Posts Tagged ‘Chris Paul’

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.

Love wisely takes control of own destiny

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters weigh in on the Kevin Love rumors

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Be mad at Kevin Love all you want. Slap the head off of that bobble-head if it makes you feel better.

But understand this: He’s doing the right thing, forcing his way out of a tough situation in Minnesota. Love has already let the Timberwolves know that he will test the market, meaning that he intends to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015.

And that means the Timberwolves need to ask themselves if it makes more sense to waste the next few months trying to change Love’s mind or to spend the next few weeks sorting out the best trade option and getting something rather than nothing for the face of their franchise.

Survey the list of superstar and even All-Star talents in recent seasons who have decided they wanted to work elsewhere, and almost to a man each and every one of them found a way out, no matter how ugly the fallout. Carmelo Anthony in Denver. Chris Paul in New Orleans. Dwight Howard in Orlando. Deron Williams in Utah (the Jazz jettisoned him before things got ugly). When a star wants a new destination in this day and age, dating back to LeBron James and his departure from Cleveland, it’s difficult to keep him in the fold.

The Los Angeles Lakers remain one of the only teams to stare down its franchise player, Kobe Bryant, and not buckle to a trade demand (real, admitted to and or imagined)/request for an exit in some shape, form or fashion. Keep in mind they were working with an armored truck worth of cash, a rich championship history and freedom to manipulate the situation in whatever way Bryant wanted as part of their fool-proof recruiting pitch.

Love is in a completely different place in his career. He’s yet to sniff the aroma of the playoffs after six seasons in the NBA. The fact that he’s had enough in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves have been unable to surround him with the supporting pieces necessary to reach the playoffs in the rugged Western Conference, should surprise no one.

But this isn’t about Love’s exit strategy or even what a downtrodden Timberwolves franchise is going to do in the event that they have to part ways with a bonafide superstar (owner Glen Taylor and front office boss Flip Saunders, it’s your move). This is about the fact that Love recognizes that it’s now or never if he wants to graduate from that short list of first-line stars who haven’t dipped their toes in the postseason waters.

Love is wise to take control of his own destiny and write the next chapter or two of his legacy on his own terms. Whichever route the Timberwolves decide to take, he’ll have plenty of suitors willing to wait out the process in an attempt to add him to their mix.

Even more intriguing for some of those interested parties — the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Lakers headline the long list — is whether Love is slated as the No. 1 or No. 2 option in the future. Whatever their designations, a Love-Steph Curry-Klay Thompson trio with the Warriors and new coach Steve Kerr would be pure fireworks. He could be an absolute game changer alongside Anthony in New York and certainly with former MVP Derrick Rose and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah in Chicago under Tom Thibodeau. The possibilities are endless.

Still, for all of his well-deserved individual hype, there are some, a scant few NBA front office types, who repeatedly point out that Love’s spectacular numbers never did lift the Timberwolves to that next level.

Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio even questioned his leadership abilities in the wake of the news that Love wanted to explore his options elsewhere.

“Each situation is different, but this is a results league,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “And he’s never led a team to the postseason. Chris Bosh takes a beating from people, always has. But the one thing you couldn’t argue when he was in Toronto was that he could lead his team to the playoffs. I think Love is in a similar situation in that he could be the ideal No. 2 in the right place, the guy who serves as the linchpin in a championship situation. He’s that skilled and that talented. And he works his tail off. But he has to get to the playoffs for any of us to know for sure. And in this day and age of analytics, that one metric that still matters is whether or not you get there.”

It’s clear that making the playoffs, being a “winner,” is the one thing that matters to Love.

He wouldn’t have allowed himself to be placed in this current predicament, where his name will be run through the rumor mill relentlessly, if that wasn’t his No. 1 priority.


VIDEO: An all-too familiar sight: Kevin Love goes off but the Timberwolves lose

MVP efficiency, free throws key for KD

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: How will the Thunder attack the Spurs without Serge Ibaka?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin Durant has to step into a telephone booth and emerge once again as the league’s most efficient scorer. It might be the only way the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder have of toppling the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

Game-to-game consistency has eluded the MVP in the postseason, and now with the team’s defensive stopper and  third-leading scorer, Serge Ibaka, sidelined with a calf strain, an already razor-thin margin for error has shrunk.

