course, the Thunder are better off with both of their stars healthy. And it must be noted that Durant is a key part of Oklahoma City’s defense, which ranked in the top 10 for three straight years before falling off last season.

But it will be interesting to see if new coach Billy Donovan staggers Durant’s and Westbrook’s minutes more than Scott Brooks did over the years. Over the last three seasons in which both players were healthy (2010-11 through ’12-13), Westbrook played a total of just 559 minutes (2.4 per game) without Durant.

He played almost three times as many minutes without Durant last season. And if he plays more minutes with the second unit this year, he has plenty of experience being the focus of the offense.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions