Posts Tagged ‘Chris Paul’

Back to court in the Sterling affair

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Any hope that a Monday meeting between Donald Sterling and Steve Ballmer would provide some sort of resolution to the Los Angeles Clippers’ ownership saga, currently tied up in probate court, should be tempered with a cold dose of Sterling reality.

Nothing with this comes quickly or definitively.

The process of separating Sterling from the Clippers has had more starts, stops and resets than anyone could have imagined when Shelly Sterling signed an agreement on May 29 to sell the team for $2 billion to Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO.

Monday’s meeting, after court adjourned, between the Clippers’ current owner and the team’s possibly future one sent a buzz around the basketball world. But, by now, we all should realize that Donald Sterling’s mood and mind changes on a dime. There is no need to read too much into “friendly” talks between the two men. Not when there is so much that could change throughout the course of this probate hearing, which continues Tuesday and Wednesday with closing arguments scheduled for Monday.

The most optimistic of observers held out hope that a settlement might have been reached after the meeting. That is, undoubtedly, the preferred outcome of many.

But just last week NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he was not certain that new ownership would be in position at the start of the 2014-15 season. The sale agreement between Shelly Sterling and Ballmer mandated that the sale close by July 15, with a possible one month extension built into the deal. If the matter isn’t resolved by Sept. 15 the NBA has the option of resuming the termination proceedings and the sale of the team.

Our David Aldridge asked and answered the bigger and perhaps even better question before Monday’s meeting: What happens if Donald or Shelly Sterling is still in charge of the Clippers when training camp starts?

There is another provision that allows the parties another year to consummate the sale, subject to Ballmer’s and the league’s approval. That would, of course, mean that Shelly or Donald Sterling, depending on what the probate judge decides, could still own the team when training camps begin in October.

The NBA has said that that won’t happen, and that if the probate judge rules in Donald Sterling’s favor, it will quickly reinstate the termination hearing originally scheduled for last May, when the league sought to take the team from Donald Sterling after it determined he had made racist remarks in a conversation with a girlfriend. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Donald Sterling from the league for life and fined him $2.5 million.

The termination hearing was postponed after the league helped Shelly Sterling find a buyer for the team. Ballmer outbid several well-heeled prospective buyers for the Clippers, who set a record for highest price paid for an NBA franchise. Only the sale of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 for $2.1 billion is higher.

But when I asked Silver at his news conference last week if he could say with certainty that neither Donald nor Shelly Sterling would still be in charge of the team at the start of next season, he could not.

“No, I cannot say with certainty, and I can’t say with certainty because it’s in the hands of the probate court right now, and Donald is in the process of suing us for lots of money, and we’re defending ourselves against those lawsuits,” Silver said, referring to the $1 billion lawsuit Donald Sterling filed both against the league and Silver in June.

“The only thing I’ll say, and I appreciate that [Sacramento Mayor] Kevin Johnson, who’s been representing in essence the players in this matter and direct discussions with the players and the Players Association understand it’s very difficult to say anything with certainty in a situation like this,” Silver continued. “I can say with certainty we are doing everything in our power to move Donald out as an owner in the NBA, and as I said, if the probate ruling doesn’t go in our favor, we’ll recommence our procedures under termination.”

So while the Monday get-together made for promising headlines, it should be noted that there are reportedly no more talks planned, per The Los Angeles Times.

Plus, there is so much more ground to cover in the probate hearing. The chief financial officer of Donald’s properties said in court Monday that Sterling needs the sale to go through to pay off some $500 million in loans — or he’d have to sell off a large part of his real estate empire.

That bit of news may provide some additional hope for those looking for a quick resolution to this mess. But there are almost certainly more twists and turns coming. That’s the reality.


VIDEO: Doc Rivers talks about the Clippers’ spring and summer roller coaster, courtesy of the Sterling affair

Mavs double-down: Sign a forward and fall for 5-foot-7 Japanese PG Togashi

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The diminutive Yuki Tagashi has become a fan favorite with the Mavs in Summer League

LAS VEGAS —  The Dallas Mavericks may have double-downed in Summer League, potentially finding a depth forward for the big club and possibly an international sensation to play point guard for their nearby D-League team.

