Posts Tagged ‘jeremy lamb’

The Risk-Reward Of Russell Westbrook


VIDEO: Westbrook goes coast-to-coast

OKLAHOMA CITY – “Blessed.”

It’s the one word Russell Westbrook could summon. And maybe there is no other way to explain his bionic-like bursts to the bucket, his laser-beam thrust from the free-throw line to the rack.

So, blessed be he.

Westbrook (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Russell Westbrook
(Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

“Yep,” Westbrook said following a recent practice. “Some of that’s just learning some kind of creativity. But some of that’s just been blessed. Both of my parents were athletic, fast. It’s a gift to be able to do some of those things. Some of it you can’t practice. You just have it, or you don’t.”

Since returning from last April’s meniscus tear in his right knee without a hint of drag on his unique capabilities as a point guard (he missed only three games at the start of the season), his game  – as aggressively unrefined as heavy metal, yet as complexly interwoven as a symphony — has been on full display. His Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of the league’s best record, are 21-4. They’ve won 15 of 16, eight in a row and rank in the top six in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s showdown at 21-5 San Antonio (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

In recent weeks, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook has played at his jaw-dropping best, dropping dimes at will, scoring points with drives and his patented, high-rising pull-up free-throw-line jumper, defending with purpose and rebounding like a power forward.

Still, no point guard in recent seasons has stirred such conflict over his mode of attack. Brilliant or befuddling?  Calculated risk or risky beyond reason? Enter Westbrook’s World: Eternally dissected and debated, at once lauded and scrutinized, awesome and blasphemous.

OKC’s second-round exit from the 2012 playoffs — with Westbrook watching from a suite high above the floor, crutches by his side — may not have solved such debates. But it certainly revealed Westbrook’s worth as the the Thunder’s engine and emotional firestarter, flaws be damned.

“Russell gives our team swag,” center Kendrick Perkins said.

Westbrook is averaging 21.0 points a game, but is shooting 41.6 percent; he is attempting more 3-pointers than ever before, but his percentage, modest as it was, is falling; he averages nearly as many shots as teammate Kevin Durant, yet is nowhere near as efficient; he is averaging 6.9 assists a game, down from last season, but turns it over 4.1 times a game, up from last season.

As he studied the playoff action unfolding below his perch as if in slow motion rather than in the millisecond-to-millisecond frenzy of the heat of battle, Westbrook had his own revelation. He made a vow to return this season a smarter player. The interpretation was that Westbrook had become enlightened to all those aspects — shot selection, decision-making, ball-movement – that make his critics palm their foreheads and moan under their breath. Russ being Russ.

“I think sometimes you people [the media] say that without saying what the person really wants to say because a lot of times they mean to throw it out to be negative,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We want Russell to be aggressive. I do not want Russell to play like I played. It would not look good. We want Russell to be aggressive. We’re a good team when he attacks, we’re a good team when Kevin [Durant] attacks. By attacking, it doesn’t mean being selfish. By attacking, it’s drawing attention to you that opens up some of the finishers that we have.”

With fears allayed that Westbrook will be schooled into a fundamentally sound, below-the-rim Brooks, is the three-time All-Star a smarter player?

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

“Yeah, definitely,” Westbrook, 25, said. “I’ve learned as this season goes along to pick my spots better, learning and seeing the game a lot slower than I used to see it. Seeing the game from a different view gave me a different point of view of each individual player, what they see and how they see the game as well.”

As with everything else about Westbrook’s game, the multitude of stats available, from traditional to advanced to the public debut of the SportVu tracking system, show two sides to the Westbrook coin. Even though Westbrook’s assists are down, the team is averaging a bit more than a half-assist more than last season. That’s due to Durant (4.9 assists a game) and the emergence of reserve point guard Reggie Jackson (3.4). Their assist ratio and assist percentage are basically the same from last season.

One of the Thunder’s goals this season is to get more points within the flow of the offense to complement the natural isolation that comes with having two supremely gifted playmakers in Westbrook and Durant. Is Westbrook creating such opportunities? Again, it’s up for interpretation. Westbrook ranks 18th in assist opportunities per game at 12.7. Chris Paul is No. 1 at 21.1. As for points created by assist per game, Westbrook ranks 13th at 15.8. Brandon Jennings ranks eighth at 17.9 and LeBron James is 14th at 15.7.

