Posts Tagged ‘Caron Butler’

24-Second thoughts — May 19

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tony Parker says the Spurs need to be perfect against the younger and more athletic Thunder

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Perfect, huh?

That’s Tony Parker‘s word. Not mine.

The San Antonio Spurs’ All-Star point guard is well aware of the challenges the Oklahoma City Thunder pose, with and without Serge Ibaka in their lineup.

“They’re younger than us,” Parker said. “They are more athletic than us. So we have to play as close to perfection as possible to beat them.”

No one should be held to that standard. Not even the mighty Spurs, who have looked as good as any team in these playoffs the past two weeks. Perfect is an unreasonable expectation for any team, in any game.

And yet, you know Parker makes a great point. The Thunder suckered the Spurs two years ago, spotting them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals before blowing by them in four straight games on their way to The Finals in 2012, where they fell at the hands of the Miami Heat.

So while perfect seems like a bit much for Game 1 of these Western Conference finals, let’s just call it “Spurs-Thunder, The Remix,” it’s probably the only appropriate way for the Spurs to approach things this time around.

With some of the best lip-syncing work on the anthem we’ve seen in years, courtesy of Shaq!

24 – There have been more shot fakes and shots off the glass in the first few minutes than we’d see if we were watching “Hoosiers.” Get me out of this time machine!

23 – As they say in the fight game, “everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.”

(more…)

24-Second thoughts — May 13

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bradley Beal and the Wizards stayed alive

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Quick Change is my favorite halftime act at NBA games.

Has been for years.

And they will be until something or someone comes along to dethrone them …

They are also our honorary moniker for tonight’s action, because things do indeed change quickly in the conference semifinals. Just ask Roy Hibbert.

Game 5s for both the Pacers and Wizards and later on the Thunder and Clippers will show us exactly how all four teams react to the quick change that has come in their respective series.

Things changed so quickly in both the last time we saw them all on the floor, with both the Clippers and Pacers rallying back from huge deficits to win Game 4s on Sunday.

This very easily could have a been a night for closeouts. The Pacers have that chance, up 3-1 and playing on their home floor. The Thunder, of course, are deadlocked at 2-2 after the Clippers’ miraculous Game 4 comeback.

So while it’s win-or-go-home night in Indy for John Wall and his Wizards …

The Clippers and Thunder are guaranteed to go at it again, no matter what happens tonight.

Get your popcorn ready …

24 – Unbelievably sloppy start for the Pacers and especially the Wizards (seven turnovers in the first quarter), and yet they still lead after the first. It helps when your big man, Marcin Gortat, is working harder than anyone else on the floor during that span (11 points, six rebounds, one steal, one block and 12 hustle plays).

23 – Wait a minute, Luis Scola time! A 10-0 Indiana run gives the home team 27-25 lead …

22 – The Wizards are not playing like a team in the midst of their defining moment. So careless with the rock. Playing like it’s a preseason game …

21 – Hey, guess who’s on his way bizzzack to the bench (and more)?

#CantWait

20 – Wizards outworking the Pacers big time in the second quarter and pushed their lead to 10 (45-35). Hard to figure these Pacers out. No killer instinct on close-out night is a strange sign. Wizards fighting for their playoff lives, however, is what you love to see …

19 – Gortat and Co. destroying the Pacers on the glass!

18 – QUICK CHANGE!!!!!!!!!!!!

17 – BBQ Pierogi Alert … it’s a dumpling Shaq, not a sausage. Underdog, put that on a T-shirt!

16 – It’s a make or miss league and right now, John Wall is making ‘em. Seventeen and counting for the Wizards’ All-Star PG …

Meanwhile, the Pacers are doing it again …

Or better yet, Gortat is doing it to them …

15 – Freud couldn’t figure these Pacers out …

14 – Marcin The Machine!

13 – Welp!


VIDEO: Magic Johnson responds to Donald Sterling with Anderson Cooper

12 – Looks like the winner of the Early Game 4 Hangover Sweepstakes goes to …

11 – Stan Van Gundy coaching the Pistons makes plenty of sense. His front-office credentials, however …

10 – No hometown love for Blake Griffin, not five games into this series …

9 – Thunder rolling right now, with CP3 out of the mix with the two fouls …

8 – But BG stayed hot and J.J. Redick kept the Clippers in front at the half. Impressive stuff from the road warriors in this series once again …

7 – Amen!

6 – Officials in this night-cap are taking a bigger beating in the social media universe than even the Pacers …

5 – @JCrossover  is the master of the and-1

4 – KD needs to go ahead and join that kid’s framily, anything to escape this shooting nightmare tonight  …

3 – Oof!

2 – Huge box out and rebound of a BG miss on the second of two free throws leads to a CP3 dagger with 49.2 seconds left. Clippers hanging on to a 104-97 lead. Serge Ibaka failed to box Big Baby out properly. Crucial mistake in a game filled with them for the home team … if only KD and Russ weren’t there to rescue your bacon in the final minute. #giventhawaygame4takethawaygame5

1 – Good luck trying to make sense of this finish … CRAZY!


VIDEO: The wild Game 5 finish sees the Thunder serve up revenge for Game 4

24-Second thoughts — May 7

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Roy Hibbert clears the air after his monster night in the Pacers’ Game 2 win over the Wizards

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — He’s all anyone wanted to talk about today, the big man from Washington D.C.

And I’m not talking about Kevin Durant, crowned as the KIA MVP Tuesday and beloved around the world after his acceptance speech went viral in the minutes and hours after the ceremony.

No, I’m talking about Indiana Pacers All-Star center Roy Hibbert.

We’ve dissected his performance in this postseason a million different way in just two weeks. Will he bounce back tonight and find his way? Or do we get more of the zeros across the board from him?

We shall see …

24 – Yes, I’m cheating right now. But I always like to see what my man Serge Ibaka is wearing to the arena. And I’ve got to give it up, this cat has some style …

OK, back to Game 1 Wizards @ Pacers …

23 – This has to be considered a good sign. A little closer to the basket maybe big fella?