Durant’s come through with stellar performances when the pressure’s risen highest, in two first-round elimination games against Memphis, and again when the Thunder’s fortunes turned bleak against the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals.

In Games 6 and 7 against Memphis, Durant shot 23-for-41 and was 5-for-11 on 3s (5-for-5 in Game 7 after 0-for-6 in Game 6) and 18-for-21 at the free-throw line. Following his 6-for-22 shooting in Game 5 against the Clippers, a game the Thunder won on the back of a brilliant Russell Westbrook effort, Durant went 12-for-23 (12-for-17 after a 0-for-6 start), 5-for-8 beyond the arc and 10-for-10 at the line in the clinching Game 6.

Across the board throughout the first two rounds, Durant’s MVP shooting percentages are down significantly: 45.3 percent from the floor, 34.8 percent from beyond the arc and 82.5 percent from the free throw line, a number that’s slowly been on the rise.

It won’t be easy against a Spurs defense that has fared decently against Durant this season despite losing all four regular-season games to OKC. The scoring champ averaged 32.0 ppg against the league (on 50.3 percent shooting, 39.1 percent from 3 and 87.3 percent from the free-throw line), but 26.3 ppg against the Spurs on 45.9 percent shooting and 26.3 percent from beyond the arc. The latter figure should be highlighted considering the volume of 3s Durant is taking during the postseason, a slowly decreasing 7.1 per game compared to 6.1 during the regular season.

Ibaka is often a safety valve for Durant when double-teams come at him, but that option no longer exists. Ibaka averaged 14.0 ppg on 46.3 percent shooting against the Spurs this season, plus 11.5 rpg and 16 blocks, his second-highest total among all teams (17 vs. Houston).

Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he has to figure out ways to move Durant, who will be guarded tightly by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard among others, and get him into open space.

“It’s always a combination with Kevin,” Brooks said. “We have to continue to move him around and he has to continue to move around himself and get better setups and lower setups and forceful setups.”

Finding Durant some breathing room goes hand-in-hand with what might be his greatest weapon in this series: Free throws.

The regular-season and playoff leader in free-throw attempts, Durant got to the line 10 times or more in just three of the first eight playoff games. In the last five, he’s accomplished that four times, including shooting 40 free throws in the last three games.

Durant’s co-star Westbrook, one of the most aggressive rim attackers in the league, ranks second in the playoffs in free-throw attempts. He took 57 in the six games against the Clippers, and 28 in the last two games.

Only the Clippers have shot more free throws so far in the playoffs than the Thunder’s 357. Of those, Westbrook and Durant have combined for 237, just 40 shy of the entire Spurs team. Getting to the line is the easiest way to score and can help nullify Ibaka’s absence by getting key Spurs into foul trouble.

“KD and Russ are tough enough to guard as it is,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “When they start living on the free throw line … “

He didn’t finish the thought because, well, he really didn’t need to.

CP3 witch hunt needs to stop!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Chris Paul endured some tough moments during the Clippers-Thunder conference semifinal

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The grumblings started long before the fall, long before Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers fell in the Western Conference semifinals to the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

They’ve been rumbling around the basketball world for years now, the questioning of Paul’s place among the game’s current greats. Where does he fit in a landscape where he’s generally considered one of, if not the best point guard in the game? And yet there is still that glaring hole on his resume.

Paul has never been to the conference finals and has therefore only been a spectator when the NBA’s champion has been crowned.

He’s won multiple gold medals in international competition, including the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and is a staple in the talent-laden USA Basketball pipeline. And still, there are folks that want to chip away at his armor after years of excellence from him.

It doesn’t help that his contemporaries have hardware he lacks. LeBron James has championships rings and MVPs trophies to spare. Kevin Durant joined the elite club with his first MVP this season. Tony Parker has a Finals MVP and plenty of rings. Derrick Rose has his MVP. Rajon Rondo a ring and multiple trips to the conference finals and The Finals. Even the oft-maligned Russell Westbrook has been to The Finals.

Paul is in that weird superstar purgatory where everyone knows he belongs in any conversation of the best of the very best, until they start weeding guys out based on their accomplishments. The same superstar purgatory that veteran All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love have taken up permanent residence in the past few seasons (Anthony has been to the conference finals but still gets panned for not winning it all. Love is still waiting to make the postseason.)

