Posts Tagged ‘Erik Spoelstra’

Phil Jackson tension good for Knicks

By Sekou Smith,

VIDEO: Knicks fans give new team president Phil Jackson a standing ovation

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The standing ovation was a given.

The hero’s welcome from that wild Madison Square Garden crowd on hand for the first official game of the Phil Jackson era was right off the pages of the script of a Broadway production. And the Knicks nailed the ending, knocking off the Eastern Conference leading (and reeling) Indiana Pacers to punctuate the night.

The Knicks have won seven straight and are giving legitimate chase for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a last-dtich effort to put a little lipstick on a season gone awry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they heated up around the time the Jackson rumors cranked up.

That same energy that was in the building last night is the same type of energy that fuels seasons in the NBA. A healthy dose of tension, the good kind that puts everyone on alert and drives a lackluster or average effort into an elevated state, can work for all involved. Think of it as the Knicks’ very own version of March Madness. If they can keep it going long enough, maybe they can find their way into the playoffs (something the new boss has mentioned repeatedly) against all odds.

Carmelo Anthony has played this way all season. He’s been relentless, even while some others wearing Knicks uniforms have not been on that same page, so to speak. He was relentless last night, as Knicks coach Mike Woodson found out during one timeout. Phil’s presence gives the rest of the Knicks, coaches and players alike, something to play for the rest of this season. Intended or not, his arrival gives this team a rallying point that can be used in whatever way is needed.

Watching Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. and even J.R. Smith all crank it up to that next level with Anthony shows us that the Knicks have had it in them all along.

If you listen to the men who have had the ultimate success with Jackson, this is what they insist he will bring to the Knicks. A championship-level attitude and energy might well be worth the $12 million a year Knicks owner James Dolan is reportedly paying the Zen master for his presence.

Kobe Bryant certainly believes it to be true. He told the “Dan Patrick Show” yesterday that the entire Knicks roster is in store for a type of wisdom they haven’t been privy to before Jackson’s arrival. And yes, Bryant thinks Jackson can do it from the president’s perch instead of the coaching fox hole:

“I just think his mentorship shifts,” Bryant said. “I think it goes from having a direct influence on the players themselves to having a direct influence on the coaching staff, which he’s accustomed to doing because that’s how he coached as well.

“He really had a great rapport with his coaching staff and he was really a great mentor for them, and I’m sure he’ll do the same thing and it will just kind of trickle down from there. It’s really no different from what Pat [Riley] has been able to do in Miami with [Erik] Spoelstra.”

There’s no need to go there right now with the Riley and Jackson comparisons. Riley has accomplished far more as an executive and it’s an unreasonable measurement at this stage of the game.

What should resonate, though, is the staunch support Jackson is receiving from all corners of the basketball establishment. You expect it from his former players. But I’ve spoken with several of his new competitors, executives who have every reason to root against him, that think his presence alone changes the game in New York.

“People talk all the time about changing the culture and reshaping a franchise,” a Western Conference assistant general manager told me, “but they don’t come through the door and command the respect of the people within the organization. And I mean the secretaries, the training staff, the folks in the ticket office as well as the coaches and players. Phil doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s got everyone’s attention. It’s his show now.”

Indeed it is. And if the first impression means anything, it’s going to be a wild ride for the Knicks and their fans.

VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ streak and Phil Jackson’s potential impact

LeBron fatigue … it’s real!

VIDEO: LeBron James and Jimmy Butler get tangled up on the baseline Sunday

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Like most anyone with eyeballs and a remote control, I took in the career-high 61-point performance from LeBron James and wondered if the energy and effort expended on a night like that was worth the wear and tear it takes to deliver it.

A week and four interesting performances later, I’m still not sure.

My Monday sparring partner on almost every debatable topic — NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, who usually helps me make a mess of our production meetings for The Beat with Vince Cellini, David Aldridge and yours truly every Monday on NBA TV — did what you’d expect a research expert to do with the topic. He dug even deeper and formulated an interesting theory on a phenomenon we’ll call LeBron Fatigue … turns out it might actually be real:

Statistically speaking, LeBron James is on track to become one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA. However, his most recent stretch of games are troubling.

After scoring a career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, LeBron scored a total of 58 in the following three games. For many players, 19.3 ppg would be their best week ever. For LeBron, it was a cause for panic, a shedding of the face mask and complaining of a wardrobe malfunction. Worst of all, that average coincided with a season-high three-game losing streak.

61 point Game vs 3 Game Slump

vs Bobcats​          Next 3 Games

61        POINTS      58

22/33      FG           23/59*

8/10       3P            1/9

*3-for-27 FG outside the paint

LeBron’s 3-for-27 shooting outside the paint is good for 11.1 percent, the worst three-game stretch of shooting (outside the paint) in his career. To be clear, it’s not the percentage that is cause for concern, but his unwillingness to get to the free-throw line.

In his last two games — against Chicago and Washington — LeBron did not attempt a free-throw, which had not taken place in back-to-back games since his rookie season. Furthermore, he’s only had 10 instances in which he did not attempt a free throw in his 824 game career.

LeBron is in search of many more rings and realistically speaking, Michael Jordan‘s six-ring total is obtainable. At the conclusion of his Bulls’ first three-peat, Jordan was 29 when he completed his ninth season (before retiring for 18 months) and winning three more. However, MJ did miss 64 games in his second season after breaking his foot. So there were resting periods prior to both his title runs.