22 – This Mark Jackson-Warriors saga is not going to fade into the background folks. Not with Jackson wasting little time in telling his version of how things came apart (via our NBA TV colleagues Rick Fox and Jared Greenberg on SiriusXM NBA Radio). It’s deep stuff, much deeper than anyone probably expected so soon after Jackson was fired. Speaking of soon, the Warriors reportedly did not waste any time trying to locate Jackson’s successor. TNT’s Steve Kerr is that man. The only question that remains is will he go with the Warriors or the Knicks? If it’s the Warriors he’ll have to win over a roster that worked its tail off for Jackson …

21 – You wonder how the Pacers’ faithful will respond tonight. Will they make the place unbearable for the Wizards. Will they throw back to their Market Square Arena days when …

20 – If inspiration is what Hibbert was looking for, he might have found it in his college coach John Thompson III. JTIII sat courtside, giving the big fella the same looks he did when he helped mold him into a player at Georgetown. It worked. Hibbert started the game with a 5-0 solo run and sparked the Pacers early as they took an early 13-5 start …

19 – Marcin Gortat is not impressed with Hibbert’s work. In fact, he’s ready to stake his claim to the title of the best big man in this series. And with Nene (who’d also like to run for that best big man office) in the locker room after injuring his left ankle and Hibbert on the bench after that hot start, Gortat might have a solid case.

He’s certainly got the best dunk, so far, of the game.

Here comes Nene …

Hibbert still hot, he’s got 11 points with a little more than five minutes to play before halftime  …

18 – Spit the seeds out. The more I watch these two teams play, the more convinced I am the Wizards, and not the Pacers, are simply the better team. For all the work Hibbert did in the first half, the Pacers had to abandon their usual ways and make it a point to involve the biggest man on the floor. It’s a desperate recipe Pacers coach Frank Vogel is working from and I’m not sure it’s going to work in this game or this series. The Wizards, meanwhile, are playing the same way they have all season and just flowing (and up 45-43 at the half) …

– dispatch from LA: Clippers coach Doc Rivers working the crowd during his pregame media availability session. Don’t poke the MVP bear Doc …

17 — These signs of life from the Pacers are encouraging. Glimpses of the team we thought they were at 33-8 are suddenly popping up on both ends of the floor. Hibbert’s been fantastic (24 points through the third quarter). Paul George (six points) has to have a big fourth quarter for the Pacers to pull away. But he can’t shake Trevor Ariza

16 – When you’re bad it can get nasty, but when you’re good …

15 – If the Pacers hold on here, Hibbert’s trip to the interview room could be epic …

14 — Big fella balled out, to the tune of 28 (on 10-for-13 shooting), nine and two blocks. And the Pacers win. All of this after that fishing trip with PGeorge and GHill … Tied at 1-1 headed to D.C.

13 – Sorry, but I couldn’t help it. Just one more …


VIDEO: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hands over the MVP hardware to Kevin Durant

Quick hug for Moms (Wanda Pratt)

12 – Best way for the Thunder to deal with Chris Paul? Send him to the bench with those early fouls. Russell Westbrook in attack mode from the start …

Someone forgot to tell J.J. Redick

11 – The MVP with 17 points in the first quarter, one point shy of his playoff career-high for a quarter. You had to know he was going to come out smoking after all that’s gone on the past 24-plus hours and the stars (Jay-Z in OKC) turning up in OKC for the show …

10 – Ah, another night Chesapeake Energy Arena wondering who’s going to show up, Good Russ or Bad Russ? So far, so Good …

9 – There’s a lot of bad acting and flat-out trickery going on tonight. Cp3, Westbrook and even the MVP getting in on the fun. The officials can’t win, whether they blow the whistles or not someone is going to be furious with them. And everybody sees it through their own lens …

8 – The definition of an MVP …

7 – Lights go down just before halftime. Weather related? Still have to finish these finals 27 seconds and change, right …

6 – Westbrook with the quick hands on defense and in the passing lanes. He’s finishing at the rim (the nasty where Blake Griffin didn’t even bother jumping) and turning things upside down for the Clippers, who can’t scramble fast enough to cover on the defensive end.

5 – Things spiraling dangerously out of control right now for the Clippers. Westbrook doing his #forceofnature thing right now, too. Wicked!

On the flip side, Blake has been alarmingly disengaged tonight.  So you knew this was coming …

4 – The biggest game changer for the Thunder tonight wasn’t just Westbrook going off, or even Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins turning into factors. It was Steven Adams adding the physical thump needed for the Thunder to make sure this series goes to Los Angeles tied up at 1-1.

3 – Leave it up to Westbrook to crash (in a good way, though) Durant’s MVP party. The rest of the world doesn’t get how they co-exist. But they make it work … #chasingadoubletripledouble #neverhappenedbefore …

– Still hasn’t happened. Westbrook got his (although with a controversial 10th assist), while the MVP went to the bench one assist shy of the triple-double.

2 – It’s been that kind of night for CP3! And Doc has to know it’s “turrible” …

1 – The MVP, RussWest and the Thunder finish the business in style …


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook’s exclamation point dunk for Wednesday’s Game 2 win over the Clippers

CP3 puts injuries, fatigue behind and lights up the Thunder

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Paul’s career night helps Clippers torch Thunder in opener

OKLAHOMA CITY – Before Chris Paul scorched Oklahoma City for 32 points with a hand so hot from downtown it would make Steph Curry melt, an Oklahoma City Thunder player suggested anybody stepping onto the floor should just keep their pains, sprains and strains to themselves.

It was a little shot at the Clippers’ All-everything point guard. Plenty of Los Angeles hand-wringing has gone on lately with Paul nursing a strained right hamstring that needs rest and a sprained left thumb that is best off avoiding contact. And maybe the worry was for good reason: Paul’s scoring drooped against Golden State, his shooting percentage sagged to 40 and even his assists had slipped. Coach Doc Rivers contorted his face into a puddle of concern when asked about Paul’s speed.

Then came Paul’s takeover of  Game 7 of that uniquely emotional first-round series. He punished the Warriors for 22 points, 14 assists and four steals in 42 minutes, advancing the Clippers into the conference semifinals against speed-demon counterpart Russell Westbrook and the soon-to-be-named MVP Kevin Durant.

Man, just got done with Steph and then go right on to Russell, right?” Paul said following Saturday’s Game 7 win. “Y’all say a special prayer for me tonight.”

Do you believe in miracle healing?

“You could see it, like [Sunday] he wasn’t moving well,” Rivers said. “Today at shootaround, you just felt like he was moving better.

No one could have predicted what would happen Monday night: 32 points that stacked up with eight rapid-fire, rub-your-eyes 3-pointers raining from every angle on the floor. Paul hit all five of his attempts in the first quarter. That tied his career high. His sixth came after teasing Derek Fisher at the left arc, tip-toeing, spinning and firing. No. 7 was an impossible heave from the corner as 270-pound Thunder center Kendrick Perkins body bumped him to the floor without a call. No. 8 in a row came on a step-back against Caron Butler, caught in no man’s land trying to protect against Paul slicing-and-dicing him to the paint.

