Posts Tagged ‘Don Nelson’

Morning Shootaround — Aug. 22


Gentry can’t wait to team with Davis | A new era for the NBA | Copeland moving forward in Milwaukee | Cousins gets key

No. 1: Gentry can’t wait to team with Davis NBA coaches are only as good as the players on their rosters. Which is why new New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is so excited: He has the chance to coach Anthony Davis, who is one of the NBA’s best players and is only 22 years old. As Gentry explained to our own Ian Thomsen, Davis is one of the few “generational” players in NBA history …

Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan. Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe Bryant. LeBron James.

The dream of every NBA coach, as Alvin Gentry sees it, is to partner with one of those exceptional stars.

“They really are generational players,” Gentry says. “Anthony is a generational player, I think. And he is 22 years old.”

Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, whom Gentry will be coaching next season, has already earned an NCAA championship in 2012 (with Kentucky) and an Olympic gold medal four months later, in addition to two All-Star invitations, one first-team All-NBA selection and a breakthrough playoff appearance last season with New Orleans.

Coaches can navigate the NBA for decades and never connect with someone like him. Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman — each with more than 1,000 wins — have coached many great players, but never that one transcendent star who could win the championship.

“Anthony is right in that category, and there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” says Gentry. “It is up to us to make him as good as he can possibly be, and not settle for him to be less than great in this area or that area. I told him that I have no doubt that he is going to be an MVP in this league. And I said to him, ‘We are going to be really, really good if you also win Defensive Player of the Year.”’

It is one thing to dream of coaching Davis. It is another thing to know how to coach him — to bring the experience and energy and wisdom that are crucial to the job. How do you make the dream come true?


No. 2: A new era for the NBA It’s something many NBA fans have probably taken for granted over the years: We all see the schedule — 30 teams criss-crossing the hemisphere in order to play 41 home games and 41 road games — but did anyone really consider how that tangled web of scheduling came together year after year? As Howard Beck writes, for the last three decades, the job of scheduling the NBA belonged to NBA executive Matt Winick, who is “moving on” after forty years with the NBA, and taking with him an era when things were done differently

The memorabilia has been bubble-wrapped—the autographed Willis Reed print, the kitschy poster from the 1978 Finals. A brawny typewriter, the Royal 440, rests on the radiator. An NBA staff guide, dated 1975-76, peeks out from a shelf.

And on the desk sits a yellowed Rolodex, jammed with four decades of key NBA figures. But the real power rests beside the Rolodex.

That’s where the PC is. The one with the spreadsheet containing all those arena dates and television commitments and grudge matches. The one that dictates where every NBA team will play, and when.

For the last 30 years, Matt Winick has punched the keys on this PC (or one like it) and arranged all of those dates, color-coding for home games (blue) and away (red), agonizing over every six-game road trip and every back-to-back set, bracing for the complaints that were sure to follow.

“I tell the teams, ‘Hey, that’s the way the computer did it,'” Winick said from behind his desk. “But it was never the computer. I was the computer.”

Officially, Winick has carried the title of senior vice president, but he is best known as the NBA’s Scheduling Czar—a role he alone has held since 1985, a role he is now relinquishing for good.

The 75-year-old Winick, who first joined the NBA in 1976, is stepping down (not retiring, he insists) at the end of the month, taking with him four decades of memories, mementos and scheduling wisdom.

The spreadsheet has been bequeathed to Tom Carelli, the league’s senior vice president of broadcasting. Carelli’s team produced the recently released 2015-16 schedule, the first without Winick’s fingerprints since the 1984-85 season.

“I always described it as a jigsaw puzzle with 1,230 pieces”—one for every game—”and if one of them doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work,” Winick said. “All 1,230 pieces have to fit.”


No. 3: Copeland moving forward in Milwaukee A few months ago in New York City, then-Pacers forward Chris Copeland was stabbed outside a New York City nightclub, necessitating emergency surgery and ending Copeland’s season. Now Copeland is a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, and as our Steve Aschburner writes, Copeland is looking forward to getting back on the court and playing for coach Jason Kidd and one of the NBA’s most promising young teams…

This is a guy for whom there were no bread crumbs marking his path to the NBA, no dots to connect in cooperation with a friendly GM that would help him realize a dream. Copeland got cut twice overseas and moved through teams in Spain, Holland, Germany and Belgium before turning himself — with some intense coaching from TBB Trier’s Yves Defraigne in Germany — into a player worthy of a Knicks summer league invitation in 2012.

With his solid play there and in camp that fall, Copeland won a roster spot. It all has gone so fast since then — 147 NBA appearances, 1,955 minutes played, 349 field goals — that getting derailed or even stuck with a reputation for one wrong-place, wrong-time mistake would have been cruel.

Instead, Copeland has focused on the positive.

“If I didn’t go through cold showers overseas or stuff like that, I wouldn’t understand as much what it is, when I say it’s a blessing to be here,” he said. “It’s different when you actually have an experience on the other side.

“Everything else that’s happened that’s led me to this point, I’m thankful for. I just keep it as a positive in my head.”

Reuniting with Kidd, who Copeland played with in the final year of his Hall of Fame-bound career as rookie, is the positive now. He said he learned much from the veteran point guard, from how to care for his body to proper positioning on the court. What Kidd helped the Bucks accomplish last season, improving from 15 to 41 victories, was no surprise to their new “stretch four” option.

“I knew he’d be someone I’d want to play for,” Copeland said. “He’s been a great basketball mind. Playing with him, I got to see his leadership abilities. A lot of things he did as a player, he was almost coaching then. You can see it over the last two years he’s been a head coach, he knows what he’s doing.”

Copeland’s strength, deep-threat shooting from a big, never has been more in demand. And Milwaukee has been eager to add some after finishing 26th in 3-point attempts and 23rd in 3-point makes. Golden State won a championship with shooters spacing the floor, so the Bucks are among the many hoping to replicate the success.

“I think with the guys we have on this team — [Giannis] Antetokounmpo, Jabari [Parker] when he gets healthy — we can make their jobs easier,” Copeland said.