James and the Heat have already appeared in three straight Finals. James, 28, concluded his 10th season having never missed more than six games in a season. The Miami Heat are trying to become the first team since the 1983-87 Celtics to reach four consecutive Finals, but it will be tough with a banged-up James. He’s battled back soreness and, most recently, a broken nose.

Will this maintenance plan cost him the MVP award? Maybe, but there was no guarantee he’d win it anyway. Besides the Heat rely on LeBron to be their best scorer, rebounder and passer not to mention their best defender on a nightly basis. Remember, Jordan had Scottie Pippen to defend the opposition’s best player, the Heat will rely on LBJ to shut down the Pacers’ Paul George. On Monday, Miami clinched a playoff berth defeating the Wizards 99-90. That’s the first step in winning a third straight title.

So rest up LeBron, you have enough MVP awards and regular-season feats. Years from now, we won’t discuss how you came out of a three-game midseason slump, but how you did (or didn’t) win three consecutive titles.

VIDEO: LeBron and the Heat shake off their funk and clinch a playoff bid with a win over the Wizards

Spurs, Leonard unmask LeBron and Miami

VIDEO: Spurs dominate Heat

SAN ANTONIO — Maybe it was the mask that is supposed to be protecting his broken nose. LeBron James ripped it off early in the first quarter and tossed it disdainfully toward the Miami bench.

Originally, it was a black mask that made him look like Batman with more hang time. That is, until commissioner Adam Silver decided to also become the fashion police. James had said before the game that he didn’t think the clear replacement was going to be around much longer and perhaps a couple of missed 16-footers moved up the schedule.

“I got a message from my wife at halftime,” he said. “She told me to put the mask back on, so I guess I’m gonna be in trouble when I get home.”

Maybe it was the tight-fitting short sleeve jersey that he and all the rest of the players had to wear as part of the NBA Noche Latina celebration.

“I’m not making excuses,” James said, “but I’m not a big fan of the jerseys. Not a big fan of them. So I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear the short-sleeved jerseys. Every time I shoot it feels like it’s pulling up right underneath my arm. I don’t have much room for error on my jump shot anyways, so it’s definitely not a good thing.”

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

The Spurs are at last healthy and whole, their full contingent available now for just the past three games and yet they looked like a thresher going through a wheat field. They owned the first quarter, played keep away for the rest of the game and with a 111-87 stamp handed the Heat their biggest loss of the season and their worst thumping since a 36-point smack down right here in Game 3 of The Finals.

Of course, for all the celebratory din that happily bounced off the walls of the arena, it came about nine months and 24 seconds too late.

That’s the thing, timing does matter. There will be much made in the two off days before Miami steps back onto the court in Chicago on Sunday afternoon of the first back-to-back, wire-to-wire losses in the Big Three Era of the Heat. But remember it was just earlier this week when James dropped in 61 points on the Bobcats and the “three-peat” parade floats were starting to warm up their engines.

“The league is fragile, things can change very quickly,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

In the two games since the 61-point bomb, James has shot just 15-for-36 from the field, 0-for-6 from behind the arc and scored a total of just 41 points. He looked flat worn-out and exhausted in Houston, but exasperated over an inability to get himself out of the reach and the clutches of Leonard, who tosses around words as if they were manhole covers.

“I’m just playing, man,” he said.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.

Even Heat feel the heat in San Antonio

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in Finals games in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — There are nights on the long NBA regular season grind that you circle on the calendar the day the schedule comes out.

Sunbelt climes during a long, cold, snowy winter. Cities with family and friends. Places like Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York, where the spotlight is extra bright and the courtside seats are filled with A list celebrities.

Then there’s San Antonio, where it might be nice to sip a tasty margarita on the Riverwalk. But the hangover from a visit with the Spurs can feel like a mule kick to the head for the Miami Heat, which is why their first trip back to the AT&T Center (Thursday night at 8 ET on TNT) since The Finals last June is more apt to make most of them flinch than celebrate.

While they eventually wrapped up back-to-back championships by beating the Spurs in seven games, Miami won just once in the three games played in San Antonio in The Finals last season. LeBron James is just 1-4 all time in Finals games played in the Alamo City, having been swept by the Spurs when he was in Cleveland in 2007.

“There’s memories, of course,” said James. “We just played them in The Finals and obviously just going, there is always a place of horror. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well coached, very well-machined organization and team with so many great players. It will be fun.”

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

This has been another season when the Spurs, led by a 37-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and 31-year-old Tony Parker , were supposed to be too old to contend. Yet in spite of a rash of nagging injuries, San Antonio is 44-16, just 1 1/2 games behind the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference.

“I never buy into that,” James said. “I always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into the Celtic team with Ray [Allen] and KG [Kevin Garnett] and those guys that they talked about was too old, and the next thing you know, they’re in the Finals again. So I never bought into it.”

Dwyane Wade shrugged.

“It’s another tough game for us,” he said. “We have to step up to the challenge. We lost the first one on the road trip [Tuesday in Houston], and that’s a place where obviously everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there, so we got to go in there and play a great game for 48 minutes to win it.”