Finally, at the 5:19 mark of the third quarter, Paul missed his lone attempt from deep. But, seriously, 8-for-9?

“That’s what I do, that’s what I do,” Paul said grinning. “That is a lie. … This one definitely goes down in the history books for me. Don’t count on it for Game 2.”

The barrage ended Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinal almost before it began. The Thunder jumped out to a 16-10 lead and then, wham-o, it was gone and the running Clippers, with hometown kid Blake Griffin sensing Paul’s sizzle and working to free him with screens on possession after possession, were off. It was 39-25 after one quarter and 69-52 at the half.

Paul exited with 38.1 seconds left in the third quarter and sat out the rest of the 122-105 victory.

The Thunder, coming off their own grueling, seven-game series against Memphis, simply stated the obvious after being blow away by CP3.

“He hit eight 3s,” said the Thunder’s Westbrook, who led OKC with 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting. “You can’t do too much but contest. He hit some tough shots. We’ll live with that.”

Rivers compared Paul’s level of aggressiveness, which included 12-for-14 shooting overall, 10 assists and a pair of turnovers in 28 minutes, to only one other night this season, when he attacked Dallas for 31 points and nine assists the night after going an unthinkable 0-for-12 at New Orleans.

“Other than that, not this aggressive,” Rivers said. “We needed it though. We needed a tone-setter because turning around that quickly [from the Warriors series], I think he felt that he needed to set the tone.”

Nagging health issues have come into question in each of his two postseasons with the Clippers. In his ninth season overall, the seven-time All-Star has never made it beyond the second round, and this one is only Paul’s third appearance in the semifinals. He got there in his first season with L.A., but a groin issue and Griffin’s knee injury from the first round paved the way for a Spurs sweep.

In 2008 with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic lost Game 7 at home to the Spurs.

Paul, who turns 29 on Tuesday, is arguably the game’s best player never to make it to a conference final. He’s widely considered the league’s most dangerous point guard, but he knows whatever accolades he accumulates, the postseason is where a player’s legacy is ultimately written.

It’s a weight he bears.

“I’ve never been past the second round,” Paul said. “Every year you feel like you’re on that team. I remember that team I was on in ’08, we lost Game 7 to the Spurs and you just feel like you’re always going to be back there and that’s not the case. This team here I think is a special team. Not only do we have a good team, it’s fun to be around each other.”

They stuck together through one of the most emotionally taxing weeks any of them will ever have during the Donald Sterling disaster. They persevered against the Warriors and now have a fast lead on the Thunder and their two 25-year-old stars who have already played in two West finals and one NBA finals.

Maybe this is his time. Paul has a co-star, a deep and talented team around him and coach who seems to have the pulse of his players.

Paul’s pains, sprains and strains might be out in the public forum. And maybe he plays them up at times for dramatic effect. The drama he delivered Monday night was real, and so too are his Clippers.


VIDEO: Chris Paul hits a career-high eight 3-pointers to lift Clippers

Relaxing amid urgency, Durant gets bonus 48 minutes — Game 7 vs. Grizz

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: OKC rolls over Memphis to force Game 7

MEMPHIS – Facing elimination, on the road, ground down by the pushing and banging of the Memphis Grizzlies and worn out from a playoff-record four consecutive overtime games, Oklahoma City’s players squeezed into the narrow hallway outside their locker room in the moments before the anthem, intros and tipoff.

In the middle of their scrum, the man who has played in the most postseason games in NBA history: Derek Fisher. He was talking. His teammates were listening – OK, Russell Westbrook was spinning and fiddling with a basketball but he presumably could hear Fisher, too.

Kevin Durant was nodding. And smiling.

More than three hours later, after the Thunder put on their most complete and dominating performance of the series to force Saturday’s Game 7 back on their court, Fisher shared some of the old-head wisdom he’d imparted.

“With this team, it’s all about relaxing and playing our game,” Fisher said. “We don’t want to be thinking about playing the perfect game. We can’t be worrying about making mistakes. I’ve seen it – if we play our game, we win.”

OKC won big, 104-84. It pumped its lead to 20 points three minutes into the second half, never let it dwindle below 17 and had it right back at 20 by the end.

There’s relaxed. This was planking (uh, we all remember planking, right?)

“I think [staying relaxed is] when we’re at our best, to be honest,” Fisher said. “We all want to do so well and we expect great things from ourselves, but in these types of situations, I’ve seen this team since I’ve been here do exactly this: Win a game on the road when it’s necessary to win. We didn’t bring the baggage from the last game or Game 3. Anything before tonight was irrelevant.”

Said Westbrook: “We did a great job of just being calm. A great job of coming in and being cool, calm and collected as a unit. For 48 minutes, we had that. We didn’t take a long dip – we just kind of went up and down [the court].”

None of the Thunder players wanted or needed to relax more than Durant. None was in a worse position to do so, though.

His world, all sweetness and light for so much of 2013-14, was rapidly turning sour and dark. His offense was AWOL. Assuming he gets named the NBA’s 2014 Most Valuable Player, he was on the brink of the quickest ouster for a league MVP since 2007 (Dirk Nowitzki) and one of only a handful not to survive the first round. As a group, Oklahoma City had many of the same criticisms and reactions headed its way as are hanging over Indiana, which also survived a while longer (in less convincing fashion).

Even the hometown paper, The Oklahoman, piled on Durant Thursday morning with a headline that overreached and triggered such an outcry, you figured Donald Sterling wrote it: “Mr. Unreliable” the newspaper dubbed OKC’s star in bold, block letters, using a blunt ax where a scalpel was required.

The fascinating thing was, Durant already had laid out his strategy for Game 6 before he ever learned of the silly headline. Consider what he said in the morning, when the FedEx Forum was mostly empty and quiet:

You can talk about Xs and Os, what we have to do. But it comes down to laying it all out on the line, for you brothers, for your city, and playing as hard as you can. I think everything else is going to take care of itself. I really believe in that.

We have another chance to play another basketball game. We’re guaranteed 48 minutes. … We tend to take things for granted, but I get to play another basketball game. Something I love to do. You never know, this could be our last time stepping on this court, so I’m going to play as hard as I can. That’s what motivates me.

Durant did exactly what he said, against the backdrop of all that urgency, by staying relaxed and finding fun where others might see only stress. He scored 14 points in the first 12 minutes (the Thunder are 5-0 in playoff games when Durant has done that), 18 by the break and another 18 after halftime. He got to the line for 15 free throws, more than in the past two games combined.