It’s rare for any team out here to offer an off-the-street free agent a contract, but the Mavs signed athletic, 6-foot-8 forward Eric Griffin on Friday just hours before the Dallas squad played its final game. Griffin closed out his strong summer with 20 points, three rebounds and three blocks in the 88-62 win over the Suns.

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s a blessing at the same time,” Griffin said of signing the contract. “I’m just real happy to be part of a team that wants me.”

Griffin, cut from the Miami Heat last year after they signed Michael Beasley, played two seasons at San Jose State and finished his collegiate career with two years at Campbell in North Carolina. He played in Italy and then Venezuela last season. The contract doesn’t mean Griffin’s made it to the big leagues just yet, but it does reserve him a spot at training camp where he can fight for a spot on the 15-man roster.

Mavs assistant coach Kaleb Canales, who coached the summer team to a 3-3 record, texted Griffin the news Friday morning.

“It brought a big smile to my face,” Griffin said. “But more than anything, my mom was happy. She knows where I came from and how I started. It’s a big day for me.”

The other half of this dreams-can-come-true Mavs summer is 5-foot-7 Japanese point guard Yuki Togashi. The 20-year-old’s combo of stature, speed, instincts and fearlessness instantly made him a fan favorite over the past week, although not quite to the level of another Mavs Summer League point guard sensation a few years ago, a guy named Jeremy Lin.

Of course Togashi’s size, quick-twitch style and terrific ability to run the pick-and-roll is more similar to yet another great Dallas Summer League find, the diminutive J.J. Barea. Now with Minnesota, the 5-foot-9 Barea developed into a steady, change-of-pace backup point guard for the Mavs and even started in the 2011 NBA Finals.

Togashi’s dream is to play in the NBA and said Friday that he will follow that dream and enter the D-League draft in the fall. His other option is to return to Japan’s pro league and take home a much bigger paycheck.

“I played professionally for a year-and-a-half in Japan. I think I did a good job in Japan,” said Togashi, who took the BJ-league by storm last season and led it in assists. “To improve my skills I think I have to go overseas and play in the D-League.”

The D-League draft has 10 rounds. The early rounds are dominated by players on the edge of being good enough to make an NBA roster. Togashi is projected as a late-round pick so it’s quite possible the Mavs’ D-League team, the Texas Legends, co-owned by Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, will be able to select him.

Togashi idolized Allen Iverson as a kid and says he now watches a lot of Chris Paul. Interestingly, Togashi came to the United States for high school and attended Montrose Christian in Maryland, where a number of NBA players went, including Kevin Durant. When no Division I scholarships came, Togashi took his talents back home and began his professional career.

His agent steered him to Charlie Parker, a longtime assistant coach with the Mavs, who now works for the Legends. Parker has been training Togashi in Dallas for the last six weeks. Parker called his friends with the Mavs and told them they should consider putting the point guard on their summer team.

Obviously a part of his instant popularity here was initially due to his against-all-odds size. When he takes the court, he looks like one of the smaller kids on a youth team at the YMCA swimming in his oversized uniform. Then he gets the ball in his hands and the oohs and ahhs suggest he’s much more than a sideshow attraction.

“It is tough,” Togashi said of his height and 143-pound frame. “But I use my speed to be able to make plays.”

Togashi will return to Japan on Saturday morning and join the national team for practices in preparation for a tournament in Taiwan. If all works out, U.S. basketball fans will get their next look at the little man in the D-League.

Griffin’s pursuit of his NBA dream begins now. The high-flyer averaged 11.4 ppg and 2.8 rpg in Vegas. A Mavs scout described Griffin as raw offensively and depending on his athleticism. But he runs the floor with energy, finishes above the rim and Dallas coaches believe he can develop a perimeter jumper essential to making it as player who can switch between the two forward positions.

“His activity on both ends just makes things happen,” Canales said.

Griffin heads home with a list of improvements to work on — starting with “my dribbling and keep shooting” — before heading to Dallas in a few months as training camp approaches.

“It’s definitely not over,” Griffin said. “I’ve got to prove myself now to the team and organization.”