It did take about all the Heat could summon to squeeze out the one win they needed at the AT&T Center last June. They got a 109-93 win in Game 4 that was sandwiched between a couple of their most dismal games of the entire playoff run. They were hammered 113-77 in Game 3 when the Spurs bombed them with 16 3-pointers and then lost 114-104 in Game 5. Those are the kinds of performances that stick with a coach much longer than the wins.

“We don’t necessarily have really good memories of there,” said Erik Spoelstra. “We did drop two out of the three. The last game that we had there was a tough one. It was probably the worst game that we had over there. We had to really collect ourselves to go and have that energy to go and win two games at home.

“But you know, the train goes on. We’ve got to collect ourselves. We’ve got to get some rest. We’re not making any excuses … They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season and yet you look at their record and they’re right there in the mix. It’s amazing.”

What might be more amazing is that Shane Battier is actually looking forward to getting back into the teeth of the Spurs vise.

“I always enjoy playing the Spurs,” Battier said. “It goes back to my Memphis days, my Rockets days, when I played a lot of games in San Antonio. Just because there’s no better mental challenge than playing the Spurs. Because they’re gonna put you in tough situations. It’s a thinking man’s game when you play the Spurs and that’s my kind of game.

“Ooooh, we knew last year it was going to be a very, very, very, very close series. That’s four ‘verys’ and it was probably closer than that. They’ve been the gold standard for a long time. It’s not so much physical with them. It’s the mental duress they put you under. To go through a series like that, when you come out you’re just exhausted, win or lose.”

The question is whether even NBA players and coaches and front office people ask the same question as the general public: When will the Spurs finally be too old?

“No question,” Battier said. “Yeah, you ask that all the time, every year. What’s in the water in San Antonio? The fact that they’ve done it for so long and everyone is just waiting for them to fall off and they haven’t — not that they care what everyone else thinks — it’s awesome. And I don’t have any answers.”

LeBron Rewriting His(Own)story!

VIDEO: LeBron James tries his best to explain his historic night

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – What do you do for an encore of one of the greatest months in NBA history? When you’re LeBron James you turn in one of the greatest nights of your storied career.

The Heat star had a February for the ages, becoming the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2003 to average 30 or more points and eight or more rebounds while shooting better than 57 percent from the field for an entire calendar month (a minimum of five games played). Toss in LeBron’s seven assists a game in February and only Wilt Chamberlain, in February of 1966 has had a wicked stretch of that sort.

That’s why LeBron going for a career-high 61 points in the Heat’s 124-107 home win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday ranks right up there among his greatest performances ever. He did it with a mask on, protecting his recently broken nose. He did it with Dwyane Wade resting in street clothes, as part of ongoing maintenance program. And he did it with work from all over the floor, including a career-high tying eight made 3-pointers.

He needed just 33 shots, 22 makes, to notch the 10th game of 50 or more points of his career and his first outing of 60 or more. He’s one of just five players to reach the 60-point plateau shooting better than 65 percent since the 1985-86 season — joining Carmelo Anthony from earlier this season, Shaq in 2000 and Tom Chambers and Karl Malone (both in 1990) as the only players to accomplish that feat.

Oh, and unlike high-scoring escapades by superstars in recent seasons (you know who you are, ‘Melo and Kobe Bryant), LeBron made sure to stick to his usual formula (he did have an assist or two … or five, to be exact) on his outlandish scoring night. The fact that he’s still rewriting his own history this deep into his career speaks volumes about the sort of competitor and player he is now and really has always been.

How many other guys can get 60-plus points without it becoming an absolute hysterical exercise from one basket to the next? If you watch the highlights, it looks just like any other night from LeBron … save, of course, for the 3-point storm he rained down on the Bobcats.

VIDEO: LeBron makes it rain 3-pointers against the Bobcats

LeBron setting his own career-high for points and breaking Glen Rice‘s Heat franchise record of 56 (against the Orlando Magic in 1995) is just another milestone he can add to his overflowing collection. It’s a reminder, though, that the great ones will dial up the unthinkable when you least expect it.

Who knew a Monday night game against the Bobcats would serve as one of LeBron’s finest moments? 

Just so we’re clear about what kind of run he’s on right now, LeBron has scored 187 points on 68 percent shooting from the floor over his last five games. The last time someone did that in the NBA was when Michael Jordan did it November of 1988.

And that envy he spoke of regarding the January exploits of one Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder … well, if February and the early days of March are any indication, LeBron wears envy as well he does the black mask he wore in his comeback outing (a 31-point treat dropped on the New York Knicks last Thursday on TNT).

This stretch run and race for the MVP between LeBron and KD should also serve as the ideal appetizer to whatever they have in store for us come playoff time, too.

Get your popcorn ready!

VIDEO: LeBron’s demolition of the Bobcats

LeBron Puts Charge Into Thunder, MVP Race

VIDEO: LeBron, Miami thump Thunder in Thursday’s showdown

OKLAHOMA CITY – Weeks before Russell Westbrook knew he would need a third knee surgery, back when he was rolling right along with his Oklahoma City Thunder, and so too were Portland and San Antonio, he was asked to rank his team’s prowess in the Western Conference.

“I think we’re the best team in the NBA,” Westbrook said. “I don’t think about the West or the East. We’re the best in the NBA.”