And Durant quickly found the openings and the rhythm in which to assert himself, which isn’t as simple as you might think, superpowers or not.

“It’s hard for someone like him,” said Caron Butler, a surprise starter in coach Scott Brooks‘ lineup in Thabo Sefolosha‘s place. “He has so much responsibility here. He’s got to figure out every game, ‘Should I look for my own offense? Should I get other guys going?’ It’s not easy knowing what’s needed and when to do it.”

Afterward, Durant talked about making those decisions with a 3-2 imbalance in games, in a best-of-seven series, bearing down.

“I just tell myself to cut hard, play hard and [see what happens],” he said. “If I see a shot, shoot it. If I see a pass, pass. I just try to keep it as simple as possible. If I clog my mind with anything else as far as where the passes are going to be and whose guy is going to help off, all that type of stuff, it makes me play on edge, not on instinct.”

Other Thunder players helped more this time by adhering to the plan and the habits that got them this far.

“All we can really do is go into the game and say, ‘We want to play the right way,’ ” reserve forward Nick Collison said. “There are a lot of things that lead up to that. If we execute our offense, he’s going to catch the ball in better areas. He’s going to catch the ball in rhythm and he’s going to have more space to play in. That’s the biggest thing – if he’s catching the ball at the 3-point line with four guys staring at him, ready to help, it can be hard for him. That’s not good for us either.”

Things aren’t good for Memphis now. The Grizzlies head to OKC where, yes, they’ve won twice in three tries but where the Thunder were 34-7 in the season. That crowd there is a force with which to reckon, and getting blown out at home in what could have been a happy, clinching game was a lousy way to prepare.

The grindiest thing in the Grindhouse Thursday was Memphis’ offense, sagging under its poor shooting (37.3 percent) and eventually from point guard Mike Conley‘s sprained right hamstring, injured in a third-quarter loose ball pile-up. He was done after 28 minutes and 2-for-10 shooting.

“I don’t think we played very well so it shouldn’t be like we have a good taste in our mouth,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “We’ve been playing 21 days of must-win games. This is it. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, hurt, nicked up or not. This is the performance that we’ve been looking for all season long. Unfortunately it didn’t come tonight. So for Game 7, it has to be there.”

So does this, if Durant and the Thunder are to serve as any guide: relax.


VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook discuss Game 6 win

 

Durant can’t let them see him sweat

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The TNT crew breaks down Game 2 and previews Game 3 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series

Kevin Durant talked all season about rising as a leader. So now is not the time for you to let them see you sweat, Mr. soon-to-be-named league MVP.

Durant allowed frustration to get the better of him during and after Monday night’s Game 2 overtime home loss to the seventh-seeded Grizzlies. He scored 36 points, but nothing came easy. He was 12-for-28 with Grizzlies stopper Tony Allen again applying velcro defense. After the 111-105 defeat, Durant, through slumping body language and dismissive speech, presented an air of fatalism instead of optimism, confidence and determination.

Seated at a dais alongside Russell Westbrook, Durant slouched in his chair, his head hung and shoulders folded inward. He purposefully lowered his voice into the microphone to a barely audible level. One of the more insightful players in the league offered, purposefully, mostly curt, short answers to questions he seemed to deem beneath him. On occasion he sniped back at reporters.

It wasn’t a good look.

If Allen and the Grizzlies didn’t already believe they had Durant flustered by their defensive clamp-job, all they need to do is watch his postgame performance. Durant failed to follow his own words of wisdom spoken just prior to Game 1.

“I always tell myself to be a great leader, a great encourager and a great teammate and everything else will fall right after that,” Durant said.

Frustration is understandable. Allen is again proving to be the most effective Durant antidote in the game. He did it as a mostly fourth-quarter stopper in last year’s semifinal series the Grizzlies won in five games with OKC missing Westbrook. Even with Westbrook back, Durant’s operating space remains as cramped as an airplane lavatory.

“He’s in your face,” Durant, the league’s runaway scoring champion, said. “He’s a smaller guy and smaller guys, when you guard bigger guys you try to get up under him a little bit. I’ve been playing against him for a while. He’s the toughest guy in the league for anybody because he’s so quick and he’s strong. But I just got to rely on my teammates and rely on my work I put in and I’ll be all right.”

Durant didn’t get much help from his teammates in Game 2, an aspect the Thunder will have to address before Thursday’s Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Westbrook was 11-for-28 from the field and forced far too many shots. The bench was unusually impotent with Reggie Jackson failing to make a field goal and Caron Butler going 1-for-4 from the floor.

At least twice during the game Durant expressed frustration with his own team. Early on he glared at Serge Ibaka as play continued and said, “Give me the ball,” after Ibaka had instead passed out an offensive rebound to Jackson standing at the opposite wing from Durant.

Late in the game, Durant flailed his arms and made a B-line to coach Scott Brooks after Brooks called a timeout just as Westbrook had grabbed control of a loose ball at a critical juncture and was gaining speed the other way for a potential transition scoring opportunity.

“No, that wasn’t a key play,” Durant said afterward. “We got a great stop, it looked like a jump ball and coach wanted to be the first one to call a timeout. It wasn’t a turning point in the game. It wasn’t why we lost.”

Durant on Monday described his inner-sanctum as “peaceful,” though the load he shoulders is fraught with pressure. His remarkable regular season included performances and streaks that haven’t been accomplished since Michael Jordan and because of it the MVP trophy is virtually unanimously believed to be his. Now everybody expects him to take the next step and lead the Thunder to the championship, or at least get the chance to avenge their 2012 Finals loss to LeBron James and the Heat.

If not, the pre-title scrutiny that dogged LeBron will ramp up and the undying rhetoric regarding his and Westbrook’s compatibility will heat up all summer long.

All the Thunder has to do is win one in Memphis and they regain control of a series they already knew would be challenging, regardless of seeding.

Durant, 25, has been the game’s most devastating player all season long. Now is not the time to let them see him sweat.

The best advice for him is to simply follow his own words.

“I feel great. I’ve seen it all in the playoffs, throughout the regular season,” Durant said at the start of the series. “Teams are going to try to beat me up, but I’m ready for it. I always feel comfortable because I feel comfortable with myself, I feel comfortable with my game. I’m not the strongest guy, I’m not the quickest or fastest, but I just feel comfortable with myself and I know what I can do out there on the floor.”

OKC’s Lamb waits through reduced role

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Demotions stink.