Copeland hit 42 percent of his 3-pointers in his first two seasons, then dropped to 31 percent in 2014-15. It was a dismal year all around, from Paul George‘s ghastly summer injury and absence, through Roy Hibbert‘s continuing funk, to the regrettable incident in April.

“I always count blessings, but I always look forward,” Copeland said, happy for the fresh start. “I count on my blessing always — I’ve been like that before, after and in-between. I thank God every day for my life and for being able to be here as an NBA player. But I don’t look backwards in any way.”


No. 4: Cousins gets key There’s been plenty of drama in Sacramento, but the one thing nobody is arguing is that center DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most talented young players in the NBA. This week Cousins returned home to Mobile, Alabama, where the mayor gave him the key to the city and Cousins discussed plans to help revitalize parts of his hometown

The 25-year-old Cousins was born and raised in Mobile and this weekend he returned to hold a free youth basketball camp with free eye exams from VSP Vision. He held the same type of camp in Sacramento back in June.

“Teaming up with VSP is helping kids in Sacramento and Mobile see better and provides them with opportunities they may not otherwise receive,” Cousins said. “Having good vision is critical both on and off the court.”

Mayor Stimpson and Cousins spent two hours touring parts of the city on Friday. Part of Cousins visit was to share his vision of revitalizing Michael Figures Park in his old neighborhood.

The park has become dilapidated and over-run with graffiti, and it no longer serves a purpose for youth within the community.

Cousins, who played at LaFlore High School, is hoping to partner with the city to give the park a makeover. He wants to clean it up and add a new playground, as well as revitalize the basketball court, where currently one hoop is missing from the run-down court. He envisions turning the inner city park into something that would resemble New York’s Rucker Park.

The vision of the park restoration project is just the first of many that Cousins has planned for Mobile.

Also included of the hometown tour was a stop-off at Pritchard Prepatory, a charter school for elementary students. Cousins and the Mayor stopped in classrooms to visit with children and pose for pictures.

“Me growing up, I wish I would have had a chance to interact with an NBA player,” Cousins said. “This is just my way of giving back to them.”


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kobe Bryant joined Taylor Swift on stage at the Staples Center last night to present her with a “championship” banner … Michael Jordan won a lawsuit against a supermarket chain that used his likeness without permission … Tyrus Thomas is training for an NBA comeback … The Sacramento Kings will celebrate several #FlashbackFridays this season by bringing back their old baby blue uniforms

Morning shootaround — May 31

VIDEO: Steve Kerr talks about Klay Thompson’s concussion


Gentry to unleash Unibrow | Klay expected to be cleared | Drafting Curry not just Nellie’s revenge | Bulls like Hoiberg’s Kerr appeal

No. 1: Gentry to unleash Unibrow — There apparently was a good reason the New Orleans Pelicans never reached out to Tom Thibodeau as a candidate to fill their head coaching vacancy, even though chronologically the fired Chicago Bulls’ bench boss was available. And even if the disinterest had anything to do with Thibodeau’s good friendship with the man who most recently held the job, Monty Williams, that probably wasn’t the biggest reason. Thibodeau is known for coaching transformative defense. New Orleans is more eager to goose its offense. That’s why Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr‘s right-hand man in Golden State and a contributor to Phoenix’s blistering attacks a few years back, has the job today. With one big mandate to match the Pelicans’ one big budding star, per

…[One] of the league’s slowest teams in recent years plans to significantly pick up the tempo. That’s a frightening proposition for opponents, who now must contemplate Anthony Davis like they’ve never seen him before, in a fast and loose system that should utilize his obscene athleticism and above-the-rim finishing ability.

That wasn’t necessarily the guiding principle in New Orleans under Williams. Despite the presence of Davis and the attack-minded Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans ranked No. 27 in pace this season. During Williams’s tenure, the Pelicans were the league’s slowest team twice, and they never ranked higher than 22nd in pace. This wasn’t a fluke: before being hired by New Orleans, Williams was an assistant in Portland under former coach Nate McMillan, who oversaw the league’s slowest team in 2009-10 and 2010-11

[Gentry’s] arrival promises a new era in which New Orleans’ guards are encouraged to push the pace and Davis is called on to open and close transition opportunities by running the court. Look for the Pelicans to regularly use him as a center, structuring spread lineups around him to create space for pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. When New Orleans does play big, Davis will likely be given free reign to create from the elbow, and it wouldn’t be that shocking if he started to work the corner three into his offensive repertoire either.

The statistical ramifications for Davis here are mouth-watering. Last season, at age 21, he averaged 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds while posting a 30.8 PER despite playing at a snail’s pace. By comparison, a 22-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire averaged 26 points and 8.9 rebounds while posting a 26.6 PER in 2004-05 under Mike D’Antoni, with Gentry as an assistant. “Young Amar’e” was a phenom in his own right, but he was no Davis. If things fall into place and Davis continues to blossom, it’s not outlandish to envision the two-time All-Star making a run at averaging 28/12, a threshold achieved by only Shaquille O’Neal over the last 30 years.


No. 2: Klay expected to be cleared — As antsy as NBA fans are for the 2015 Finals to begin – we must be entertained! – there is yet another silver lining to the eight-day gap between the end of the conference championship round and Game 1 Thursday in Oakland. Concussion protocols often take time, as do concussion recoveries. So this layoff is helpful to Golden State’s Klay Thompson, who took that nasty knee-to-the-head from Houston’s Trevor Ariza, and to the Warriors, but also to the integrity of the Finals. Golden State coach Steve Kerr, as noted by the Bay Area News Group, said he expects his shooting guard to be ready when the series against Cleveland begins at Oracle Arena.

Thompson has been “progressing well,” according to Kerr, since being kneed in the head as the Warriors won in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday.

Kerr said he hasn’t thought about how Thompson might be replaced if he isn’t ready for the NBA Finals. Kerr did note that Leandro Barbosa has played a major role in the playoffs and that Justin Holiday could see some minutes as well.

The Warriors won’t have to play for another five days, which gives them time to possibly have Thompson practice before returning to action.

“It’s good that we have this break because he has the time to go through what he’s going through,” Kerr said.