VIDEO: Eric Griffin executes perhaps the dunk of the summer

Morning Shootaround — June 25


VIDEO: Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel discusses LeBron James’ opt out

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Are Clips willing to deal Griffin to get James? | Boeheim thinks Anthony would thrive in Chicago | Cavs still torn on who to take No. 1 | Report: Kings, Pistons talk J-Smoove swap | Report: Pelicans looking to move into first round

No. 1: Report: Clips interested in Anthony, James, but won’t trade Griffinor would they?LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom are on the free-agent market after their recent decisions to opt out of their contracts, are both close on a personal level with L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul. James and Paul have been close friends for years, while Anthony and Paul are also tight (anyone remember Paul famously toasting a future with Anthony during ‘Melo’s wedding?). The Clips are interested — like every other team in the league — in trying to nab Anthony and/or James this summer, but they won’t move Blake Griffin to make either transaction happen. Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com has more:

The Los Angeles Clippers have strong interest in pursuing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony if they can clear the requisite salary cap space to make a maximum-level offer to the superstars, who have both elected to become free agents starting July 1.

One player they have no interest in moving, however, is forward Blake Griffin. While the Clippers would need to move significant players and money to make a run at either James or Anthony, sources told ESPN that Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers has told Griffin on numerous occasions that he considers him “untouchable” in any trade.

The Clippers have $76 million committed in salaries for next season. That figure will decrease to $71.7 million after Darren Collison, Glen Davis and Danny Granger opt out of their contracts for next season, meaning the Clippers likely would have to trade some combination of prized young center DeAndre Jordan (one year, $11.4 million), Jared Dudley (three years, $12.1 million), Matt Barnes (three years, $10.1 million), Jamal Crawford (three years, $16.3 million) or J.J. Redick (four years, $27.7 million) to facilitate a deal.

The Clippers’ discussions about making a run at James or Anthony have been internal thus far; however, sources said the team has engaged in trade discussions this spring with the Orlando Magic regarding shooting guard Arron Afflalo.

Paul is one of James’ best friends and the two have talked about playing with each other since they were in high school, when they met on the AAU and prep all-star circuits. Paul is godfather to James’ son Bryce and they were in each other’s weddings.

The Clippers have a similar interest in Anthony, who is close with both Paul and Griffin, but it would be too difficult to clear enough salary cap space to pursue both James and Anthony in tandem.

While Shelburne makes it pretty clear the Clips won’t deal Griffin for James or Anthony, that may or may not be the truth in L.A. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times echoes that the Clips are indeed interested in LeBron and that they’d be willing to move Griffin to make a deal for him happen.

Here’s more from Turner:

Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations and coach, and his staff are doing their due diligence to make the team better and would consider moving All-Star power forward Blake Griffin along with others in a sign-and-trade deal to get James, according to the officials.

The Clippers could consider sending Griffin and Jared Dudley or Griffin and Matt Barnes to Miami to get James.

The Clippers wouldn’t mind trading DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and either Barnes or Dudley to the Heat for James, but the team knows that would most likely be hard to do.

One official said James really liked Rivers and was good friends with Clippers point guard Chris Paul.

Another official said James’ wife, Savannah, really loved Los Angeles, and that her preference would be for her husband to play for the Clippers rather than the Lakers if he decided to leave.

“The Miami Heat does not think he’s leaving,” one official said. “Miami thinks it’s a ploy by James to make the team better.”

The Clippers also haven’t ruled out making a run at Carmelo Anthony, who opted out of his contract with the New York Knicks and will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the officials said.

Another NBA official said that Steve Ballmer, who has agreed to pay $2 billion to buy the Clippers from Donald and Shelly Sterling in a deal that isn’t official yet, would be willing to “pay the luxury tax” if he was able to acquire James or Anthony.


VIDEO: Sekou Smith talks on GameTime about which team might land LeBron James

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Spurs, Heat Have Questions (And More Offseason Queries)

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.cm

VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses what’s next for the Spurs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship since 1999, but it took 15 years for the most stable franchise in pro sports to play in back-to-back NBA Finals. What’s left to accomplish?

That’s right, back-to-back titles.

That’s only one reason to expect Spurs captain Tim Duncan to continue his brilliant career for at least a 18th season. The talk has always been about Kobe Bryant chasing Michael Jordan‘s six rings, but it’s now Duncan in his twilight years who has the greatest chance to get it done.

So why in the world would Duncan, his body holding up as strongly as his production, hang ‘em up now?