Paul’s been a subject of a witch hunt, of sorts, this season in particular, with pundits and Hall of Famers questioning the validity of his superstar status. It’s a witch hunt that needs to stop!

Paul’s a seven-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA pick (three times on the first team), a five-time All-Defensive team selection and has led the league in assists three times and in steals six times. He knows better than anyone that the shortcomings in the playoffs are the one dark mark on his ledger right now, that’s why he takes the losses as hard as he does. That’s why this latest failure stings the way it does and will until he gets a chance to make it right.


VIDEO: A quick recap of the spectacular six-game series between the Clippers and Thunder

Those of us who chronicle the league have been tossed into the fire as well. We’ve been accused of giving Paul a pass because he’s always been good to us, always been as cooperative as possible and is a drama-free superstar in a world that boasts few of those.

That’s garbage. I don’t hold Paul to any different standard than anyone else. He and Deron Williams came into the league and promptly bum-rushed the point guard hierarchy. Paul played his way into the elite mix, held his own all the way up and fended off challenges year after year.

He doesn’t have to defend his position to me, you or anyone else.

He is not the fist superstar to fall down at a big moment in the playoffs, the way he did in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Westbrook and Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder. That final and disastrous 13.9 seconds will not define Paul’s season or career. And to hear people suggest that it would or even should is a testament to the prisoner-of-the-moment syndrome that permeates every fiber of our current sports culture.

“I just feel awful for him, point-blank I do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after his team bowed out to the Thunder in Game 6. “He’s the spirit of our team and right now his spirit is broken.”

You’d expect nothing less of a man who holds himself to the standard Paul does. But if we start running down the list of Hall of Famers who came up short in big moments, who didn’t win it all, we’d be here all day … and night.

This notion that Paul’s incapable of leading a team to championship heights is preposterous. No one took the Clippers serious as a contender before his arrival. For him to power them through the turmoil of the ongoing Donald Sterling saga the way he did goes down as another of his standout performances.

That in no way lets him off his own hook. Paul’s not looking to be patronized by me or anyone else for doing and saying the right thing, or coming close but not breaking through to the conference final threshold after a decade in the league. He wants more, he needs more. And that’s the way we all like our superstars, our champions to be built.

Paul believes he has championship DNA. And he knows that the only way to validate his own belief in himself is to make sure he and Rivers, Blake Griffin and the Clippers find their way to that next level in the near future.

If that means going back to the grind for yet another summer with the rumblings surrounding him and the questions lingering about whether or not he’s going to be a true superstar or a superstar with an asterisk, bring it on.

“I prepare for every offseason like I always do,” a clearly agitated Paul said after that Game 6 loss to the Thunder. “It’s nothing just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”


VIDEO: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin address the media after losing Game 6 to the Thunder

L.A.’s roller coaster came to weary end

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Doc Rivers speaks after the Clippers’ Game 6 and series loss

LOS ANGELES — Through all the ugly, unwanted daily questions that started with the name Donald, Clippers coach Doc Rivers maintained a sense of humor to the end.

In the postgame news conference moments after his team succumbed for the last time to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series, Rivers was informed of the latest, jaw-clenching news of the day that broke shortly before tip-off: Banned-for-life Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling asserted he will not pay the $2.5 million fine levied last month by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and vowed to fight the league’s intention to force him to sell the team.

Seated at the dais in front of a microphone, Rivers threw up his hands: “I’m not paying my $25,000 fine either,” he deadpanned.

Rivers was fined by the league Thursday morning for his criticism of the referees following the controversial call at the end of Game 5, a game L.A had in its back pocket before a calamity of errors allowed a seven-point lead to evaporate in the final 49 seconds.

The standing room-only crowd of reporters burst into laughter. Rivers, his suit coat long gone and his tie and top button of his white dress shirt loosened, flashed a fatigued smile just as his players in the adjoining room slumped at their lockers in painful silence.

Sterling had not been permitted inside the Staples Center since the first round. But his specter never left the building.

“The locker room was not very good after the game, in a very sad way,” Rivers said. “Just watching our guys, it just felt like all of this stuff that they’ve gone through, they kind of released all of their emotions. That was tough. That was tough for me to see as one of their leaders. I wish I could have done more for them.”