No. 3: Drafting Curry not just Nellie’s revenge — If the conspiracy nuts are to be believed, there never were any lunar landings and—wait, wrong conspiracy. The one we care about here at Hang Time HQ is the one about Golden State drafting NBA MVP Steph Curry at No. 7 in 2009 simply because the Warriors’ powerful coach, Don Nelson, wanted to screw the New York Knicks for firing him 13 years earlier. But Nelson denied that Saturday in an interview with the New York Post and it seems reasonable; if the Knicks’ brain trust of Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D’Antoni could love Curry’s game and potential, so could the similarly offensive-minded Nelson. Besides, none of them would have been in position to pick Curry if David Kahn, Minnesota’s overmatched basketball boss at the time, hadn’t botched his consecutive picks at Nos. 5 and 6. Here’s part of the report by the Post’s Marc Berman:

Knicks brass always has believed their much-publicized interest in Curry, the 2014-15 MVP, in the lead-up to the draft swayed Nelson away from Arizona power forward Jordan Hill and onto the scent of Dell Curry’s son out of tiny Davidson College. Nelson had final say on the Warriors’ personnel decisions.

One conspiracy theory charges Nelson with taking Curry over Hill to spite the Knicks, who unceremoniously fired him midseason at disgruntled Patrick Ewing’s request.

Nelson, who retired four years ago, will watch proudly from his Hawaii homestead as Curry’s Warriors battle Cleveland in the NBA Finals starting Thursday.

The Hall of Fame coach roundly denied Donnie Walsh’s and Mike D’Antoni’s love affair with Curry influenced his opinion. Nelson told The Post on Saturday from Maui he would have taken Curry second in the draft that year, after Blake Griffin. James Harden was third.

“The guy’s a 10 as a human being, 10 as a player,’’ Nelson said. “We would’ve taken him No. 2. I saw him in the NCAA Tournament vs. St. Mary’s and fell in love with him. People were saying he didn’t have a handle to be a point guard. I saw a point guard the whole way. He had a handle, could shoot and be creative. In Davidson he wasn’t asked to make plays for others. I thought he was going to be terrific. I saw him as an All-Star. Not an MVP this soon but certainly All-Star caliber.’’

Whether revisionist history or not, the Knicks lost hope in the final two days entering the draft as it became clear Nelson, from Bay Area reports, was serious about Curry. Nelson said he worried Minnesota would use one of its two top-six picks for Curry, and he tried to trade up. Instead, the Timberwolves selected point guards Ricky Rubio (No. 5) and Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn (6), who no longer is in the league.

“I didn’t think he’d be there,’’ Nelson said. “Minnesota bailed us out. I didn’t care for the Syracuse kid and Rubio couldn’t shoot it.”

Some within the Knicks believe had Curry, and not Hill, fallen to them, as it once seemed, their franchise fortunes would have been drastically different. Hill was traded during his rookie year to open more cap space for 2010. Nevertheless, Walsh had a chance at All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Jeff Teague, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson or Jrue Holiday at No. 8.

“Whoever would’ve drafted [Curry] would’ve turned their franchise around,’’ Nelson said. “We were lucky to get him. You build a franchise around those guys. Point guard nowadays is more important than centers.’’


No. 3: Bulls like Hoiberg’s Kerr appealFred Hoiberg played for the Chicago Bulls, one small, natural connection when it came time for Bulls management to cast about for someone to replace Tom Thibodeau as head coach. Hoiberg also has a pre-existing relationship with Chicago GM Gar Forman – Forman was an assistant coach at Iowa State when Hoiberg played there, the school he has been coaching to solid NCAA success. And then there’s the Steve Kerr thing – Hoiberg became something of a 3-point specialist in his 10 NBA seasons with the Bulls, the Pacers and the Timberwolves and shares that slender, blond-haired look. And next season he’ll be a rookie NBA head coach seeking something approximating the first-year success Kerr has enjoyed at Golden State. The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson provided some details on the man who will take over for Mr. Thibs:

All that’s left is the official announcement that Hoiberg, 42, will replace Tom Thibodeau as the 19th coach in franchise history, which two sources said is expected no later than Wednesday. The day for Hoiberg’s official introduction is unknown as the two youngest of his four children are finishing school on Monday and he’s recovering from open heart surgery on April 17.

The New York Daily News first reported Hoiberg’s deal is “believed to be for five years and $25 million.” The Tribune couldn’t confirm that independently, but one source said Hoiberg would receive more than the $20 million extension he signed with Iowa State in March 2013, which contains a $500,000 buyout for an NBA job. …

That’s the going rate for recent hires. Both the Knicks’ Derek Fisher and the Warriors’ Steve Kerr have similar deals, while the Thunder gave Billy Donovan $30 million over five years.

Speaking of Kerr, [former Bulls GM Jerry] Krause, who also signed [Kerr] as a free agent in 1993, sees similarities in both their personalities and offensive philosophies. Kerr took over for a popular and successful coach in Mark Jackson and used levity and an upbeat temperament while guiding a team that had won 51 games the previous season to 67 victories and a trip to the NBA Finals.

The Bulls are hoping for a similar injection.

“Iowa State’s offensive is aggressive,” Krause said. “They go after you. Personality-wise, Hoiberg is very straight with you. I don’t think Freddie knows what the word “con” means.”

“He’d earn respect of players right away,” Krause said. “If you don’t respect Fred Hoiberg, you don’t respect people. He’s an outstanding individual and student of the game. He has been in the league. He knows what the league is. He has been an executive. He has been around a bunch of good coaches.

“He improved the team’s character wherever he went because he’s so much a character guy.”


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The day LeBron James paid an unscheduled visit to watch NCAA Steph Curry. … Allen Iverson is turning 40 years old? Man, where did that time go? A look back. … Go on, you know you want to ask it: Would Golden State be in the Finals if Mark Jackson still were coaching there? … Much-traveled former NBA big man Chris Gatling is in trouble in a credit card scam, and it’s not his first brush with the law. … Basketball shifts to business swiftly as Patrick Beverley and the Houston Rockets head into offseason.