The Thunder entered Thursday night’s showdown against the Miami Heat boasting the league’s best record. But anointing a best team isn’t something to be done in December or February. And so it was on OKC’s home floor, on the night Westbrook made his long-awaited return to a standing ovation, that LeBron James provided this stark reminder to all: He is not only the reigning two-time MVP, but the two-time reigning Finals MVP to boot.

He delivered an overwhelming start, scoring the Heat’s first 12 points, deflecting passes, running the floor and dunking with no remorse as Miami roared to a 34-17 lead after one quarter. The Thunder made several runs, got as close as five points, but each time the Heat, led by a LeBron growing more menacing by the game, answered with force.

Whatever has James fired up, whether it’s Durant’s frontrunning MVP candidacy, the Mount Rushmore volcano, the whipping Oklahoma City wind, he is using it to his advantage. Thursday’s game-high 33 points in 33 minutes on 15-for-22 shooting — 14-for-17 inside the arc — was his 13th 30-point game since Jan. 1, and his fourth in a row. He has seven of them in the last nine games going back to the Jan. 29 home loss to the Thunder that put on exclamation point on Durant’s stupendous MVP run.

The only way the Thunder found to stop the bleeding was to actually make James bleed. He got clobbered with about six minutes left as he aggressively attacked Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka at the rim. Somehow he made the bucket, then crashed to the floor with blood flowing from his nose. He left the game and wouldn’t return, but the damage was done as Miami held on for a 103-81 rout.

He was ruled free of a concussion after the game, and will have until Sunday to recuperate before the black-and-blue Chicago Bulls come calling in Miami. The Heat will take a four-game win streak into that game as they completed a six-game all-Western Conference road trip 5-1, ringing up West contenders OKC and the L.A. Clippers, plus West playoff teams Golden State, Phoenix and Dallas with James shooting 57.1 percent on the trip.

If this is Durant’s MVP to lose, at least now we must consider the race officially on.

Of course, the regular-season MVP award is secondary to a Heat three-peat or the Thunder capturing their first championship, but history is attached to this MVP. No one has won three in a row since Larry Bird did it from 1983-86. Before Bird it was Wilt Chamberlain from 1965-68. And before Wilt it was Bill Russell from 1960-63.

Chicago’s Derrick Rose spoiled James’ first run at three in 2011, and now Durant is threatening to do it again. Westbrook, who has watched every mesmerizing performance from the bench as he recovered, said Durant is clearly the MVP as of now.

“It’s obvious, it’s obvious,” Westbrook said. “I mean he has so many different stats throughout the season that nobody has done. He’s done a great job of leading us as a group. He’s done it in a way that I don’t think nobody has done it this year.”

It wasn’t so obvious Thursday. Durant finished with 28 points on 10-for-22 shooting, but he was just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc and he even missed three of his 10 free throws. As James attacked early, Durant played it passively, perhaps hoping to give Westbrook an opportunity to gather his legs and find his touch. Whatever it was, the Heat defense walled him off. Durant turned it over three times and was 0-for-2 six minutes in; James had 14 points, six on dunks and Miami was off to a 20-8 start.

“He did what very few can do, that’s impact and set the tone on both sides of the court,” Spoelstra said. “He’s an absolute, true throwback in terms of being a two-way player and understanding how important it is. While he wasn’t necessarily on Durant to start, he was very active with his hands and blowing up pick-and-roll coverages with his speed and his awareness, and obviously he was just so aggressive with that mentality, everybody just gained confidence from that.”

James has the Heat surging, and quietly now just 1 1/2 games behind Indiana. Meanwhile, the Thunder face a period of transition as Westbrook and Durant work on the fly to regain the form that led to a 21-4 record before their three-time All-Star point went under the knife again.

It will all make for a fascinating stretch drive and a very meaningful race for MVP.

“I’ve never put pressure on myself to receive the [MVP] award,” James said. “I just went out and played my game. That was what happened out of it. And obviously, for me, I try to be the MVP every night for our team and just try to put us in position to win.”

He did so, emphatically, Thursday night.

VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew discuss the Heat-Thunder matchup

LeBron Busts Nose, Free Of Concussion

VIDEO: LeBron James goes down after taking hit to nose and finishing the play

OKLAHOMA  CITY – LeBron James left Thursday night’s showdown against the Thunder midway through the fourth quarter after getting clobbered in the nose on his way to completing a highlight-reel play at the rim.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said James’ nose was swollen and bleeding, but confirmed that he passed concussion tests. Asked if James had X-rays on his nose, Spoelstra would only say that his superstar will be checked out Friday back in Miami. The Heat just finished a six-game road trip and don’t play again until Sunday against Chicago.

“He’s got a swollen nose right now, it’s bleeding. We’ll evaluate him when we get back to Miami,” Spoelstra said. “It’s sore, he took a shot; probably should have been at the free throw line after that, but he was aggressive and it was a heck of an attack right there. He got hit pretty good though in the nose, so we’ll just have to see when we get back.”

James put on a dominant performance and outplayed MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant in the Heat’s 103-81 thumping of OKC. James had a game-high 33 points in 33 minutes on 15-for-22 shooting — 14-for-17 from inside the arc. He scored Miami’s first 12 points of the game and was a menace from the start on the defensive end as the Heat led 34-17 after the first quarter.

With the fourth-quarter clock ticking down to the six-minute mark, James drove to the basket and appeared to get walloped in the nose as he blew through the lane. James soared across the front of the rim, left to right, against Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka looking for a right-handed slam, Ibaka kept him far enough away that James couldn’t stretch far enough for the dunk. High above the rim, James still managed to score before crashing to the floor.