Versatile forward Boris Diaw, high-octane point guard Patty Mills and reliable-when-needed forward Matt Bonner are the only players not under contract for next season. While Diaw and Mills have raised their stock and will be attractive free agents, it’s certainly not out of the question that they’ll be back in the silver-and-black.

Even if the Spurs lose one, or both, their Big Three — plus Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and a couple new reinforcements for the bench — will have the Spurs as a favorite to make it three consecutive Finals appearances.

Duncan, 38, just completed a phenomenal postseason, averaging 16.3 ppg on 52.3 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds while logging 32.7 mpg. That followed up a regular season in which he played in 74 games while coach Gregg Popovich again masterfully managed his playing time.

So, again, what would be the motivation to retire now? A man of similar body type, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won a championship with the Lakers at age 40 and played in The Finals at age 41.

While Duncan, for whatever reason, hasn’t come out and stated that he’ll be back despite still having one year and $10.3 million left on his contract, he has smiled through interviews while making statements lightly-sprinkled with hints that he has no plan of joining San Antonio resident David Robinson on the golf course quite yet.

Fortunately, the anticipation for a definitive answer won’t take long. Duncan has a June 24 deadline, that’s one week from today, to notify the Spurs of his plans.

The Miami Heat’s future won’t be resolved quite so soon. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents. What they decide to do will be the biggest story of the summer and whatever they decide will produce ripple effects across the league.

And that brings us to the biggest story lines of the summer:

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Westbrook eyes All-Defensive team

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Preparing for Heat-Spurs Finals clash

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook showed throughout the playoffs that when he puts his mind to it, with his quickness and size — 6-foot-3 and 200 rock-hard pounds — he can be an elite defender.

During the Oklahoma City Thunder’s exit interviews on Sunday, one day after being eliminated from the Western Conference finals, Westbrook said the impact of his defense during the playoffs showed him he can bring a more intense disposition to that end of the floor more consistently.

He said he’s eyeing an All-Defensive team selection next season, even if he’s a bit miffed as to the criteria to qualify for the honor.

“The way the defensive team is made now,” Westbrook said through a series of chuckles, “it’s based on, I guess if you steal the ball, or, I don’t know how it’s made up because, to me, you know, there should be guys on the defensive team that should be on there; there’s guys that should not be on it. If people watch the games, then they will know those things.”

Westbrook’s comment came the day before the NBA announced its All-Defensive first and second teams. He didn’t name names, and it’s not known if he might have gotten an early glimpse at the selections. A three-time All-Star (who would have made it four consecutive appearances if not for a right knee injury) and a three-time All-NBA second-team selection, Westbrook has never made an All-Defensive team in his six seasons in the league.

This year he received just five total votes — fourth on his own team — with one for the first team. The voting panel consisted of 123 writers and broadcasters from the United States and Canada. Teammate Serge Ibaka was named to the first team, Kevin Durant received 10 total votes with one for the first team and Thabo Sefolosha received eight votes, including one for the first team.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul secured his sixth All-Defensive team appointment and his fourth — and third in a row — on the first team. Paul, who received the most votes among guards, happened to be the league-leader in steals (2.5 per game). Westbrook finished tied for fourth (1.9), which also tied his career-high from 2010-11.

Golden State Warriors wing Andre Iguodala (148 total votes, 57 first team) made his second appearance on the All-Defensive team and first on the first team.

Westbrook’s 2.16 steals per game in the playoffs was second to Paul’s 2.85, but Westbrook’s strong two-way play against the Clippers in the second round helped to knockout Paul in the second round.

“Coming out of college, I take it personally, coming in and defending every night based on who I’m guarding,” Westbrook said. “And obviously through the playoffs you can see it a lot more through [each] series. You can see how much it can impact the game, and I’m definitely going to make more of an effort. That has to start next year to go throughout the season.”

The two second-team guards were Chicago’s Jimmy Butler (29 first-team votes) and Westbrook nemesis Patrick Beverley (44 first-team votes) of the Rockets. He made the team for the first time in his second season.

Beverley careened into Westbrook’s right knee during the first round of last year’s playoffs trying to make a steal as Westbrook slowed up near the Thunder bench to call timeout. Westbrook tore his meniscus on the controversial play and was out for the remainder of the playoffs. Two additional surgeries were needed in early October and then late December, limiting him to 46 games this season.