NBA’s Frantic Four trying to change history

VIDEO: Relive the biggest moments from the semifinals

There’s no official and catchy distinction for the last teams standing in the NBA semifinals, no Final Four or Frozen Four or anything like that, but here’s one that might best describe the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets: Frantic Four.

Yes, there’s more than a sense of desperation. These are four franchises that haven’t won an NBA title in a combined 162 years. Not since 1958 for the Hawks (based in St. Louis then), since 1975 for the Warriors, since 1995 for the Rockets and since, like, never for the Cavs. There are adult fans of those teams who’ve never known the thrill of the ultimate victory or seen a parade or felt the need to brag. In the case of the Hawks, they’ve never been to the East finals before, and once they beat the Wizards last week and advanced, Atlanta nearly reacted as though it won a real championship.

And so, with regard to these four teams searching for a change of fate, we examine their level of desperation for this 2015 title and rank them accordingly.

No. 4: Houston Rockets

VIDEO: Houston wraps up its second championship in 1995

In the midst of a celebration in June of 1995, Rudy Tomjanovich grabbed the mic and uttered one of the most memorable lines in NBA history: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” Rudy T was tweaking those who thought the Rockets were too old to repeat, which they did, but it’s been a 20-season long dry spell since. Evidently, everyone correctly estimated the staying power of the Rockets.

That two-time championship team died gradually. The Rockets tried to tape it together with an old and broken down Charles Barkley and that crew eventually made the 1997 West finals. But they had to watch as John Stockton sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 6 (in Barkley’s face) to send the Utah Jazz to The Finals. Then, in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, they added another dinosaur: Scottie Pippen. Within four years, all of the important pieces of the championship era were gone, including Hakeem Olajuwon, looking grotesquely out of place in a purple jersey with a cheesy reptile in Toronto.

Houston did give it another go with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but injuries kept interrupting their time together and the Rockets advanced beyond the first round only once.

Since 1995, the Rockets have basically been a mixed bag, reaching the West finals once and then being mercifully teased by the T-Mac-and-Yao era. GM Daryl Morey then stole James Harden from OKC and signed Dwight Howard as a free agent and, well, here they are. In that span, they moved to a state-of-the-art downtown arena (Toyota Center) and enjoyed big crowds. Not exactly the picture of doom, which means, life without a title hasn’t been totally dreadful. (more…)

Steve Nash calls it a career, but impact on game will live on

VIDEO: Steve Nash was a two-time MVP and one of the greatest players of his generation

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The debates about Steve Nash‘s place in the history of the NBA can officially begin now that the two-time MVP has officially announced his retirement.

What is not up for debate, however, is the impact Nash had on the teams he played for and the game. He helped usher in the pace and space era of the game while in Phoenix, where he also collected those back-to-back MVPs, in Mike D’Antoni‘s system. A super team featuring Kobe Bryant, Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard in Los Angeles Lakers uniforms never materialized as Nash and Howard battled injuries that derailed the championship aspirations for that group during the 2012-13 season.

Nash’s 19-year career comes to a close with him finishing third behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd on the all-time assists list at 10,355. But Nash could not suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers this season due to injuries. Nash told ESPN’s Marc Stein that it’s “really difficult to put it into words,” now that his career is over. But he did it better than anyone else could in a letter to The Players’ Tribune website, where he broke the news of his own retirement earlier today:

The greatest gift has been to be completely immersed in my passion and striving for something I loved so much — visualizing a ladder, climbing up to my heroes. The obsession became my best friend. I talked to her, cherished her, fought with her and got knocked on my ass by her.

And that is what I’m most thankful for in my career. In my entire life, in some ways. Obviously, I value my kids and my family more than the game, but in some ways having this friend — this ever-present pursuit — has made me who I am, taught me and tested me, and given me a mission that feels irreplaceable. I am so thankful. I’ve learned so many invaluable lessons about myself and about life. And of course I still have so much to learn. Another incredible gift.

Nash went on to thank many of his coaches, teammates, family, friends and other influences, making it a point to identify those who helped him go from a Canada to college star at Santa Clara to a NBA star and eventually one of the all-time greats:

Don Nelson insisted that I score. I always wanted to pass but he said, “It’s goddamn selfish when you don’t shoot.” Or, “If you’re a dominant fucking player — dominate!” He insisted that I be aggressive. That growth was a turning point in my career.

Mike D’Antoni changed the game of basketball. There’s not many people you can say that about. No wonder I had my best years playing for him. His intelligence guided him to never over-coach, complicate or hide behind the game’s traditions. He deserves a championship.

When I dribbled by our bench as a rookie on the Suns, Danny Ainge would say, “Take him!” with intensity and contempt in his voice. That was a huge vote of confidence for a rookie.

I remember when Dirk [Nowitzki] and I were nobodies. He used to say over dinner sometimes, “How are us two stiffs gonna make it in this league?” Somehow we made something of ourselves. After all the wins and all the great times we’ve had around the world together, what really means the most to me are the late nights early in our careers when we’d go back to the Landry Center in Dallas, to play a few more games of HORSE and one-on-one. Dirk and the great city of Dallas got their championship, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

Michael Finley was twice an All-Star in his prime, when Dirk and I were young guys on the Mavs. Michael never played in another All-Star Game, but our team went from last place to the Conference Finals under his watch. Do you know how rare that unselfishness is in our game? A true friend and teammate.

The most accurate free throw shooter in NBA history, Nash served as the point guard for the top offense in the NBA for a staggering nine straight seasons (encompassing part of his time in Dallas, 2001-02, through 2008-09 in Phoenix). An eight-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA pick and five-time assists leader, Nash also won the celebrated J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2007.

His impact on the game, around the globe, will be felt for years.

His underdog story resonates, no matter what language one speaks, as Nash (in his own words) prepares himself for “Life After Basketball.”

I will likely never play basketball again. It’s bittersweet. I already miss the game deeply, but I’m also really excited to learn to do something else. This letter is for anyone who’s taken note of my career. At the heart of this letter, I’m speaking to kids everywhere who have no idea what the future holds or how to take charge of their place in it. When I think of my career, I can’t help but think of the kid with his ball, falling in love. That’s still what I identify with and did so throughout my entire story.