Game action resumed at the Thunder’s end as James squirmed on the Heat’s baseline. It wasn’t until play stopped on an OKC travel call that Heat guard Ray Allen made it back to the other end and was first to reach James. As soon as he saw him, Allen waved for the trainers.

Heat players circled around James and everybody in Miami black held their breath.

“You just don’t know what it is,” Spoelstra said. “I’m like everybody else, you’re used to seeing him like Superman and get up and sprint back even after tough hits and tough falls, so you knew something was up.”

James was finally helped to his feet. He walked slowly while holding a towel over his nose and eyes. He was first seated on the Heat bench before escorted to the locker room to be further examined.

OKC Gets Minor Victory Over Miami, May Have Major Lineup Breakthrough

VIDEO: Kevin Durant leads OKC past LeBron and his Heat

MIAMI – Those who came or tuned in seeking some odd, early resolution to the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race probably left or went to bed disappointed. Entertained, exhilarated even, but disappointed because the slim gap between Kevin Durant and LeBron James didn’t widen more, based on their individual performances Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Based on the outcome – a 112-95 Oklahoma City victory, in which the Thunder bungeed from 18 points down early to 25 points up late – Durant probably did pull a few extra chips to his side of the table. But in practical terms, there wasn’t much to choose between: Durant’s 33 points on 12-of-23 shooting with seven rebounds, five assists and four turnovers vs. James’ 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting, with three boards, three assists and three turnovers.

So, set aside the MVP debate for a while, at least until these teams meet again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City. Focus a little on the COY — Coach of the Year — because the Thunder’s Scott Brooks accounted for the biggest highlight move of the night.

Understand that Brooks hasn’t had his preferred starting lineup for a while, not with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook (right knee meniscus surgery) sidelined since Christmas. But the one he started Wednesday has been his next-best option, with a record now (15-5) that’s nearly as good as OKC’s ‘A’ team (17-2).

So, coming out of halftime, Brooks pulled a lineup from column C. He sat down center Kendrick Perkins and inserted backup forward Perry Jones. Jones is listed at 6-foot-11 but he’s a quarter-horse compared to Perkins’ Clydesdale and the switch effectively rendered the Thunder small. Serge Ibaka was the default center, Durant the ersatz power forward.

It worked wonders. OKC outscored the two-time defending champions 36-25 in the third quarter. A 91-75 lead ballooned to its max with 8:45 left when the Thunder opened the fourth on a 10-1 run. Miami fans might have learned their lesson in The Finals about leaving early when things look bleak but this time, there really was little reason to stay.

Now, we’re not suggesting that Brooks be handed the bronze trophy with the little Red Auerbach on it, not on the strength of one game or even half the season. He was named Coach of the Year in 2010 and, for some voters, having a legit MVP candidate at one’s disposal is an small argument against that coach taking home hardware.

It wasn’t as if Brooks necessarily had a “Eureka!” moment, either, given the way Miami jumped on his starters for a 22-4 lead in the game’s first 5:40. Perkins had subbed out when it was 15-2, after which Oklahoma City outscored its hosts 53-35 through the end of the second quarter.

So Perkins/bad, small ball/good was plain to see on this night. But Brooks dared to tinker with a mostly pat hand (Perkins has started all but two games), in a properly ballyhooed game, in front of an ESPN audience. He went with Jones and left him in for all 24 minutes of the second half. He made sure the Thunder used their mobility especially to get back on defense, choking off any Miami notions of transition buckets (OKC won that battle, getting 20 fast-break points to the Heat’s eight).

And he sold it on in real time, with nary a pout – who can tell with Stoneface Perk anyway? – nor a ripple.

“I thought to win this game, we had to make a decision,” Brooks said. “It’s just this game. It’s not something we have to do all the time. Perk brings so much to us. We’re not going to make it a small lineup/big lineup [issue]. ‘We’ won the game. It’s always been about ‘us.’ We have a bunch of guys who are always about ‘team’ and tonight was a prime example of that.”

Veteran guard Derek Fisher had found the bottom of the peach basket (hey, that’s how he learned it) for 15 points by the time OKC led 101-76, compared to a Miami bench that had scored just 11 by then. Jeremy Lamb scored 18, combining with Fisher to hit 9 of his 11 3-point shots. The Thunder were uncanny from out there, hitting 59.3 percent compared to 47.2 percent of their 2-pointers.

Miami was, well, the opposite, going 3-for-19 from the arc. Then there were those 21 turnovers worth 25 points. Just four steals to OKC’s 13. Seventy points allowed in the second and third quarters combined. Not much flow from the champs. And so on.

“There were a lot of different issues,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our offense got us in trouble tonight – it was uncharacteristic. Even in our right plays, we were fumbling it. Our guys were zigging, they were zagging. … But again, you have to give them credit.”

OK, here’s some: Oklahoma has won nine consecutive games, edging closer to the franchise mark of 12 set early last season. And Durant ran his string of 30-point performances to 12, longest in the league since Tracy McGrady stacked up 14 late in 2003.

Durant is averaging 38 points during the streak, shouldering the load left by Westbrook’s absence. He’s shown no serious wear, and he had fun in his back-and-forth with James, both with the ball and in some “slick stuff” they chattered on the floor.