It was easily the most challenging season of Westbrook’s career. He had never missed a regular-season game until the 2013-14 opener. After a quick return early in the the season, he was playing some of the best basketball of his career just prior to undergoing a third surgery days after Christmas. He returned after the All-Star break in late February and was on a minutes restriction up until the end of the regular season.

Westbrook, 25, still finished the regular season averaging 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. He boosted each category during the playoffs, averaging 26.7, 8.1 and 7.3.

“Thinking positive thoughts take you a long way, I constantly say that,” Westbrook said. “You can easily be down on yourself when you have surgeries, injuries, have bad games, anything. You can easily think to yourself that you did something wrong or you can’t do it. And, you know, the whole time throughout the season — I’ve never been hurt — it was different for me, but I stayed positive.”

Now he plans to get defensive.

Brooks and the power of continuity


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks with the media on Sunday afternoon

OKLAHOMA CITY – The fickle and volatile nature of the NBA coaching business swept aside four 50-game winners the last two seasons. Memphis’ Dave Joerger nearly became the fifth last month, and the second in a row with that franchise.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks‘ job security always seems to be a topic fluttering in the breeze. He’s overseen three Western Conference finals appearances in the last four seasons, yet his critics continue to howl. Saturday’s Game 6 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs ended a second season of falling short of a return to the Finals.

However, it didn’t stop the franchise’s superstar, the league’s MVP from endorsing his coach.

“That’s our guy,” Durant said of Brooks during Sunday’s exit interviews, “and I’m riding with him.”

It would seem owner Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti would, too, but then Lionel Hollins, George Karl, Vinny Del Negro and Mark Jackson – fired 50-win club members — are still tidying up their resumes.

That’s typically not the case for a coach who has won better than 70 percent of his games in each of the last three seasons. Brooks has two years left on his contract at what is believed to be between $8 million and $9 million. The Thunder are not a franchise that takes a cavalier approach to paying one man not to work while paying another to fill his position.

Yet, Mike Brown is out in Cleveland with $16 million owed to him.

Is it possible the Thunder believe Brooks has taken this team as far as he can?

“It’s something that I don’t even consider. I do my job every day,” Brooks said. “I’ve had a lot of valuable lessons in my life from my mother and she’s always told me this: You do your job every day and you live with the results. ‘They say,’ you can’t worry about what ‘they say’; you never ever meet those people. I have many stories that I can tell you about my mom and that’s one of them — don’t worry about ‘them.’ Those are the people that told me I wasn’t going to make it as a 4-11 freshman in high school. My dream was to be an NBA player. If I would have listened to ‘they’ I would never have been able to make it.”

Presti won’t listen to ‘they.’ He’ll make up his own mind, if there’s even a decision to make. He spent Sunday conducting exit interviews with players and he will soon talk with Brooks, who Presti hired as an assistant onto P.J. Carlesimo‘s staff in Seattle and then promoted when he fired Carlesimo after a 1-12 start in Oklahoma City.

Soon after, Brooks elevated No. 4 pick Russell Westbrook to starting point guard. If Brooks and Westbrook have anything in common, it’s that criticism never strays far.

“Ever since I’ve been here and Scotty became the head coach, he’s done a great job of having confidence in me personally,” Westbrook said. “There’s times where things have gone south and he’s the only one that always, always, regardless of what happened, always had my back; regardless of people saying I was doing this, I was doing that, I was being selfish, being that, he always was the first person to step up and have my back and support me regardless of what’s going on. He does a great job of always staying positive and trusting in our guys and trusting in each and every person we have and in the organization.”

Brooks said the Thunder’s No. 7 -rated offense must continue to evolve around his two superstars, to become a better passing team with higher assist totals and fewer turnovers and periods of stagnation.
“I know I have to get better and I know our team has to get better,” Brooks said. “And we’re excited about moving forward together as a group as the summer unfolds, and coming back in October with a better team.”

If scheme isn’t Brooks’ forte, as his critics will claim, forging relationships is a strong suit. He’s helped develop a team of talented youngsters at the ages of 20 into perennial contenders now at 25. Before the All-Star break, Durant called Brooks the coach of the year for steering the team through Westbrook’s multiple knee injuries.