“I tell Russell and our team, to be a good passing team, it doesn’t mean your point guard has to be the only passer,” Brooks said. “You have to have everybody involved, and by doing that you have to have everybody understanding what the offensive set means, how we can get open, the spacing, and the hard, forceful cuts that help our passing.”

There’s also the interesting numbers found in the touches/possession category via SportVU. Westbrook ranks way down the list of players who touch the ball the most during a game. Westbrook falls behind 14 other starting point guards and is 16th overall. Yet, he’s also behind forwards Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes in passes per game, a category headed by six point guards.

“We’re doing a good job of moving the ball around, moving the ball at a good pace and doing a great  job of just finding open guys,” Westbrook said.

In one of the most recognized statistical measures of an effective offense, OKC ranks sixth in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s down a bit from last season’s juggernaut that included Kevin Martin. But this Thunder team, with Jackson averaging 12.2 poonts on 48.2 percent shooting and Jeremy Lamb hitting 40 percent of his 3-point attempts off the bench, is closer than any version to having five players average at least 10 points apiece. Lamb, averaging 9.6 points a game, would be the fifth.

And just watch the games. The ball is moving, often whipping around. The Thunder amassed a season-best 34 assists in last week’s win over the Lakers. They had 26 assists on 43 baskets in Thursday’s win over Chicago to get to 13-0 at home.

“I don’t think our guys receive enough credit for being high IQ basketball players,” Brooks said. “They’re young and they’re athletic and they’re a fun group, and I think everybody kind of builds on that, ‘Ah they’re just alley-oops and isolations and crossovers and between the legs.’ You don’t win NBA basketball games doing that night-in and night-out.

“I think our guys have done a great job of moving the basketball. We have plays that they run that the offense scores for them, and then we also have plays where we use their athletic ability to break down and make decisions very tough on the defense. I think this year we’re definitely improving in that area, just with the experience that we’ve gained over the last three or for years.”

Over their current eight-game win streak, Westbrook has produced five double-doubles — four including assists and one including rebounds — and has averaged 21.5 points. He’s shot 50 percent or better in five games. He’s averaging 9.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds a game.

And, of course, 4.6 turnovers.

Russ being Russ.

Lamb Boosts Surging Thunder Bench


VIDEO: Jeremy Lamb finishes off the Thunder transition with the sweet left hand

OKLAHOMA CITY – Thunder coach Scott Brooks doesn’t get the sudden fuss over his bench.

“We’ve always played 10 guys. I’ve done it for many years,” Brooks said. “All of a sudden we’re all getting credit that we’re playing 10 guys. It’s baffling that we’re all of a sudden talking about it.”

The fuss isn’t so much over the number of guys coming off the bench, but rather the numbers those guys are putting up. For a team so reliant on its two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder bench is scoring more this season than at any time during the Big Three era with super sixth man James Harden, as well as last season when Kevin Martin replaced the Houston-bound Harden.

This Thunder bench (according to hoopsstats.com) ranks 11th in the league in scoring (33.8 ppg) and is statistically blowing away past incarnations in a number of categories: Sixth in rebounding (17.1), eighth in offensive rebounding (4.7), 11th in assists (7.2), third in field-goal percentage (47.4) and ninth in minutes (19.2). That’s a top-11 ranking in six key categories.

Last season’s bench ranked in the bottom 11 in five of those categories (field-goal percentage, 45.2, being the lone exception).

Outside of stalwart forward-center Nick Collison, this is largely a new-name bench. Third-year point guard Reggie Jackson has been excellent and his ascension from 14.2 mpg last season to 24.8 mpg this season was somewhat predictable after his 2013 playoff breakout as Westbrook’s stand-in. More doubts centered around 6-foot-5, second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and his ability to handle a hefty bench role for the first time in his career. Averaging 9.8 ppg and shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc in 20.7 mpg, so far, so good.