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

‘Run TMC’ crew in rarefied HOF air

By Scott Howard-Cooper,

VIDEO: ‘Run TMC’ takes a closer look at one of Golden State’s magical eras

They were together just three seasons. It seems like they ganged up on opponents for longer, but, no, just three seasons of sending scoreboard operators to the injured list with finger and hand disorders, before a trade brought things to an abrupt end, followed by a lifetime of wondering what could have been if Golden State’s Run TMC era had remained intact.

There was always something forever about the Warriors of T(im Hardaway), M(itch Richmond) and C(hris Mullin) and Don Nelson the mad-scientist coach, encouraging, not merely allowing, Manute Bol to fling 3-pointers from about the back of his neck. Now there officially is.

The Hall of Fame is expected to reveal Monday that Richmond, along with Alonzo Mourning, will be part of the Class of 2014. This comes after the February announcement that favorite TMC sidekick, Sarunas Marciulionis, will also be enshrined this summer. He’ll join Mullin (a 2011 Hall of Famer) and Nelson (2012) in Springfield, Mass.

Three players and the coach from the Warriors of 1989-90 and 1990-91 will be in the Hall. It is the kind of rarified air usually reserved for the Lakers and Celtics, with a strong case to be made that the point guard Hardaway could be the fourth player to go with the shooting guard (Richmond), small forward (Mullin) and reserve swingman (Marciulionis). Even better for Golden State? This party will include former coach and current community ambassador Al Attles, as beloved within the organization as any person is with any franchise in the league. He’ll be there to receive the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor from the basketball museum short of enshrinement.

For all the historical significance, those Warriors who tried to lure opponents into track meets and cause trouble with freakish matchups — 6-foot-7 Tom Tolbert on 7-foot-1 David Robinson, anyone? –went just 37-45 and 44-38 and won one playoff series. The defense, or what passed for one, wasn’t going to allow any long postseason runs, a common theme for years to come in Oakland. But what has turned into a near-annual statement from the anonymous Hall voters suddenly puts the Dubs of the late-80s/early-90s into a unique stratosphere.

“It’s a hotbed of basketball,” Mullin said of the Bay Area. “It really is. It’s great for the fans because a lot of nights and a lot of years, they cheered us on unconditionally. I would say this, though. That wasn’t a bad culture after all. You hear about ‘New culture, new culture.’ That wasn’t too shabby. Mitch hopefully is in. I’m sure Tim’s going to get in through this process. That’s not a bad culture. I think that’s a very proud franchise through the years, from Wilt Chamberlain to Nate Thurmond to Al Attles, to Rick Barry, Tom Meschery. You talk about the last championship, it was Al Attles (as coach). Let’s not forget that. The guy’s still there. So it’s a rich, proud franchise. I think we should praise what’s going on now. But it wasn’t too shabby.”

Just Mullin saying hello to Joe Lacob.

Lacob bought the team in 2010 with declarations about a fresh start, comments Mullin understandably took personal since he had been the general manager who put together most of the Warriors of the time. Lacob was talking about the management team led by predecessor Chris Cohan and the annual disappointment in the standings. But Lacob also had frequent references to building a roster around toughness and defense while getting away from the run-and-gun crew from Mullin’s days as basketball operations boss. So point taken. There was never a shot at the history of the franchise and, in fact, it was Lacob who provided the long-overdue honor of retiring Mullin’s jersey No. 17.

But three players and the coach from the same team in the Hall of Fame is a rare sighting, even if Marciulionis is there for his international play with the Soviet Union and Lithuania. The part about the basketball hotbed is about the Bay Area as a whole, from the youth leagues to the pros, a history underlined in Springfield as well: enshrinement for Richmond, Marciulionis and former Philadelphia and San Francisco Warrior Guy Rodgers this year.

Oakland native Gary Payton (2013), Nelson, former Warrior Jamaal Wilkes and Berkeley native Don Barksdale (2012), and Mullin and Stanford women’s coach Tara VanDereveer (2011). And that doesn’t count Mullin as part of the collective Dream Team induction (2010) or ex-Warriors Ralph Sampson and Bernard King.

Moving forward, Hardaway will be high on the rankings for most deserving in the next election, along with Kevin Johnson, who played practically next door to Oakland at the University of California, and, if someone nominates him, ex-Warrior Chris Webber. Jason Kidd, an Oakland native who also played at Cal, will get his ceremony in 2018, barring unexpected developments.

VIDEO: Mitch Richmond reflects on his Golden State days

A disciple of Wooden, Del Harris wins award in legendary coach’s name

Del Harris

Del Harris spent 14 seasons as a head coach in the NBA.


DALLAS — Former NBA coach Del Harris grew up in Indiana idolizing fellow Hoosier Stater John Wooden. During Final Four weekend next month in North Texas, Harris will receive the Coach Wooden “Keys to Life” award at the Legends of Hardwood breakfast.

Harris, 76, coached for more than 50 years, starting at junior high, high school and college before guiding the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. He spent many more years as a top assistant, including in Dallas under Don Nelson. Harris, who lives in Dallas, remains tied to the game as the vice president of the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate Texas Legends in suburban Dallas. Harris is also a part-time studio analyst on New Orleans Pelicans broadcasts.

The “Keys to Life” honor is akin to a lifetime achievement award. That it is in the name of the legendary Wooden means the world to Harris, who as an ordained minister started out in life as a preacher, “and I still do that most of the time,” Harris said Friday prior to the Mavs taking on the Pacers, “but it became obvious early on that what I was called to do was coach basketball, primarily.”

The significance of coach Wooden’s influence on Harris’ life and his career is best told by Harris, a walking, talking basketball encyclopedia in his own right:

“When I was growing up in Indiana, I grew up 30 miles or so from Martinsville, where he played. When I was quite young and starting to play, the NBA hadn’t started yet. So our heroes in those days in Indiana were the high school players and the college players that had established themselves. Guys like coach Wooden, he was the No. 1 as a player winning the championships in high school and then being at Purdue, the best player at that time, in our little world. Those were our heroes.