The Thunder remain as well-positioned as any club to challenge for Western Conference supremacy for at least the next two seasons, and beyond that if Durant re-signs when he can become a free agent in the summer of 2016. Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka have three years left. Reggie Jackson is eligible for an extension this summer.

The 2013-14 season was a struggle from the start of training camp when Westbrook was told he needed a second surgery on his right knee. He tore the meniscus in the second game of the first round last season and missed the remainder of the postseason. Westbrook had to undergo a third surgery in December just as he and the team were rolling. He was out through the All-Star Game.

Then OKC lost defensive-specialist, and now unrestricted free agent, Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins each for six weeks with injuries.

The Thunder still finished with 59 wins and Durant won the MVP. They beat Memphis in the first round and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers in the second round before falling to the Spurs. Both Westbrook and Perkins said the key area of improvement for next season isn’t personnel, but sharpening their mental approach to the game, specifically limiting careless turnovers that can turn a game or even a series against a team like San Antonio.

Changes will be made on the periphery of the roster, but the core is set for another run at a first title. It would seem the coach is, too, for a general manager and a franchise that place high value on continuity.

“You can easily say we lost the season because we didn’t win a championship,” Durant said. “But I don’t look at it that way because we learned so much throughout these years, throughout these last few months, especially, and it’s going to help us towards the future. When you look at it that way it stings not playing, but you also know that you’re just building the journey up, and hopefully one day you’ll look back at it and just enjoy what we went through.”


VIDEO: Scott Brooks talks about his future in OKC and more

Blogtable: Missing from The Finals

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


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s big challenge | Wish he was here | Runaway Thunder


The Clippers' Chris Paul (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

The Clippers’ Chris Paul (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

> We’re about a week away from The Finals. Name two deserving players that you’d like to see in The Finals that never have been there.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Well, Steve Nash for one (though I did find his “I’m not retiring because I want the money next year” comments kind of gauche). Nash’s resume covers pretty much everything else, and he’d be great to have around on the off days, for media purposes. My other Finals pass would go to David West, whom I find most blameless in Indiana’s strange, sideways final months of 2013-14 and whose championship window (he’ll be 34 this summer) is closing faster than most of his teammates.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It’s obvious to say Chris Paul. The league’s best point guard deserves a turn in the biggest spotlight. David West has been a below-the-radar rock on the frontline in New Orleans and Indiana for years and years and is the ultimate professional. You’ve also got to pull for a 37-year-old Vince Carter who is not only deserving for all of his past efforts, but is still going strong in the twilight of his career

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I’m not sure I’ve ever quite agreed with the premise of “deserving” to be in The Finals, but since you asked, off the top of my head, Joakim Noah. Nobody plays harder and if all things are equal and injuries never happen, maybe he’s played in one. He just completed his seventh season, but will also turn 30 next season. And, maybe Vince Carter.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comChris Paul. Not merely a special talent, his dedication to the game knows no boundaries. He wants to talk through potential moves with GMs, wants to be a leader behind the scenes, and wants to promote the sport. His commitment to post-Katrina New Orleans epitomized what more star athletes should be in the community. 2. Steve Nash. He has done everything right — the shooting, the playmaking, the longevity. But Nash has not gotten closer than Game 6 of the  conference finals, once with the Mavericks and twice with the Suns. He would have to get somewhere beyond the Lakers to see The Finals, but getting there would be well deserved.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’m going to reunite the old Hornets’ old pick-and-pop combo. Chris Paul is the best player in the league that’s never been to The Finals, and I’d like to see him get a shot soon. And every time I watch the Pacers, I admire David West’s toughness and reliability. He’s been Indiana’s rock through this roller-coaster season and it would be cool to see him bust through that ceiling at some point.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Technically, Caron Butler has been there. He’s got a ring (Dallas over Miami in 2011), too. But he never actually suited up during that series. He was injured throughout that championship run. So part of me wants to see him get there just so he can actually get his uniform dirty on the game’s biggest stage. Twenty years from now he’ll have NBA champion in his bio either way. But the chance to impact games in The Finals, win or lose, has to be on Butler’s bucket list. I’ve got a soft spot for Miami Heat center Greg Oden, whose chance to get on the floor in these playoffs might only come in The Finals. Eddy Curry rode the Heat wave to a ring, why not Oden?