There’s no way around it, no matter the line of work. It’s impossible not to take it personally. But hey, that’s life, and a team player, a professional, is expected to bite the bullet and keep on keeping on. It’s particularly true in the delicate world of pro sports.

Welcome to Jeremy Lamb‘s world. For 60 games, the coming-of-age Oklahoma City Thunder wing had served in a 21-minute-a-game role as a reserve. Averaging 9.5 points a game on 43.7 percent shooting and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in those games, the 6-foot-5, long-limbed Lamb had received praise from most precincts as a valuable member of the Thunder’s strengthened bench.

Only Lamb’s mostly been tied to the bench since early March. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, signed as a free agent after being released by Milwaukee, immediately walked into 28 minutes a game. Butler, 34, can deliver rugged defense, rebounding and a reliable corner 3-pointer — he’s shooting 39.7 percent from deep, if only 36.8 percent overall.

Lamb before Butler Lamb post Butler Butler in OKC
Games 60 12 13
Minutes/game 21.7 14.1 28.0
Points/game 9.5 4.7 9.8
Rebounds/game 2.7 2.0 3.5
Assists/game 1.6 1.4 1.2
FG% 43.7 34.8 36.8
3FG% 35.1 33.3 39.7
FT% 83.9 33.3 85.7
FTA/g 0.9 0.5 0.5

Perhaps it’s just a case of bad timing for Lamb, who was mired in a shooting slump over the last two weeks of February, going 9-for-38 from the floor (23.7 percent) and 5-for-21 from 3-point range (23.8 percent) over a six-game stretch. In the 12 games he’s played since the rotation change, his minutes have plummeted, his overall shooting percentage is 34.8 (and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc) and he’s averaging just 4.7 points a game. An 83.9-percent free-throw shooter, Lamb’s missed four of the six he’s attempted since Butler’s first game on March 4.

“Of course it’s not easy, but it’s doable to try to stay ready because I don’t want to get in a game and let my teammates down and let my coaches down,” Lamb said last Tuesday before the Thunder played the Dallas Mavericks. Lamb didn’t get off the bench at all in that game, recording his only DNP-CD of the season. In fact, it is the only game this season he hasn’t appeared.

“I try to stay ready, try to stay on top of my game,” Lamb said. “Coach [Scott Brooks], he still gives me opportunities, he still trusts me, but Caron is on the team now and he’s been playing good. It’s all just a learning experience for me.”

That’s what Lamb, 21, thought last season was all about when he played in just 23 games after coming to Oklahoma City with Kevin Martin as part of the James Harden trade shortly before the start of the 2012-13 season.There’s also an added ego hit to this. Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the Rockets in 2012, has seen his reduced role come at a time when starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s top perimeter defender, is sidelined by injury. Defensive-minded rookie Andre Roberson, long and active at 6-foot-7, has started  the last nine games and averaged 17.6 minutes a game. He produces little offense, about only a third of Sefolosha’s 6.7 points a game, but in a starting lineup with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s larger need is at the other end.

“His minutes have been a little up and down but it’s not that he’s going to be a forgotten man,” Brooks said of Lamb. “He’s going to get opportunities. He just has to stay ready and stay confident, and that definitely is difficult for any player let alone a younger player. There’s areas he’s going to be able to continue to work on. He’s not on the bench permanently, he’s just going to have to be ready when his opportunities come.

“There’s times where in anybody’s career if you’re not playing you still have to improve and find ways to get better, and we’re going to continue to work with him and prepare him for opportunities to play. And he’s going to get them.”

In the last two games, blowout wins over Sacramento and Utah, Lamb played 33 minutes and 22 minutes respectively. Against the Jazz his minutes were split evenly between halves. Against the Kings he played 16 minutes in the first half.

But he’s also logged seven minutes or less five times in the Thunder’s last 13 games, including the DNP-CD at Dallas. Eight times he’s been limited to 14:20 or less. That happened just four times prior to Butler’s arrival.

“I definitely talk to Jeremy. He’s a confident young guy,” Westbrook said. “You always got to be ready, that’s all I can tell him. Just be ready, work on your game everyday and you never know when your number’s going to be called. He’ll be ready. My job is to help him do that, to stay confident and think positive thoughts about himself and his game.”

The Thunder have nine games remaining in the regular season with a home date against San Antonio next on Thursday. There remains no certainty of Sefolosha’s return or how a rotation will shake out from there. For Lamb, there’s only one thing he can do.

“My teammates they always encourage me. I just try to work hard,” Lamb said. “Coach still communicates with me telling me to stay ready, keep going. That’s what I’m trying to do.”Stay ready.”

Morning Shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers find life at top tough | Butler delivers for OKC | Grizz shift into playoff mode | Dragic weighing national team decision | Charlotte hoping for All-Star Game bid

No. 1: Pacers finding life at the top hard — Expect to read more on this today from our Steve Aschburner, who was at last night’s Pacers-Bulls tilt from the United Center. But as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out this morning, the Indiana Pacers — who are just two games ahead of the Miami Heat for No. 1 in the East — have had a rough time since about February of maintaining their torrid early-season winning pace:

Somewhere along the path to a magical season the Indiana Pacers lost their innocence. Now they’re losing their way.Monday night the Chicago Bulls beat the Pacers with one of their signature defense-based wins 89-77, avenging a loss in Indianapolis last week. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games the Pacers have gone down. Previously, they’d lost seven times over a span of 28 games. They didn’t even have their seventh loss of the season until Jan. 8.

“We started off this season so great and we were excited for the end,” Pacers star Paul George said. “But we forgot about the middle and the middle is the toughest part.”

But the Pacers have so far been slow to readjust their comfort zones. Instead, they’ve been slowly getting frustrated with each other in the classic mode of a team that is underachieving.

Several Pacers players have pointed to February when things started turning for them, a month when Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded long-tenured Danny Granger for Evan Turner in an effort to bolster the roster heading into the playoffs. The Pacers’ players, however, were stunned by both moves. Granger’s departure was treated like a mini-funeral.

“Larry is the man is charge,” Hibbert said. “He made the decisions and we have to go out on the floor and figure it out.”

Then, two weeks ago, Bird lashed out publicly at his players and his coach. Vogel has built a reputation for being positive, sometimes coming off as downright cocky. He has an air of assurance about him that he’s passed to his players, the sort of vigor that had them talking about getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference back in the first days of the season.

Though its defense has been a little less consistent than desired in the second half of the season, what is causing the team the most angst is its offense. In losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls in the last few days, the Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in back-to-back games for the first time in seven years.