Still, he sounded as if he enjoyed more the work of his teammates, chipping in against about the toughest competition they could face. Most times Durant carries them, but to a considerable degree Wednesday, guys like Lamb, Jones and Fisher carried him and the Thunder. It’s the sort of flexibility that allows them to adapt to Westbrook going and, sometime after the All-Star break, coming back, a better “acquisition” than any other team will get at the trade deadline.

“There are going to be games where guys are going to play more minutes and games where guys are going to have to sacrifice a little bit. And that’s what we did,” the NBA’s leading scorer (31.3) said. “Them young guys are gamers, man. They want it. They want that opportunity. When you mix ‘em out there with Fish, who’s probably the biggest gamer of us all. He doesn’t care what the moment is, he’s going to come out and play the same way. And Nick [Collison] is the same way as well.

“I’m proud of them.”

VIDEO: Kevin Durant and LeBron James discuss the Thunder-Heat game

Forever Linked By 2007 Draft Order, Durant, Oden Cross Paths Again

VIDEO: Kevin Durant has truly shown off his full talents this season

MIAMI – Kevin Durant and Greg Oden were on the same court again Wednesday for the first time in 1,549 days.

[We pause here while you insert your own obligatory cultural reference point – the price of a gallon of gas back then, for instance, or the top grossing Hollywood movie that weekend – but let's just all agree: It was a long, long time ago.]

You’ve got to go back to Nov. 1, 2009, to find an NBA game in which both Durant and Oden played — a road victory for Oden’s Portland team at Oklahoma City. He had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Durant scored 16. Five weeks later, Oden went down in a heap – again – and their paths split. Stayed split for more than four years, too.

Until Wednesday, when they at least warmed up at opposite ends.

Forever linked by their status atop the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden (No. 1 that night) and Durant (No. 2 to the then Seattle team) hardly could be at more divergent points in a basketball player’s career. Durant is a leading contender for 2014 Most Valuable Player, carrying the Thunder’s competitive load in injured teammate Russell Westbrook‘s absence while dazzling even casual NBA fans with a string of remarkable scoring performances.

And Oden? “Heh. For me, it’s just walking off the court not injured again,” he said about an hour before tipoff between Oklahoma City and Miami, his new basketball home.

Oden, 26, is trying to salvage his career after five knee surgeries and the Heat are giving him the chance. Their hope is that, as he builds him back into game shape and chisels off years of rust, he’ll eventually be durable enough to counter some of the big men they’ll face (a.k.a., Roy Hibbert) in a quest for a third consecutive NBA title.

So far so good – and so slow. Through Miami’s first 44 games, Oden had appeared in just five. He made his debut on Jan. 15 after a half season of work on the side and, in time, in practice. Oden hasn’t scored more than six points, grabbed more than five rebounds or logged as many as 13 minutes. Prior to Wednesday, he was averaging 3.4 points on 6-for-14 shooting with 2.0 boards and 8.4 minutes.

“His spirit is fantastic right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Just to think about where he’s been the last four years, just to be able to get back on the basketball court, for a team like this, there couldn’t be more gratification. It’s been a long road. There’s still a long ways to go.

“There isn’t a grand master plan – we put together a plan just to get him back out on the court and then from here, it’s got to be day to day. Ultimately we just don’t know.”

The unknowns of Oden’s comeback attempt are preferable, at least, to the alleged knowns of what preceded this. The 7-footer’s inability to endure the rigors of NBA play seemed to doom him individually and serve as another sad chapter in the Portland franchise’s history of hobbled stars (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy).

“It’s been so long where I can even walk on the court,” Oden told “If I can go out there, play a couple minutes, just do something, even be a presence out there and walk off healthy, for me that’s good enough.”

Is he pain-free? “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

As for the rust and atrophy in his skills, Oden said: “Fundamentals, everybody has that. I definitely have that. For a lot of guys in this league, it’s confidence – once they play a year or two, they start to figure it out. So for me, it’s four years off. Just figuring it out yet. This is, what, game [6]? So it’s still going to take some time, but it’s going to come back.”

Much of the NBA is pulling for him, though Oden said he wasn’t really aware of that. “I don’t know. There’s been so many times when I’ve heard people not pulling for me,” he said. “So I just play and try not to think about it.”

His new teammates have his back, certainly, beyond any self-interest.

“One thing about trying to make a championship run is, everybody’s going to play a huge part, whether they know it or not,” Miami forward Chris Bosh said.  “With G.O., eventually we’re gonna call on him. He’s going to have to play big, consistent minutes for us, no matter how many there are. And he’s going to contribute and do a great job.

“We’re bringing him along slowly. He’s had to work out after years and years of rehabilitation, then he has to sit for weeks with us putting him in a little bit. But all that stuff is going to pay off for him.”

Oden needed to know, too, that his old friend Durant – the name critics never let him forget, for how differently things have gone for the No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks – has his back, too.

“As a friend, I’m excited he’s back in the league,” the three-time NBA scoring champ said after the morning shootaround. “He’s overcome a lot in his career. It’s a great story that he has – five knee surgeries, and he was thinking about retirement before [age] 25. But he came back and he’s out there playing extremely well. It’s fun to see him back.”