“Then in the ’50s in high school, the NBA by then had started up. There were eight teams playing, nothing on TV or anything like that. John Wooden was a guy that was the epitome of basketball for me and for a lot of others when we were kids. And so when I started coaching, he was on top, obviously, and I went wherever I could to listen to his clinics. I went to New York one time just to hear him. I patterned as much as I could from his work and what I learned from him and also from Dean Smith, just a little bit later on he came into our place in 1966-67 and spent a few days in my home. Those two guys were the foundation for what I tried to do. Now, I was a poor representation of John Wooden I’m sure, but later on when I was in L.A., I was able to spend time with him, I sat in on UCLA practices and watched the team practice, I took him to lunch, I sat in his apartment for an entire afternoon and talked about basketball and life.

“My dad, when he died, I was going through his things and he always — he called coach Wooden, coach Wooten, but he also thought Iowa was Ioway, too, so — but anyway he thought he [Wooden] was the best ever and so forth. When going through his things, he had a picture, I don’t know where he got it, of the Wooden family — he had a Wooden family photo among his things. And so I know that, he’s been gone now since 1998 and it was a life-changing event for me when he died, I know that of all the things that might have come my way, this would be the most important thing that my dad would have appreciated.”

Congratulations to Del Harris.

Also to be honored during the Final Four is another Dallas resident and basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. She has been named the Naismith Outstanding Contributor to Women’s College Basketball.

Lieberman became the first women to coach a professional men’s team when she guided the D-League Legends for one season. She currently joins Harris in the franchise’s front office and is a full-time studio analyst on Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasts.

Space, Speed And 3s Is The NBA Way

VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down why 3-point shooters like Kyle Korver are valuable

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kevin McHale insists there’s little difference between how he coaches his Houston Rockets today and how his Boston Celtics played 30 years ago.

“We do play the same,” the towering Hall of Fame power forward said. “It was a different game, but we ran up and down, we shot a lot of shots in the first six, seven seconds of the shot clock because we ran it down, threw it in the post and shot it. Look at the early ’80s, we were averaging 115, 116, 117 points. You usually don’t get that by walking it up and down.”

The 1983-84 champion Celtics averaged 112.1 ppg, yet in those glorious run-and-gun, team-oriented days, all that scoring ranked just seventh in a 23-team league. Imagine the offensive explosion then had those teams known what we know now about that strange 3-point arc.

“We all looked at it,” said McHale, a rookie the season after the NBA implemented the arc, “and thought, ‘Why the hell do they have a line way out here?’ ”

A low-post machine, McHale attempted 157 3-pointers in his career. Larry Bird took 194 of the 393 taken by the 1985-86 champion Celtics. In the first 49 games this season, the Rockets’ tandem of James Harden and Chandler Parsons have combined for 463. The Rockets have launched 1,279.

Last year they shot it from everywhere and at any time, 2,369 in all, second-most only to the New York Knicks, who set the all-time record with 2,371 attempts. New York also made 891, the most all-time.

Today’s game is different. It has shifted 180 degrees from the plodding, back-it-down offenses spanned in the 1990s and does draw back more to the freewheeling 1980s, only with a new set of philosophies. Today’s offensive style is dictated by a slew of predominant words and phrases: Analytics. Pace. Ball movement. Spacing. Speed. Stretch-4. Small ball. Drive-and-kick. Corner 3.

Do-it-all point guards are at a premium. Floor-spacing, sweet-shooting big men are coveted. Three-point shooting is king.

“I’m not surprised because statistically everybody is going to that kind of metrics,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who introduced the league to this stream of unconventional offensive tactics when he took over the Phoenix Suns more than a decade ago.

“We did it before, but I think you can measure even more now, and I think that shows you if you want to win, that’s the way you should go. And then Miami tops it off by winning two championships by doing it.”

West among best at quick way to play

Many of D’Antoni’s concepts, considered radical at the time, are commonplace now to varying degrees in nearly every NBA coach’s playbook. They are prevalent especially among Western Conference clubs powered by dynamic, often ultra-athletic point guards — from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Damian Lillard to Stephen Curry — who play fast, penetrate, pass and shoot from distance. The Heat, of course, are led by de facto point guard LeBron James.

“Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested 3s, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well. But most of them are uncontested.”

Nine of the league’s top 10 teams in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) and 12 of the top 16 play in the West. The top five teams in 3-point attempts, and nine of the top 12, also play in the West, the far superior conference this season.

When the Memphis Grizzlies meet the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals won by Memphis, it will again be a battle of contrasting styles. OKC, even without their injured three-time All-Star Westbrook, is athletic and fast. The Thunder pushes the pace, currently ranking seventh in the league, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes.

The Grizzlies boast talented point guard Mike Conley, but run their sets through skilled, low-post big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They rely on those interior size mismatches (and gritty defense) to compete in an expanding era of fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting, “small-ball” lineups in which a power forward serves as a center and a traditional small forward plays the “4” and “stretches” the floor.

Memphis, although moving the ball with more vigor and shooting slightly more 3s during their January hot streak, is the conventional NBA offense that has been made unconventional.

The need for 3s

Memphis’ management team is heavy into analytic data, and first-year coach Dave Joerger was eager to quicken Memphis’ offensive pace, but it hasn’t happened. They rank last in the league in pace, averaging 92.15 possessions. They’re also last in 3-point attempts (14.3 per game) and 3-pointers made (5.1 per game).

Houston has outscored Memphis from beyond the arc by a staggering 618 points; Golden State and Portland, tied for No. 1 with 450 made 3s, by 651. Memphis and last-place Utah, 24th in made 3-pointers, are the only teams in the West that average fewer than 100 points per game.

“It’s almost like if you don’t shoot 3s you can’t win,” Popovich said. “So many players are good at it, shots get off so quickly and are so numerous that it’s a huge part of what almost everybody does. It’s just tough to score and to win without making 3s.”

Desperate for it, Memphis traded slump-ridden Jerryd Bayless to Boston for Courtney Lee, who has provided a jolt, knocking down 44.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He, along with Gasol’s return from injury, helped spark Memphis to 11 wins in its last 13 games and a return to playoff contention.

