Posts Tagged ‘Caron Butler’

Mavs’ switch means Spurs don’t have to

By Fran Blinebury,

VIDEO: Tony Parker speaks at practice ahead of Game 2

SAN ANTONIO — Assist to Dallas. That first round series took a lot longer than the Spurs would have liked. Being put into that Game 7 situation so early was a precarious situation they would rather have avoided.

But with all the switching on pick-and-rolls done by the Mavs’ defense, it did have the Spurs comfortable to face the Thunder to open the Western Conference finals.

“We are very prepared for switching because first round, Dallas, that’s all they did,” said point guard Tony Parker. “And it took us a lot of games to adjust to that. And Portland tried to do that, too, the last two games. So I think we are prepared and we know what we have to do to keep the ball moving and to continue to play our style even if they switch.”

The Spurs’ goal is always to keep the ball moving quickly and get it to the open spots in the defense and they are probably the best in the NBA at doing it. Now as OKC plays without Serge Ibaka as a defensive anchor in the middle of the lineup, it’s a way to exploit the Thunder badly.

“That’s the goal,” Parker said. “We try to be patient and go to the best matchup. We try to move the ball and, if it’s Timmy, we try to give it to Timmy (Duncan). At some point in the fourth quarter, it was for Boris (Diaw). So, I think it’s very important for me or Manu (Ginobili) to stay aggressive. At the same time, look at the match-ups. Kawhi (Leonard) has a lot of match-ups, too.”

Diaw was particularly effective when Thunder coach Scott Brooks went with his small lineup and was able to take Caron Butler down into the low post. Twice in the space of three possessions, when the Spurs were regaining control in the fourth quarter, Diaw simply overpowered Butler to score.

“I think when they did that, Boris was very good in the paint,” Ginobili said. “When we play teams that are small, it’s great to have him, because he can guard (smalls more) and post up in those situations. So, he really helped us. But we have done it against OKC. We know they can do it. Hopefully, we attack the seams well, and if somebody helps, hopefully, we find open teammates. But probably the Dallas series helped us.”


Can Sefolosha get his corner 3 back?

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: What must OKC change in Game 2?

SAN ANTONIO — This is a contract season for Thabo Sefolosha, but you wouldn’t know it from his statistics. The veteran shooting guard is a defensive specialist, but he’s also been a dangerous and necessary corner 3-point shooter for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only his accuracy has mostly gone MIA this season.

He shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc after consecutive seasons of shooting better than 40 percent. His slide has continued into the postseason — 28.6 percent — and it’s led to erratic minutes and even sitting out the entirety of Games 6 and 7 in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies when coach Scott Brooks instead inserted Caron Butler in the starting lineup to help space the floor.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and the San Antonio Spurs, Sefolosha played just 16 minutes and after missing his first three jumpers and being yanked midway through the first quarter, he sat for the remainder of the first half.

Sefolosha expressed frustration with his limited playing time after the game. On Tuesday he took a less opinionated tact.

“I don’t really want to talk on it. It’s coach’s decision,” Sefolosha said. “When I’m on court I’m going to play and when I’m not I’m going to cheer for the guys. You know, it’s part of the game.”

The Thunder need Sefolosha’s offense more now than ever with third-leading scorer Serge Ibaka shelved presumably for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury. With Nick Collison replacing Ibaka, the Thunder suddenly start three low-scoring offensive players in Sefolosha, Collison and center Kendrick Perkins.

In Game 1, those three combined to go 2-for-10 from the floor for five points, all scored by Perkins. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant accounted for 53 of 58 points scored by the starting lineup.

Sefolosha’s corner 3s have always come off kickouts from Westbrook and Durant penetrations as defenses collapse. The benefit to the Thunder’s offense when Sefolosha hits 40 percent from the arc is obvious. During the regular season, 56 percent of Sefolosha’s 3-point attempt came from the corners as did 60 percent of his makes.

He’s just 3-for-9 from the corners in the playoffs.

The Spurs forced Sefolosha off the 3-point arc altogether. He ducked under defenders following a shot fake and badly missed on this first three mid-range in the first quarter. Nearly 44 percent of Sefolosha’s shot attempts this postseason have been 3s, but he managed just one on four shot attempts in Game 1.