Thunder’s star duo under more pressure

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook address the media after the Game 2 loss

SAN ANTONIO – The game suddenly and irrepressibly slipping away under a second-quarter Spurs blitz that melted the Thunder into a pool of mistakes and frustration, Russell Westbrook glared at co-star Kevin Durant as they labored to a timeout.

Durant had lost his man on the previous play and Westbrook was simultaneously jabbing his index fingers at either side of his head, a motion unmistakably meant to coerce league MVP Durantto “Think!” or “wake up!”

The interaction was inevitably perceived as the first sign of fissure for a team whose championship dreams are breaking apart.

“I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff and he got on me right back,” Westbrook said after the 112-77 Game 2 loss, the Thunder’s second consecutive blowout in San Antonio’s that puts them in an 0-2 West finals hole.

“That’s what teammates do, that’s what leaders do, we get on each other, we come back and we talk about it and then we come out like nothing ever happened.”

Nothing more happened for the Thunder. Midway through the third quarter, the Spurs’ approached 30 points. It’s become clear how badly OKC misses Serge Ibaka, its 6-foot-10 shot-blocker and mid-range jumpshooter. Without him, the Thunder have shrunk from title contender to not even belonging on the same floor as the well-oiled Spurs.

“It hurts us, it hurts us without him, there’s no question,” said veteran forward Nick Collison, who has just two points and five rebounds in the two games while starting in Ibaka’s spot. “But a lot of the breakdowns are basic [coverages] you start on the first day of training camp.”

The Thunder have three days to simmer and come up with a plan. It’s less about X’s and O’s and more about will. At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Durant said he has another level he can achieve, but that did not happen in Game 2. The Spurs, with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, have made him work hard for his offense.

Durant was 6-for-16 for just 15 points in 28 minutes. He missed all four 3-point attempts and got to the free throw line just five times, all coming in the first quarter. That mirrored Game 1 when he made three trips to the foul line in the first quarter and then just once after that.

Westbrook took 24 shots in 29 minutes and also finished with 15 points. He fell into funks of rushing shots and wasting possessions that helped fuel a Spurs roll that reached 43-14 during a stretch from the second quarter to third.

He has arguably been the Thunder’s best player this postseason, but with the Spurs able to key their defensive approach almost exclusively on Westbrook and Durant, there’s been little room to operate with no one stepping up to reduce that pressure.

Both superstars say they’re not overcompensating for the loss of Ibaka. But they’re getting so little help that it’d be impossible to blame them if they feel they must, if they think superhuman efforts are their only hope.

Durant was asked why he and Westbrook lost faith in their teammates as reasoning for combining for 40 shots in the less than three quarters.

“We didn’t stop trusting,” Durant said.

Then why did you stop moving the ball, he was asked.

“We didn’t,” Durant said.

Then how do you explain so many shots during the period in which the Spurs broke it open?

“Because we’re the focal point of the offense,” Durant said.

Thabo Sefolosha has been lost, going scoreless in both games. He could be benched for Game 3 in favor of Caron Butler — which was the lineup change OKC made in Games 6 and 7 of the first round. Collison has been ineffective. Reggie Jackson, who averaged 21 points and shot 68 percent in four regular-season wins against San Antonio, has 22 total points in the two games. He attempted only seven shots in 26 minutes in Game 2.

“We’re just going to play the way we play, man, regardless of what happens,” Westbrook said. “We’re going to play the way we play, man, regardless of miss or make shots. We’re going to live by it. That’s how we won all season. We’re not about to change now. We’re going to continue to trust our teammates, continue to play our game, and continue to compete.”

At this point, there’s little else they can do.

Reeling Thunder seem out of answers

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew hands out some advice for struggling Thunder

SAN ANTONIO – The Thunder had to feel pretty good. Relatively speaking. No, they hadn’t shot it well and the offense remained a combination of two overburdened superstars and haphazard execution.

But they had also stemmed another early San Antonio paint party and were getting enough hustle and grit from role players off the bench to survive Kevin Durant sitting out the first 5:42 of the second quarter, darn near a vacation for Mr. Inexhaustible during this postseason.