Rivers, in his first year with the Clippers following the rare coaching trade that released him from Boston’s rebuilding job, has been hailed as the perfect man for such a uniquely dispiriting turn of events. Throughout the playoffs, Rivers spoke openly and honestly about how he and his players were feeling and thinking without once losing his cool during the daily drudgery of such an unexpected mission.

His blowup after Game 5 might have been less about a call that didn’t go his team’s way than it was a month’s worth of emotion bubbling to the surface.

“I’ve said this before, and I’m not trying to show humility or anything like that,” Rivers said. “I think any coach in this system would have been the right coach, the right man. I just think you had to be. It’s not like we had a choice in it. None of us was chosen for this. None of us signed on for this. But this is what happened. The way I looked at it, it was my job to do everything that I thought was right.”

Soon after the Sterling audio was released, when emotions were at their rawest, Rivers said he didn’t know if he could coach the team next season if Sterling remained as owner. On Thursday night he made it clear that he will be back.

“I have no plans of going anywhere, as far as I know,” Rivers said.

For point guard Chris Paul, another season ended without advancing beyond the second round. His series of costly miscues in the final 17 seconds of Game 5 ate at him intensely. He wasn’t shooting it well in Game 6, but he was doing everything else as the Clippers maintained a lead until the end of the third quarter when an OKC burst tied it, 72-72.

Paul’s jumper with 7:59 to go tied it at 80-80, but the Thunder bolted on a 10-0 run and never looked back. Paul’s 14-point quarter accounted for more than half the Clippers’ points in the period, but it wasn’t enough.

The seven-time All-Star never pointed to the officiating after Game 5, only shoveling blame on his own shoulders. And when it was all over, he didn’t even lay the team’s exhaustive second-round loss at the feet of the disgraced owner, only at his own shortcomings.

Asked in the postgame news conference for his thoughts if Sterling is still owner by the start of next season, Paul shook his head and decided he was better off not answering at such an emotional moment, only to say that Sterling — who Paul and teammate Blake Griffin addressed only as “him” — is being paid too much attention.

“He’s the spirit of our team. Right now his spirit is broken,” Rivers said of Paul, who averaged 22.0 ppg, 12.0 ast and shot better than 50 percent. “He’s going to have all summer to work and get ready for next year. But he’ll be back. He’ll be ready.”

Most of the 2013-14 Clippers that won a franchise-best 57 games, will be back. The club has nearly $72 million tied into Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley and Reggie Bullock. Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford is under contract next season for $5.45 million dollars, but the full amount is non-guaranteed.

Even with Paul missing six weeks of the season with a separated right shoulder and Redick limited to less than half the season with multiple injuries, the Clippers earned the No. 3 seed in an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Rivers predicted the coming summer to be “messy” as the Sterling fight enters the next phase. For now, it appears the Clippers’ coach and players are content to allow that drama to play out on the periphery while they focus in on a brighter day and renewed goals come next October.

“We had a really, really good team, a great team,” Paul said. “Before the game, Doc talked about it. I told somebody at halftime, ‘It’s crazy, you play all season long, and the last few games we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play.’

“And it’s crazy that it’s over.”

24-Second Thoughts — May 15

By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com

ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — That’s right, the Hang Time Headquarters have been shut down for the evening. The brains behind your usual 24-Second Thoughts, my Hang Time Podcast co-host Sekou Smith, asked me yesterday if I would mind filling in for him tonight.

So here I am, parked on the couch, laptop on lap, games on the tube, Twitter tweeting away.

The Wizards and the Clippers had their backs to the wall tonight, and both were at home. Would they use the home court advantage? Could either squad force a Game 7?

24 — Before we get to the games, check out Andrew Wiggins getting ready for the pre-Draft combine in Chicago. I believe these are called hops…

23 — In the phone booth for Game 6? Both Wale and Robert Griffin III

And Wale did his part to try and help the home team later…

22 — The Pacers got off to a great start, particularly Lance Stephenson

21 — For some reason, even playing at home (where, admittedly, they’ve struggled in the postseason, the Wizards just couldn’t seem to find their groove…)

https://twitter.com/MrMichaelLee/status/467106300317274114 (more…)