“If the 3 is open, I definitely would rather take the 3,” Sefolosha said. “But they did a decent job getting us off the line.”

Ibaka’s absence brings ‘fluid’ lineups

By Jeff Caplan,

SAN ANTONIO — The Oklahoma City Thunder are doing their best sales job to suggest life without Serge Ibaka has to be business as usual. In basketball parlance, it’s simply next man up.

But, with 11:09 left in the second quarter of Monday’s Western Conference finals Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder pulled out their most unusual lineup, especially for this juncture of the playoffs. Jeremy Lamb checked in for Kevin Durant, but the the little-used, second-year shooting guard getting such early run wasn’t the exceptional part. It was who he was running with: Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Steven Adams.

Kevin Durant will need some help in Game 2 (Wednesday, 9 p.m.)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Kevin Durant will need some help in Wednesday’s Game 2 (9 p.m., TNT)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

“Our lineups can be very fluid and we have flexibility all year long to have done that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before Game 1. “We played small a lot and with Serge out, obviously we have more opportunities to play small.”

OKC climbed back from a 20-9 hole to 33-30 when Lamb came in for Durant. Exactly three minutes later, Lamb, whose head seemed to be on a swivel defensively as Spurs players raced by him to the bucket, checked out for Russell Westbrook and the Thunder trailed 45-37.

A small lineup that found success late in the second quarter was the unit of Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Durant and Kendrick Perkins. That group came together with 1:58 to go and OKC in big trouble, trailing 65-51. An 8-2 run trimmed the halftime deficit to a reasonable eight points, 67-59.

It’s a bad time of year to have to experiment with lineups. After the game, Brooks said he’s going to “have to find lineups that work.”

The Thunder’s best lineups are the ones in which Durant and Westbrook are on the floor together or, at least, with one of them in the lineup. And that’s mostly been the case. Durant logged 40 minutes in Game 1, the 13th time in 14 games this postseason in which he’s played at least 40 minutes, and the sixth in a row.

Brooks has to balance giving each of his stars some rest so they’re not totally gassed in the fourth quarter, but doing so while not putting the team at a severe disadvantage — which the Fisher-Jackson-Lamb-Butler-Adams group did.

There’s little choice for Brooks in deciding a starting lineup. Nick Collison is the only logical choice to fill in for Ibaka at power forward. Collison is a steadier player than the one that showed up Monday night and threw up three horribly off-target shots and was mostly poor defensively. A frontcourt of Perkins and Adams together doesn’t make much sense and Brooks clearly has little faith in 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet to contribute as a rim protector.

Although Brooks harped on defense after the game, his best bet might be to employ waves of small lineups that include Durant or Westbrook, or both, with Reggie Jackson and simply try to out-run and outscore the machine-like Spurs.

“I have faith in all of our guys to step in and do the job,” Brooks said. “No matter who we put on the floor, they have to be able to compete against this team. They have five guys that can score on the floor at the same time. You don’t have a possession off. Not one. We can’t hide anybody.”

Spurs dare Thunder to stop them

By Fran Blinebury,

VIDEO: The Spurs score 66 points in the paint en route to a Game 1 win over OKC

SAN ANTONIO — A year ago, it was Russell Westbrook being taken down after a contentious run-in with Patrick Beverley that resulted in torn knee cartilage. A player who had never missed a game in five seasons was zapped from the lineup.

This time around, it’s Serge Ibaka lost for the rest of the playoffs after his legs tangled with Chris Paul in the Game 6 close-out against the Clippers. Another ironman, Ibaka had sat out only three games due to injury over the past four seasons.

Somebody, it seems, keeps holding that door wide open for the Spurs to get their crack at a fifth championship in franchise history.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, playing the role of ushers was the Thunder, who did everything but lay down a trail of rose petals to lead the Spurs to the basket and a 122-105 victory.

Sometimes things turn out exactly the way you expect them. The sun comes up in the East, gravity works when you step out of bed in the morning, water is wet and the Thunder are a vastly different defensive team without their top jumping-jack, shot-blocker and rim protector.

So the Spurs simply went through OKC’s interior like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet line and did everything but stuff a few desserts in their pockets on the way out the door.

If it wasn’t layups, it was dunks. If it wasn’t running floaters through the lane, it was little pull-up jumpers.