As the MVP checked back into the game between Tim Duncan free throws, the first tying it 36-36 and the second giving the Spurs back the lead, 37-36, the Thunder did have to like what was happening. They were hanging in, defending well enough that the Spurs, shooting under 40 percent, had to earn their looks.

Coming out of a timeout with 2:37 left in the half, San Antonio went up 47-42. Then the hurricane hit with a devastating wallop. First a Danny Green 3-pointer followed by a Boris Diaw reverse layup and then another quick-trigger Green 3 as Durant lunged, helplessly out of position to contest.

Suddenly it was 55-44 — an 8-2 explosion in 81 seconds.

Durant and Westbrook exchanged words heading to the bench for a timeout — leaders getting on one another, Westbrook explained, “what leaders do” — although it’s doubtful either could hear what the other had said.

The ascending roars inside AT&T Center reverberated off every seat in the house until the place felt as if it was going to blast off. For the Thunder it must have felt like the roof had caved in on them, leaving them stumbling through choking clouds of rubble. At least that’s how they played on the Spurs’ next possession.

First Diaw grabbed Ginobili’s missed layup. Then Ginobili snuck inside of Durant and rebounded Tony Parker‘s errant 3. Ginobili dribbled freely all the way out beyond the arc as if taking it back behind an imaginary line on his driveway, lined up a 27-footer and buried it with 33 seconds left in the half.

It was 58-44, a 22-8 burst being the precursor to a second consecutive blowout, 112-77.

“You can’t go from down 5 to 14, not in two minutes,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said.

“I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter,” Durant said. “I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I overhelped and he got another 3, and then Ginobili hit the 3. All those plays was on me … We shouldn’t have been down that much at halftime, but I made three bonehead plays.”

Durant sounded a lot like Chris Paul after the Clippers’ Game 5 loss at Oklahoma City. Paul shouldered blame for a series of bungled plays. This one obviously had much more time to play out, but just as the Clippers never recovered, there’s an undeniable dire feeling attached to this so-far non-competitive Western Conference finals.

Durant and Westbrook could have combined for 60 points and it still wouldn’t have been enough. Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was held scoreless again. He, Perkins and Ibaka fill-in Nick Collison have combined for nine points in the two games. Only Jeremy Lamb off the bench cracked double-digits and those points came after this one was long over.

With 5:41 to go in the third quarter the Spurs led 76-50. “Sweet Caroline” played over the audio system during a timeout and 18,581 swaying fans turned the arena into a rollicking sing-a-long.

With 1:47 left in the period, the margin stretched to 87-58 after a Kawhi Leonard layup, another layup that accounted for 54 point in the paint, 120 in the series. Durant slammed the ball to the floor and Thunder coach Scott Brooks threw in the towel. Durant, just 6-for-16 for a playoff-low 15 points, and Westbrook, 7-for-24 for 15 points, watched the rest of it from the bench.

Inevitably, the Thunder’s 2012 West finals comeback when they went home down 0-2 to the Spurs and then steamrolled them with waves of athleticism in four straight, became a popular line of postgame questioning. And OKC’s players all answered as they should, that they’re not giving up the fight.

But three key differences make this time feel a whole lot different: James Harden plays in Houston, Serge Ibaka is on crutches and this souped-up Spurs team, humming at top efficiency, is even better than that one.

Game 3 in Oklahoma City is not until Sunday night, leaving Brooks 72 hours to dissect this two-game train wreck and seek solutions to questions that seem unanswerable. Ibaka’s athleticism to defend Duncan in the post, meet Parker on penetrations and step out for 15-foot target practice on the offensive end, appear too much to overcome.

Brooks went small in Game 1 and he tried to go big in Game 2. He got by with again starting the second quarter without Durant and Westbrook on the floor. At the 9:13 mark, Westbrook returned with OKC up one. They’d keep it right there over the next three minutes when Durant returned to anchor another newly concocted lineup with Westbrook, Collison, Perry Jones and Steven Adams.

They got flattened. Now comes three days of introspection before the Thunder puts their season, their championship dreams, on the line in Game 3.

“It’s hard to do, but like I said, we can do it,” Durant said. “Of course everybody is going to try to spread us apart these next few days, but we’ve never been a team that front-runs. We always stick together no matter what. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

Spurs dare Thunder to stop them

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


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.