The Grizzlies recently beat Houston twice in back-to-back games. They limited the Rockets to 87 and 81 points despite taking 40 fewer 3-pointers and being outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc. But can the Grizzlies survive with size over speed and scoring 2-pointers instead of 3s?

“I don’t know whether we can or we can’t,” Joerger said. “The league is being ruled by playmakers, shooting and IQ right now. Teams are playing multiple — forget about shooters — they’re playing multiple playmakers now. A lot of centers are, let’s just say, fairly strictly pick and rim-run, and [you] play four [players] around those guys and stretch it out, and then let guys just play against a [defensive] close-out.”

Time marches on … and pace picks up

D’Antoni says Don Nelson‘s Mavs in the early and mid-2000s, with Steve Nash as point guard, were first to empower the “stretch-4.” Nelson didn’t try to turn 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki into a back-to-the-basket player. He granted him free range to shoot 3s.

Popovich recognized the coming wave earlier than most through those early battles against Dirk and then D’Antoni’s Suns.

“San Antonio has been a top 3-point shooting team for probably seven, eight or nine years now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whose “Flow” offense, led by smart, selfless players and talented passers and shooters, produced the 2011 championship. “They jumped on it early on and other teams have followed suit.”

The Spurs won three championships with stifling defense and methodical halfcourt execution in the mid-2000s. But Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford knew they had to evolve around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker with a roster based on pace and perimeter shooting. On their way to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio ranked sixth in pace, seventh in 3-pointers made and fifth in 3-point percentage.

In his typical gruffness, Popovich said of the style, “I hate it; if you want to win, you got to do it.”

In 2002-03, the Spurs attempted 1,270 3-pointers en route to their first title. Each year after their 3-point attempts increased. They shot 1,561 in 2006-07, the year of their third title. Last season they shot a franchise-record 1,764, which they might surpass this season.

“It was gradual, I remember that,” Ginobili said. “When I got here [in 2002-03], it [the offense] was very slow. Every possession had to feed the post and play from there. But then it slowly started to shift to a faster pace. At the beginning, he [Popovich] wanted it, but we were just not used to it, so that’s why it took a couple years until we really started doing it.”

Back in Houston, the Rockets keep running and spreading the floor even with the addition of traditional-type center Dwight Howard. Their pace (97.94) ranks seventh in the league, down slightly from last season, as is their 3-point attempts (26.1, almost three fewer a game), because of the ability, and necessity, to feed Howard in the post.

Meanwhile, everybody else continues to pick up the pace. The Rockets were No. 1 in the league last season at 98.64 possessions per 48 minutes. Now five teams average at least 99 and Philadelphia is over 102. Twelve teams average at least 97. In 1996-97, the first year advanced statistics were recorded, only two teams finished with more than 93 possessions per game.

What does the future hold? The Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are launching 3’s at a stunning — or alarming, depending on your perspective — rate of 48.5 per game. Fourteen of the 17 teams are operating at a pace of 100 possessions or better per game.

Yet leave it to Howard, with four career 3-pointers to his name, to lend some perspective to all these supersonic numbers.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a halfcourt game and you’ve got to be able to execute in the halfcourt on offense,” Howard said. “We have to learn how to do both — be able to play fast, get up and down the court, get some easy shots. But we also got to learn how to slow it down and get a good shot every time.”

Perhaps some things never change.

Curry’s On The Rise And Dubs Following

VIDEO: Stephen Curry finishes incredible, off-balanced layup against the Bucks

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Something BIG happened Thursday in the third returns of All-Star fan voting regarding the Western Conference backcourt.

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry overtook his Los Angeles Clippers counterpart Chris Paul as the No. 2 vote-getter. Paul is regarded almost unanimously in the basketball universe as the top quarterback in the game today, yet the fan vote positions Curry to start ahead of him at the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans on Feb. 16.

On the verge of making his first career All-Star appearance — whether it’s as a starter through the fan vote or he earns the nod of the Western Conference coaches who left him off as a reserve last year — Curry surged past the wildly popular CP3 and leads him by some 26,000 votes heading into the final stretch. Fan voting ends on Jan. 20.

Paul likely won’t be able to play anyway because of the separated right shoulder he sustained a week ago in Dallas. There’s no telling how the injury might have shifted would-be Paul votes to Curry. But it’s reasonable to think it made no difference at all. Kobe Bryant has played in just six games yet has garnered more votes by a wide margin than all West backcourt candidates. Chicago’s Derrick Rose is third in the East despite playing in just 10 games.

Perhaps Curry got a bump from overseas fans or maybe the Warriors faithful is stuffing the ballot box at Oracle Arena and online after he trailed Paul by nearly 52,000 votes after the second returns and almost 66,000 after the first. Or maybe we’re just witnessing a young, incredibly exciting player on a meteoric rise to stardom. Still, his surge past the incumbent Paul is astonishing.

All-Star starting spots don’t just pop free. Players are often entrenched in starting roles for years. Paul has been selected to six consecutive All-Star Games. He’s started the last three and four of the last five with only Steve Nash nabbing the spot in 2010. Before Curry captured the world’s imagination with breathless playoff performances, he finished eighth in last year’s fan voting. Paul was named the All-Star Game MVP, and he’s having another terrific season.

Yet suddenly, Mr. Assist is taking a back seat to a player some call the baby-faced assassin.

This is big for Curry and the Warriors, who for most of their existence have languished in mediocrity and far off the radar of NBA fans beyond their own long-suffering devotees. They produced mostly bad teams interspersed with entertaining ones that still never accomplished much. Some caught lightning-in-a-bottle like Don Nelson‘s 2007 bunch that he dubbed “schmoes” during their upset of No. 1 seed Dallas.

Think of this: Curry’s Warriors, barring a major catastrophe, are headed to the franchise’s first consecutive playoff appearances since 1991 and 1992. They went from 1995 to 2006 without making the playoffs once. In 2011-12, Curry played in 26 of 66 games due to injury. The Warriors won 23. Last season he played in 78 and the team won 47. This season, his fifth, Golden State (24-14), having withstood an early injury bump, is on pace to crack 50 wins for the first time in 20 years.