Oden could resent all of Durant’s success – and good health. Heaven knows he has been reminded of Portland’s folly, his lousy luck and the Thunder star’s ascension among the NBA’s elite, oh, about 1,549 times since they last played.

But the big fellow is polite and generous about the situation. Leave the ill will for Portland fans who wish the Blazers had drafted Durant – and for lingering Seattle NBA fans who wish the same thing, so that their relocated franchise might be the one stung by Oden’s fate.

“I’m beyond happy for him,” Oden said. “He’s one of the best players in this league. He’s one of the first guys who texted me whenever something had happened before, with my knee, and when I signed. He’s just a good dude and he’s playing amazing.”

As for the crossroads they hit in their careers and the separate paths since, Oden said: “I wish things would have worked out a little differently. But we’re both here. He’s doing his thing and I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Red Circle Night For James, Durant

VIDEO: LeBron James and Kevin Durant have had some epic battles

MIAMI – Fans have it easy. The schedule comes out and with it, the red pens or black markers or yellow highlighters. A few circles, underlines and exclamation points later, it’s posted on the wall, loaded into the phone, set up on the tablet with the proper alerts. The best of the best? Plain to see, week by week, games and matchups stretching out over six months.

But if you’re LeBron James, the big games and key clashes – the real highlights – are harder to come by. In an NBA sense, if anyone in recent memory had a right to go all Alexander the Great on us and weep because there were no more worlds to conquer, it’s been James. Two-time NBA champion, four-time Most Valuable Player, SI Sportsman of the Year, renewed likability, restored marketability and on and on.

While fans and even other NBA players make mental and physical note of their (and their favorites’) games against James and the Miami Heat, he has to look longer and harder to find the potential peaks in his regular season. Well, even the Heat’s star forward could circle in red the game he’ll play Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Oklahoma City at Miami. Possible 2014 Finals preview.

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Probable 2014 MVP showdown.

Yeah, James sounded as into the matchup with the Thunder’s ridiculously potent thin man as anyone who’ll be stuffed in a sofa, crammed into the stands or working hard on the hardwood alongside them.

“It’s not secondary, it’s first-dary,” James said, coining a word for reporters after practice Tuesday to stress the urgency of containing Durant’s offense in order to beat OKC. “Absolutely, he’s one of the toughest covers. Between him and Melo [Carmelo Anthony], it’s the toughest covers for me individually.

“So it’s a game within a game. You want to win but you also want to do your part against who you’re going against. I like going against the best. He’s definitely right up there.”

That stuff matters. Chamberlain had Russell, Magic had Larry – with rivals, the elite often can push themselves higher. Imagine if Michael Jordan, in all his greatness, had had that one undisputed challenger; instead, he had many, each diffused a bit and slightly off. Like Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Detroit Pistons’ defense and the New York Knicks. And of course everybody else he named at his HOF induction speech.

Tiger Woods, at the peak of his powers, had … who, David Duval? Something gets lost, that little extra gets left on the table, without a perfect rival.

That little extra was what everyone was excited about heading toward Wednesday. Including James, who only gets to face Durant twice each season due to their opposite-conference endeavors.

As the hype swelled Tuesday, driven by Durant’s breathtaking string of scoring outbursts, James said: “Don’t get it twisted thinking that he hasn’t been a great all-around player. As you play more and more games, you get more and more comfortable in this league. You start to expand your game. It’s the same if you ask ‘How is Paul George now better?’ He’s just more comfortable. … And when you have talent and you work at that talent, things become second nature for you to go out and play.

“So KD rebounding and making plays for his teammates is something he’s always been able to do. He’s just getting more comfortable at doing it.”

As effusive in his praise as James was of Durant’s pyrotechnics at one end of the court, he got intriguingly tight-lipped about any progress or impact the Thunder forward has defensively.

“Uh, he’s more comfortable playing on that side of the floor,” he said. “That side of the floor is why I really take a lot of responsibility in. I don’t like to do too much comparing when it comes to defense.”

What, he’s supposed to give up everything to Durant? Flip him the access code to the house, the keys to the Ferrari and the TV remote, all at once, just like that?

Anyone reading between the lines of James’ response might expect lockdown mode in some form, at some point, from the proud Miami player. Something akin, maybe, to the way he helped hold George scoreless in the first half of their Dec. 10 game in Indianapolis.

The top two consensus MVP candidates don’t lock horns like this very often. Anyone snoozing on Durant as a deserving alternative to James hasn’t been paying attention.

“All you’ve got to do is turn on the TV and there he is,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He’s on a great tear right now, one of the greatest tears of all time.”

Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: “Obviously you see the video game numbers he’s putting up, but at the heart of it, he’s a fierce, fierce competitor. So what he’s doing right now is notable because they could have come up with a lot of excuses why they couldn’t compete in that Western Conference at the level they are. He’s raised his game and it’s pulled their team right along with him.”

All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook‘s latest knee injury left Durant with a choice: Endure and survive till he returns and push toward the postseason. Or hit the shift paddles and dive over to the far-left lane, blinker be damned.

All this MVP chatter comes from the latter.

“I’ve got to go with KD at this point,” Minnesota’s Kevin Love told this week. “He’s been absolutely unbelievable – and that’s not taking anything away from LeBron. But KD has been absolutely out of his mind since Russ went down.”

It’s not about overlooking the swell seasons being offered up by Love, George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul until he got hurt or anyone else. It’s about acknowledging that Durant, already formidable, has turned lethal.