There are slumps abounding. Over the last 15 games, Hibbert is averaging just nine points and shooting just 44 percent. After he shot 56 percent in February, David West is shooting just 46 percent in March. George is shooting just 37 percent in March and averaging 19 points, well below his season average.

It’s also not hard to miss how annoyed some Pacers are with Lance Stephenson, the young sparkplug guard who was a huge key to their early season. Stephenson has four triple-doubles this season but at times he’s been too focused on getting those stats, robbing rebounds from teammates and generating some frustration.

Other times he flat-out hogs the ball. And while this happens with many players on every team, the tolerance for the younger and rougher Stephenson is much less than for the veterans elsewhere on the roster.

On Monday, Stephenson had no assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss. When he drops his head and ignores open teammates, heads shake and shoulders slump visibly. After averaging nearly six assists a game in the season’s first three months, Stephenson is averaging only three assists over the last two months.

“We have [guys trying to be heroes] at times and we choose the wrong moment at times,” George said.


VIDEO: Pacers players discuss the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

***

No. 2: OKC’s bench delivers vs. Nuggets — With their All-Star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as solid contributions from Serge Ibaka — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup never seems to be lacking in scoring punch. But once the bench crew steps into the game, how well OKC’s offense fares can be a game-by-game roller coaster ride. That instability might be nearing its end, though, especially if new addition Caron Butler puts in performances like he had last night against the Denver Nuggets. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more on Butler’s play:

For the final month before the All-Star break, without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant captured headlines with his fantastic play and his team’s surprising success.

But the Thunder’s impressive late January run was about far more than Durant. He was the catalyst, but the consistent roster-wide contributions helped spur the 10-game win streak and the 15-2 close to the first half.

For the first 11 games after the break – an anemic 5-6 run – that was missing. But of late, it has returned, an impressive four-game win streak culminating in a 117-96 domination of the Nuggets on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant, predictably, was the leading scorer with 27. But on a night where he shot below 50 percent (10-of-21), his team shot above it.

Reggie Jackson had an efficient 16 points and 11 assists, needing only six shots. Steven Adams scored in double-figures for the first time since January. And even Nick Collison dropped in 10, including a corner 3-pointer that drew the loudest ovation of the night.

But Caron Butler shouldered the biggest non-Durant end of the scoring load. In 29 minutes, Butler had his best offensive performance since joining the Thunder, going for 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable every single game,” Durant said of the Thunder’s newest member.

But Butler’s most important offensive contribution on this night – and the most encouraging sign moving forward – was his ability to take advantage of mismatches in the low post.

With so much length and size at rare positions, the Thunder forced the Nuggets to throw smaller defenders at Butler. He exploited it on multiple occasions, dropping in easy short range jumpers.

“He had that post-up working tonight,” Durant said. “They have that smaller guy on him, and he takes advantage. That’s what we need him to do.”

On Monday, the Thunder played with the kind of confidence, effort and balance that allowed them to not only survive, but thrive without Westbrook before the All-Star break.


VIDEO:
Reggie Jackson and others discuss OKC’s blowout win against Denver

***

No. 3: Grizz getting into playoff mode? — Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have rolled up a 13-5 mark that has included wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Bulls, Bobcats, Blazers and Pacers. After last night’s wire-to-wire drubbing of the faltering Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis has amassed 10 straight wins at FedEx Forum and is looking more and more like a powerful playoff team, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

Memphis’ 109-92 victory Monday night accounted for its 10th straight in FedExForum, and perhaps sent a message to the teams floating around them in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies look like a team that’s moved beyond simply trying to make the playoffs to one seeking to steal a higher seed that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

The Griz improved to 42-28, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for a fourth consecutive season. That, however, is something the Griz expect to make a footnote in this campaign. Memphis sits a half game ahead of Phoenix in the seventh spot and remains within striking distance of the fifth and sixth seeds. The Griz are just 2½ games back from fifth place.

The Griz improved to 31-3 when leading after three quarters while the Timberwolves fell to 3-24 when they trail at the start of the fourth. Minnesota entered the game averaging 106.5 points, fourth-most in the NBA. This was the 11th straight game that the Timberwolves allowed their opponent to score 100-plus points.

***

No. 4: Dragic weighing decision on national team – The Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase thanks to the play of star point guard Goran Dragic. It’s been a banner year for the Slovenian standout and while he’s hoping Phoenix can complete its playoff push, he’s still weighing whether or not to suit up for his country’s national team in the World Cup in Spain this September, writes Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

With the Suns enjoying a 6-1 stretch, Dragic’s results are back to the norm of his outstanding season by no coincidence. He is shooting 53.8 percent overall and 46.2 percent on 3-pointers over the past seven games with averages of 18.1 points and 4.7 assists.

The team success makes him feel emotionally better but the physical wear and tear still exists and makes him consider not playing for his Slovenian national team this September at the World Cup in Spain.

“Sometimes, it is too many games,” Dragic said. “I still have to sit down with my national team and talk with them about making a decision if I’m going to play or not. I’m thinking more toward not playing and trying to get my body some rest to be fresher for the next season.

“That is hard because, back home, all the people judge you that you have so much money and you’re a star and now you don’t want to play for the national team. That bothers me a little bit but those people don’t know how the season goes, how many games it is and being in a different hotel every night. I’m more on the plane than in my car.”

Playing for Slovenia when it hosted last summer’s European Championship helped Dragic come into the season in a good rhythm but he is feeling the effects of nine consecutive months of basketball at times as the Suns’ playing time leader and primary point guard most of the season.

“I think I feel pretty good, especially my legs are not so heavy like 15 games ago,” Dragic said. “Even if you’re tired for the last 12 games, you have to go through that and try not to think about it so much.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic lead the Suns to a win in Atlanta

***

No. 5: Charlotte needs arena upgrades before it can host All-Star Game — It’s been 23 years and counting since the city of Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game … and it might be a few more years before it gets to host it again. Commissioner Adam Silver was at last night’s Houston Rockets-Charlotte Bobcats game at Time Warner Cable Arena and said while he’s hopeful that a basketball-mad city like Charlotte will host a future All-Star Game, some upgrades to the arena must take place first. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more:

First, he said, the city must upgrade Time Warner Cable Arena, which needs $41.9 million of work, according to a list of needs compiled by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“I’d love to bring the All-Star Game back here,” Silver said before the Bobcats game with the Houston Rockets. “This is a wonderful community, a hotbed of basketball, not just pro but college as well.”

He added: “There are some upgrades to the building that are needed. I know those discussions are underway right now. It’s part of the understanding here that the building remain state-of-the-art. Nothing dramatic is needed. But certainly an upgrade to the scoreboard, some things with the suites and the lighting.”