The night after a hologram of the late Michael Jackson sang and danced at the Billboard Music Awards, it was 38-year-old Tim Duncan turning back the clock to give everyone a reminder of his greatest hits.

Tony Parker did what he always does — whatever is necessary. Kawhi Leonard ran like a one-man stampede. Boris Diaw made himself right at home in the low post. Even Tiago Splitter at one point simply reached out and ripped the ball out of the grasp of OKC’s Nick Collison, then turned and rammed it through the hoop.

What are you going to do about it?

That was question the Spurs might as well have been asking the Thunder after they rolled to a dominant 66 points in the paint.

And without the long arms and hungry appetite of Ibaka to roam the middle and protect the rim, it was a damn good one.

There is, after all, only so much even the prolific Kevin Durant and Westbrook can do.

The Thunder might not be totally exposed without Ibaka, but let’s just say they might as well be showing up at the prom wearing only a necktie.

“Sometimes it’s hard to focus on something like that and you’re going to do that or you’re going to shoot 3s tonight or you’re going to go in the paint tonight or you’re going to do this,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “You take what’s given, play the game, respect the game and whatever’s there, try to take advantage of that. It just worked out that way.”

Funny how that happens a lot with the Spurs, who play almost every game like it’s part of a coaching clinic, moving the ball from side to side, making the extra pass, finding the cracks in the defense and running through them like water.

In the previous round of the playoffs, the Trail Blazers wouldn’t double-team Parker, dared him to shoot from medium range to beat them and so he did, only stopping to score when his arm got tired.

The Thunder turned an 0-2 deficit to the Spurs into four straight playoff wins and a Western Conference title in 2012 by coming hard at Parker on the pick-and-roll, forcing him to give up the ball and limiting his ability to make plays.

They used the same approach this time around, but were only successful in the first half of the strategy. When Parker gave up the ball, it was to whomever he wanted, wherever and whenever he wanted.

“I don’t know if it was that easy, but we were taking what we were given,” said Duncan, who hit 6 of 7 shots in the first quarter for a dozen of his 27 points. “We knew getting into the middle and being able to attack a little more than we have, that’s kind of what’s been there historically against them and we were just able to make some shots tonight.”

They were able to make those shots because Collison, for all his dogged determination and want-to, is simply not the kind of intimidating force and athlete as Ibaka. Collison and center Kendrick Perkins create a huge deficit on the OKC front line in terms of scoring. When the Thunder went to a small lineup with three guards and two small forwards to boost their offense, the Spurs matched them and then one-upped them with Diaw taking Caron Butler down low and tying him into pretzel knots.

“That’s really what we were focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not there,” Diaw said. “A team that’s not in the paint is a lot different than a team that focuses on securing the paint.

“Right away, we went to Tim and we did a great job. We scored some baskets…We had a great passing game all night…We scored 120 points tonight. We know it is going to be a better game on Wednesday…We know it is going to be a different game.”

Or will it?

The sun comes up, gravity works, Ibaka is gone, the gaping hole yawns in the middle and that door is wide open for the Spurs.

Sometimes things turn out exactly the way you expect.

24-Second thoughts — May 19

By Sekou Smith,

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


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.

What's your #SPURSvTHUNDER prediction?

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

Spurs vs okc who u wit

A video posted by DR. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL Ed.D. (@shaq) on

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.”


24-Second thoughts — May 13

By Sekou Smith,

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 …

It's #WINorGoHome for @john_wall & the @officialwashingtonwizards tonight!

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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)?


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!

At the half on TNT, the @officialwashingtonwizards lead the @pacers 45-38. #nbaplayoffs

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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,

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 …

Serge Ibaka has arrived for tonight's #THUNDERvCLIPPERS Game 2 on TNT. #NBAStyle

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

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?

Roy Hibbert and Mr. Sonic getting ready for Game 2 at BLF.

A photo posted by Tom Lewis (@indycornrows) on

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.

These rumors have got to stop! Its gettin old now and all you that believe them are ignorant! #Brothers

A photo posted by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

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)

A hug for mom!

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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 …


A photo posted by Marc J. Spears (@marcjspears) on

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 …

@russwest44 brings the #Thunder on TNT! #phantomcam

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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,

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,

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,

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.”