“Right now, most definitely it’s got to be one of those two guys,” veteran Charlotte big man Al Jefferson said. “LeBron James, he’s gonna be at the top of the conversation every year just because of the things he does for his team. I just haven’t seen no one put a show on in the last month like Kevin Durant. Without his sidekick, and they’re still consistent winning, and he’s averaging 30-plus points the last 10, 11 games. So I mean right now, I think he’s got the edge.”

Kevin Durant and LeBron James (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kevin Durant and LeBron James (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

In his last 13 games, Durant has averaged 37.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting. He had a triple-double against the Sixers and hung 54 points on the Warriors. He scored 40 or more four times and at least 30 in 11 consecutive games. His current 31.3 scoring average, if maintained, would be the highest since Kobe Bryant averaged 31.6 seven years ago. And if his stats line holds up, he’ll join just six others in NBA history to average at least 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The others: Chamberlain, Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and James.

“He’s 6-11, he can get his shot off the majority of the time,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “And he has a very easy shot to shoot for him, at a very high percentage. I don’t think going into the game scoring is his concern. He was born to score.

“For a defense, you have to be concerned about what his teammates are doing.

KD is going to get an opportunity to score 30 a night. That’s the talent he has, the position he’s been put in. You’ve just got to try to make those 30 a little tougher and at the same time be aware of everyone else.”

Durant’s range extends from under the rim to the VIP parking lot, so a defense like Miami’s that normally seems six- or seven-players thick gets thinned. “He extends your defense out four or five steps further out than it is normally used to,” Spoelstra said. “At times that court is going to look big.”

But wait, there’s more!

“He’s added more to his tool kit,” the Heat coach said. “He can make any shot in the book right now. From deep, from inside. He’s got the midrange. He has the floaters. He works you in the post. And he’s an improved passer. He’s at a career-high clip right now setting up his teammates and that makes their team even more dangerous.”

Defensively? “He’s a multi-positional defender now,” Spoelstra called him. “Impacting the game on both sides of the court. But somebody of his length and knowledge and experience, it was a matter of time.”

A matter of time before Durant crowded into the MVP conversation for real, after finishing second to James by a respectable margin in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

The criteria for that award can get tricky, weighted with tangibles, intangibles, advanced analytics and personal biases of the voters. But team records appear to be a big factor – only once in the past five seasons has the MVP gone to the guy whose team won fewer games than the runner-up’s team (James in 2012). That was one of the reasons Derrick Rose wrested the Podoloff trophy from James in 2011.

Then there are head-to-head clashes like the one Wednesday. They tend to stick in voters’ craws. The teams meet again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City.

Beyond the differences in their games, Durant and James offer MVP voters almost a blue-state, red-state gap in public personas and personal styles. One plays in one of the NBA’s flashiest, more alluring destinations, the other in the middle of flyover country, eh, somewhere out there. People save for years hoping to afford a dream vacation to south Florida. Most might take a minute to even spell OKC much less travel there.

James and his people staged that worldwide telecast in July 2010 so he could announce which job offer he was going to accept. Durant … does he even have “people?”

He quietly re-upped with the Thunder that same month – players’ second contracts (rookie extensions) typically are more quiet than their third ones, when true free agency looms – but at $56.9 million from this season through 2015-16, Durant will be paid within a few Bentleys of James’ $61.7 million (if the Miami star were to let his deal run full term).

So one can earn in Oklahoma. It appears, save for the rings yet, that one also can win. The issue at hand is whether one can win MVPs there, too.

Seriously, with all the obsession with market size – the fan base, the media rankings, the traffic jams, the inflated property values and tax rates, and so on – could Durant be that much “bigger,” in terms of famous, than he already is playing in OKC?

Some great players don’t get the full-blown famous treatment until they go to the bright lights, like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Bosh. But Dwight Howard didn’t really need to leave Orlando, if only he’d committed to sticking and ushering the Magic back to The Finals a couple more times. It wasn’t James leaving Cleveland that shot him up the celebrity scale – winning titles did that. Ditto, most likely, for Durant in OKC.

Durant also has never heard the sort of criticism, borne of expectations and hype dating back to grade school, that was heaped on James. Torch a No. 35 Thunder jersey? You get the sense that if Durant ever did leave as a free agent, fans in Oklahoma City would line up to shake his hand and thank him for the thrills. The 6-foot-11 shooter might lead the league in fewest lusty boos rained down on an opponent, almost generally considered one of the league’s “nicest” guys.

Just don’t assume that means a deficiency of ruthlessness.

“It’s funny,” said Love, a good friend of Durant. “I laugh when KD talks to the media, ‘Aw, what I’m doing, you guys really shouldn’t gawk at or think that it’s a big deal.’ I do believe that he thinks that way – in a way – but he wants to be the best player in the game. He has a fire inside him. I see it when I work out with him the whole summer. He’s a big-time player but also, he wants to be the best.

“He’s very humble. The ego is harder to find. But at the same time, he exudes that extreme confidence. He’s unbelievable.”

Love smiled as he spoke, amused at what Durant gets away with, cloaking his competitive fire at times.

Heat fans won’t be letting him off the hook, of course, in his only regular season trip to Miami. This game, this night is different. For them and for their resident – but temporary? – reigning MVP.