The Bobcats’ 25-year arena lease calls for the city of Charlotte to keep Time Warner Cable Arena among the league’s most modern. After the first seven years, the lease requires the city to make improvements, so long as half of other NBA facilities have them.

The team has requested money to upgrade suites, overhaul restaurants, build a new play area for children and move the ticket office, among other improvements.

The city said it will scrutinize the list of requests to see what is required under the lease agreement.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said the prospect of hosting the league’s All-Star Game shouldn’t make the city spend more money than necessary.

“The city should only be guided by what it’s obligated to do by way of the agreement,” he said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city must study the “business case” for possibly making additional upgrades to the arena.

“What kind of opportunity will there be (for improving the arena)?” Carlee said.

Silver said awarding the 2017 event should come in about a year. Then he reiterated his link between Charlotte’s chances and those upgrades.

“The team has time,” Silver said. “The first order of priority is making sure the building issues are dealt with.”


VIDEO: Adam Silver discusses what it would take for Charlotte to host a future All-Star Game

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tim Duncan says he’s taking it “game-by-game” about whether or not he’d retire at the end of this season … Five minor investors have been added to the Hawks’ ownership group … The New Orleans Pelicans might have found a go-to combination in the duo of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans … Lakers guard Nick Young says close to $100,000 worth of clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage were stolen from his house during a home game … Good little chat with Steph Curry about his golf game, the Warriors-Clippers rivalry and more … What kind of chance does Mitch Richmond have at the Hall of Fame? Our Scott Howard-Cooper examines it … Former high-flying Raptors swingman Jamario Moon is thinking about an NBA comebackBrandon Jennings is hitting his stride at long last for the Pistons …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes a play can personify the style of play of a team. Such is the case with this defensive sequence by the Bulls and a hustle follow-up jam by Taj Gibson


VIDEO: Taj Gibson follows up the Jimmy Butler miss with a power jam

Mental game opens new vistas to Durant

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant had 35 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls on Monday night (3/17)

CHICAGO – Kevin Durant had just done it again. The Oklahoma City thin man had just taken on one of his profession’s most stifling defenses, five (pick ‘em) of the Chicago Bulls’ most physical and resistant players and 22,000 partisans happy to enjoy Durant’s talents but determined to see him lose by night’s end, and he had beaten them all. Again.

Durant had spent a chunk of the pregame period with his legs encased in long black sleeves, hooked up to a contraption meant to promote circulation and healing. After all, he not only leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 points a game) but in minutes played (2,534) and arguably in workload shouldered.

Yet, 24 hours after a miserable 23-point home loss to Dallas, Durant dialed it up again and fended off the Bulls at United Center. He subbed back in mere seconds before Chicago drew within 76-75 with 10 minutes left and sparked OKC on a 13-0 run over the next six minutes that buttoned up the outcome. Durant finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and stretched to 32 games his streak of scoring 25 points or more. That’s the longest such streak since Michael Jordan did it for the Bulls in his breakout 1986-87 season.

Durant has averaged 34.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists during the streak, while shooting 51.7 percent (39.2 percent on 3-pointers). The Thunder are 21-11 since it began, with a dip (6-6) coming since teammate Russell Westbrook returned from right knee surgery and triggered a readjustment.

“Russ goes down, Russ isn’t playing, Russ comes back in – you know, the constant is him,” said veteran forward Caron Butler, whose appreciation of Durant has only grown since joining the Thunder March 1. “He remained the same. To keep guys going, keep everybody on point.”

Durant, 25, has been performing at an MVP level all season, displaying all the skills and attributes with which NBA fans have grown familiar: Silky smooth shooting, remarkable vision thanks to his 6-foot-10 height, impeccable timing and touch to his passes and occasional explosions to the basket that can surprise everyone in the gym.

But he has added a consistency, owing to an ever-sharpening mental approach, that has taken it all to new heights.

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

“What impresses me the most is two things: His consistency and his ability not to worry about [a scoring streak],” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “I know when I had a three-game streak of four [points], I was worried about that next game and how I had to make my first shot. He’s not worried about it. He’s worried about playing hard and playing the correct way and finding ways to help his team win. He’s amazing and so consistent, he’s done this from Day 1, from November all the way through March 17.”

Said Durant: “It definitely takes mental toughness, especially on the road.”

You wouldn’t have known about his growing seriousness and depth from the wildly colored boxer briefs and socks with Pete Maravich’s photo on them Durant wore after Monday’s game. But it’s a topic that lately has been on his mind, one might say. While opposing teams cope with the mental pressure of facing an assassin like Durant, accounting for his every movement across 38 minutes or so, Durant more and more plumbs the depths and possibilities in his game that aren’t strictly by-products of his physical gifts.

It was something he talked about in a Wall Street Journal magazine feature (March 2014) in which several celebrities or reputed authorities were asked about their notion of power. Here’s what Durant said:

“Something that’s often overlooked in basketball is mental power. A game is 50 percent mental—mental toughness. Going through ups and downs during a long season, you have to really set your mind to have the power over everybody else—over opponents, fans, bad refs, tough games. You gotta fight through that. When I was young, I was always the skinny kid and got pushed around a lot, and my mental toughness goes back to that.”

And:

“…There will always be someone taller, someone stronger, somebody quicker. Having that willpower and extra fight is what’s going to set you apart. On the court there’s trash talk, you can hear fans trying to disrespect you, but just being quiet, never being too high or too low, is the most powerful place to be in a game.”

All NBA players have mental toughness to one degree or another, said OKC guard Derek Fisher, or they wouldn’t have made it this far. But when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau talks about that trait in legendary players such as Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and others, it isn’t just hindsight. Mental toughness dripped off those guys like perspiration.

“It’s the reason why we talk about them the most,” Fisher said. “Because there are certain things they do that seem to mentally take themselves to a level other guys can’t. Everybody can’t show up night in and night out, from a mental standpoint and perform at a high level.”

It’s not just Kobe Bryant baring his teeth after a clutch shot in a close game.

“It’s in the daily preparation,” Fisher said. “The willingness to be the first guy at practice and the last one to leave. Taking the time to get extra shots up. Studying the game. Watching film. Taking care of your body. Kobe’s history of playing through injuries, that requires it.

“Kevin is exhibiting mental toughness every night. Not just showing up and, at the end of the game, he has 20 points but you didn’t really know he was there. He’s impacting the game at both ends every night.”