Curry delivers undeniable star-power and brand-power at a time when the franchise finally means business under the well-heeled and opportunistic ownership group headed by Joe Lacob. Curry makes the Warriors must-see TV and a target on every free agent’s wish list. That was witnessed last summer with Golden State’s late entry into the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and their signing of free-agent forward Andre Iguodala, a vital addition that has helped a team with an explosive offense now rank fourth in defensive rating behind only Indiana, Chicago and Oklahoma City.

With Curry, anything seems possible. The Warriors are a percolating franchise and a Western Conference contender at this very moment, and for the foreseeable future. The impending move into a sparkling, waterfront arena in San Francisco (as much as I personally hate to see the team leave the East Bay) will strengthen the franchise’s profit margin and transform it into a “big market” club that chases top free agents and willingly steps into the luxury tax when applicable. Golden State is on the NBA map.

If Curry, 25, finishes second in fan voting and is a starter in his first career All-Star Game, he will have earned the popular vote through performances that almost seem mythical. He’s averaging career-bests of 23.1 ppg and 9.4 apg — blowing away last season’s career-high of 6.9 apg. While his shooting percentages (44.0 percent overall  and 38.9 percent on 3s) are actually career lows, and turnovers (a career-worst 4.2) continue to be an issue, he’s taken on more responsibility than ever and is the go-to gunner and leader of a team with growing aspirations.

Yes, Curry is on the rise, and he’s taking the Warriors with him.

And that’s BIG.

Just A Start To The Thunder’s Challenge


HOUSTON — It was 44 years ago when Don Nelson’s foul-line jumper kicked improbably high off the back of the rim, fell right down through the net and kept all of those celebration balloons trapped up there at the ceiling in the Forum.

That was an ending.

Nelson’s shot gave the Celtics the two-point margin they needed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for another championship over the Lakers.

Kevin Durant’s shot with 41.9 seconds left on the clock took Nelson’s little tap dance on the rim and turned it into an entire chorus production. The first bounce kicked so high off the back of the rim that it cleared the top of the backboard, then teasingly hit the front rim and then the back rim two more times before sliding down into the basket, a Tibetan prayer wheel offering that was answered immediately.

This was just a beginning.

Before the Thunder get to jubilantly race off a court somewhere to celebrate a championship, there will likely have to be many more nights like this, where they sizzle and fizzle, where they thrive and survive, where they just grind on.

It was the first time in five years — and 440 games — that Durant ran out onto a basketball court wearing an Oklahoma City jersey without running mate and buddy Russell Westbrook at his side.

The lightning rod point guard was back at home watching on TV after having undergone surgery Saturday to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. That means the road to the top of the mountain just got far bumpier and more treacherous.

“It feels the same,” Durant said. “I just go out there on the court, and I knew I had to give it my all no matter what. That’s what I’m going to do for however many games we have to play…I’m going to give it my all no matter what and not worry about missed shot, turnovers or anything.”

But Durant knows that the margin for error just got slimmer than a supermodel’s waist. No more nights when Westbrook and all of his inherent idiosyncrasies and flaws will be able to bail out the Thunder with his bodacious talent and his sheer audacity.

Now there will be far more nights like this one where wilo-’o-the-wisp Durant has to go the virtual distance, getting all of 44 seconds to rest on the bench while putting up 30 shots to equal his career playoff high of 41 points.

Now there will be more nights when the Thunder will have to rely on the combo of second-year Reggie Jackson and 17th year Derek Fisher to hold down Westbrook’s position at the point.

Now there will be more nights when Serge Ibaka has to be the leaping, dominating monster at both ends of the floor with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two official blocked shots and about a dozen more altered.

The Thunder built a 26-point lead early in the third quarter and had to hold on to the final tick of the clock because they’re now missing one of the legs they usually stand on.

“It definitely was an emotional time the last 48 hours,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We all love what Russell is about. The guy has probably the biggest heart I’ve ever been around. He’s done a great job of putting us in this position.”

But now the season-ending injury puts the Thunder in the position of having to, if not reinvent themselves on the fly, at least make a major adjustment.  So here they are against an inexperienced No. 8 seed in Houston — the youngest team in the NBA this season — getting burns on the palms of their hands as the rope slips through.

If it wasn’t a case of being physically spent, then OKC had to be mentally exhausted from battling all night to fill in the gaps. Brooks had said before the game that it’s just a matter of getting everybody to do “a little bit.”

However, in playoff games that little bit can become a quite heavy lift.

There were the Rockets, playing with few expectations and not much to lose, roaring back. Here was picking up a loose ball that Kevin Martin seemed to lose as the shot-clock ran down and Ibaka flicking it up over his head and off the glass with 1:25 left in the game. Here was the untested-in-the-playoffs Jackson, standing at the foul line and draining two nervy free throws with eight seconds remaining and then leaping up and latching onto the final rebound of the game when Carlos Delfino’s 3-pointer missed just ahead of the horn.

“We learned Russell was going to be out at practice (Friday),” said forward Nick Collison, “but eventually we have to get over it. You have to be able to move on and play. We’re basketball players and we’re in the playoffs and we have to get ourselves ready to play.

“Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court.”

It took the Rockets missing numerous opportunities down the stretch — open shots that clanked off the rim and turnovers that were fatal — for the Thunder to escape.

For a team that entered the playoffs with its sights set strictly on playing all the way into June and getting back to The Finals, now each game, every day, each ensuing round will be a challenge.

They will need to learn to get by without the nonpareil talents of Westbrook to pull them out of the fire, get things done with pure execution or enough similar fortuitous bounces as Durant’s improbable 3-pointer, a tantalizing dance-of-the-seven-veils shot that pulled them back from the brink of what could have been a crushing defeat, giving birth to recrimination and doubt.

“The Lord was with us,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking. I knew as soon as that shot hit the back rim, I was thinking, ‘Not again. Tough 3 shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But it was able to bounce in and all because of the good Lord. I really can’t say too much else about that. I’m glad we made it.”

A happy ending for now. But really just the start of a grind.

— Series Hub: Thunder vs. Rockets