And stealthily getting 35 before folks feel the sting of his presence.

Nick Collison, another Thunder veteran, has been with Durant from the start back in Seattle. He’s an eyewitness to the growth, externally and internally, in the scoring star’s game.

“”When he first came in the league, he was like all guys – you’re just trying to find your way,” the backup forward said. “Now he’s at the point where he’s thinking, how can he help everybody be better? It’s not just in his play, it’s not just in his decision-making. It’s trying to talk to guys and trying to lift the team up. All the phases of the game, he appreciates the importance of that stuff now.”

One Western Conference advance scout Monday said he has noticed a peace in Durant’s game this season, compared to 2012-13’s edginess. “Last year I thought he was trying too hard. He was getting some techs doing things that were out of character, complaining,” the scout said. “Now he’s toned that back some, and he’s a beast. Maybe he felt he needed to get respect from referees or other teams or something. He’s got the respect. Now it’s all coming together.”

Said Collison: “We’re all human. We have things going on in our lives and we all have those stretches. But I think this year, his mind is free. He’s having a good time. And he’s more mature. That’s a big part of it too. He’s been around – he’s 25 now – and we all get a little more perspective as we get older.”

Where does Collison see the gain? In how locked-in Durant is now.

“More possessions being engaged,” he said. “Fewer possessions of spacing out. I think that’s all of us. It’s a long season, 82 games, and to avoid the distractions and always be engaged in the play that’s right in front of you… the more possessions you have like that, the better you are. A sign of that with him is, defensively, he’s taking less plays off. He’s in the right spot.”

Durant, asked about this before the game, admitted he still has work to do.

“That’s half of the game to me, is mental,” he said. “My focus every time I step on the court is, what am I thinking about?

“To be honest, there are some games where I think about what I have to do instead of what the team has to do, and that takes my focus off the big picture sometimes. But just staying conscious of what we need to do as a team and how I can help that is something I tell myself every time I step on the floor.”

And yes, he has sought counsel on this aspect, from some of the very best.

“I’ve talked to Karl Malone – he’s been a big help to me. George Gervin, those guys. Larry Bird, I’ve talked to him before,” Durant said.

“Just trying to see what their thoughts was in shootarounds and practices and games. See how they approached it and what they were thinking about when they were going out there performing. Just picking the brains of the greats can definitely help. I’m looking forward to growing as a leader, as a player mentally. I have a long ways to go, so I always ask questions.”

Which will leave his opponents with questions of their own. Mostly along the lines of, How are they going to stop this guy now?

Butler talks Thunder, titles and KD


VIDEO: Caron Butler talks about joining the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – Birthdays present the perfect time to reflect on the past and look toward the future. It’s especially true for Caron Butler, who celebrates his 34th birthday today as a happy new member of the Oklahoma City Thunder following an unpredictable upheaval of a summer in which he was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Phoenix Suns and then to his hometown Milwaukee Bucks.

In his 12th season, Butler’s career has certainly taken a winding path since the Washington Wizards traded him to the Dallas Mavericks at the 2010 deadline. He won a ring with the Mavs in 2011 although he watched it all behind the scenes while he relentlessly rehabbed — but could never make it back — from a gruesome knee injury earlier in the season.

The quest to make another championship run was at the root of Butler’s request for a buyout from the foundering Bucks. Then, in another unexpected turn, Butler chose to head west to join Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City when so many seemed to believe he would go east with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2002.

Butler sat down with NBA.com following Tuesday’s Thunder victory against the Houston Rockets in which he contributed salty defense, 11 points (including three 3-pointers) and five rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. In four games with the Thunder, Butler has helped fill the void left by injured starting shooting guard and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha.

In short time, Caron Butler is impressed by teammate Kevin Durant. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

In short time, Caron Butler has been impressed by new teammate Kevin Durant. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

NBA.com: First off, you’ve only played in 38 games between Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. How is your health?

CB: I had a bad ankle sprain earlier in the season so that bothered me a little bit. But coming here and getting in a routine really helped.

NBA.com: A lot of people seemed to think you would go to Miami. Why did you choose OKC?

CB: I’m playing. I looked at it as an opportunity to play and play for a great organization. I looked at the pieces and I knew that I fit in with this group.

NBA.com: Thunder head athletic trainer Joe Sharpe held a similar position at UConn when you played there. Was that a factor in your decision?

CB: It had a lot to do with it. He took care of me a lot at the University of Connecticut, so to link back up with him, I knew I was in good hands from a physical standpoint.

NBA.com: You moved your family to L.A. and then Phoenix to Milwaukee. Will they come with you to Oklahoma City?

CB: It was an easy move to Milwaukee because I already had a house there, about 10 minutes away from the practice facility. They’re staying there. The kids are in school and everything. They never got in school in Phoenix.

NBA.com: What does it means to be on a team considered a favorite to get to the NBA Finals, and this time, knock on wood, be able to compete?

CB: It means a lot. Looking back at so many opportunities in my career and great organizations I played for, to be healthy and to be going into this run means a whole lot. I’m going to give whatever I have physically, mentally, to put us over the hump and just keep us moving forward. I love the position we’re in and I’m excited about the future.

NBA.com: How do you view the 2011 title? You got the ring, but didn’t play that season after the Jan. 1 knee injury.

CB: It felt good, but at the same time that was one that I got obviously when I wasn’t healthy. You know I got the No. 2 on my [Thunder] jersey — I’m chasing No. 2. It would mean a lot to be a part of this team and this young group. That’s what it’s about, winning. Obviously we don’t talk about championship and everything, but it would mean a lot to me just to be on that stage.

NBA.com: You’ve come in and averaged 26.8 mpg. Any surprise that you’ve garnered that playing time so quickly?

CB: Unfortunately Thabo went down. When I signed, he went down the next day so it was just a situation where coach put me in the rotation coming off the bench and there was a need for a little experience out there.

NBA.com: Was your production in the win against the Rockets Tuesday indicative of what you think you can deliver: defensive intensity, 3-point shooting, a little rebounding?

CB: I’m just going to be aggressive on the defensive end, space the floor; obviously they’ve got a great thing and a great chemistry and I’m just finding my way and trying to do the little things that matter.

NBA.com: It’s only been four games, but what’s it like to play with Kevin Durant?

CB: Him and Russell [Westbrook], man, they’re amazing. I played with some great players and he’s one of the best scorers I’ve ever played with. And you know he’s a willing passer, too. That says a lot about him at this point of his career, a young guy who’s a superstar that is willing to pass the ball and make other people better. Now, at this point in his career, that’s amazing.