Add 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams, OKC’s at-the-time unheralded 12th pick in the Draft, spot minutes for 2012 first-round pick Perry Jones and a still-healthy dose of court time for everlasting point guard Derek Fisher, and the Thunder’s bench is producing at previously unseen levels. Three-point percentage (33.9), ranking 20th in the league, is the only lacking category.

The emergence of Adams (4.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.0 bpg in 16.1 mpg) has allowed Brooks to limit starting center Kendrick Perkins‘ minutes to 18.1 a game. Jackson, averaging 12.2 ppg and 3.4 apg, and Lamb (plus Fisher’s 13.4 mpg), have kept Westbrook down to 33.0 mpg coming off knee surgery. That’s about two fewer minutes per game than last season.

When the Thunder advanced to the 2012 Finals, Fisher was the most heavily used reserve guard beyond Harden. In the previous seasons, Harden was flanked by Eric Maynor (averaged 14.6 mpg in 2010-11) with Daequan Cook adding inconsistent minutes (and production) at shooting guard. This is the first time Brooks has trusted his personnel enough to regularly employ two young and athletic reserve guards.

“The trust came with all the work that he put in last season,” Brooks said of Lamb, who is shooting 48.7 percent overall. “When you don’t play as a rookie, you have a choice to make: either pout or get better. And he chose the one that we helped him choose. But it’s on him. He wanted to get better.”

No doubt that the 22-year-old Lamb was the wild card for a highly functioning bench. In Sunday’s win over Orlando, he played in his 23rd game of the season to equal his rookie total. He went 7-for-10 from the floor for 16 points, his 12th game in double figures and fourth in a row. He was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, giving him 30 made 3s on the season, the number he attempted all of last season.

In his last three games, Lamb is averaging 15.0 ppg and is 6-for-10 from downtown. Even at his impressive clip, Lamb said he’s not happy with his long-range accuracy (30-for-73).

“I haven’t been hitting the 3 like I want to. I don’t know (a specific percentage), but I’ve missed a lot of wide open shots, some big shots. Those have to go down,” said Lamb, a 34.8-percent 3-point shooter during two seasons at Connecticut. “There’s been games where I’ve had open shots in overtime; open shots whether it’s the first quarter or overtime, I want to make them.”

Lamb and Harden are both 6-foot-5, but inherently different players. Lamb, lanky and with exceptionally long arms, is a pure shooting guard, while Harden, stockier and listed 35 pounds heavier than Lamb, is a rare backcourt hybrid. Harden possesses extraordinary skill to drive to the basket, and therefore to get to the free throw line. Still, Lamb is measuring up well to Harden’s rookie season with OKC when he averaged 9.9 ppg, shot 40.3 percent overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 22.9 mpg.

With Lamb on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating is an excellent 110.1 (points scored per 100 possessions — only Portland has a team offensive rating better than 110.0; OKC’s is 105.9) and their defensive rating is a solid 99.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions — only six teams have ratings below 100.0; OKC’s is 98.0). When Lamb is on the bench, their offensive rating dips to 102.9 and the defensive rating is quite comparable at 97.3.

“Last year I had to change my mindset,” Lamb said. “I came in thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to get some minutes.’ But once I realized that I wasn’t going to get any minutes, I just tried to stay positive. I decided to keep working because I knew at some point I was going to get that chance, and when I got that chance I wanted to be ready.”

So, coach, that’s what the fuss is about.

OKC Back To Basics; Now West’s Best




VIDEO: The Thunder’s Sunday rout of the Pacers was a West over East statement game

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – As expected, it was all eyes on Kobe Bryant and his debut Sunday night in Los Angeles against the Toronto Raptors. When one of the game’s living legends makes his triumphant return from a devastating injury, no one can argue that it requires our undivided attention.

But the Lakers are not going to win a title this year. Two teams much more likely to be in that championship mix were busy trading blows Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City; the Thunder and visiting Indiana Pacers, who were fresh off an impressive handling of the Spurs in San Antonio.

So perhaps it was more appropriate for us to focus our attention on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Paul George and David West and a couple of teams that will be playing in the postseason …

It’s become clear, as we near the quarter mark of the regular season, that the Thunder are no longer dragging around the memory of last season’s abrupt playoff exit (when Westbrook went down with a knee injury). In fact, they look like the best that the mighty Western Conference has to offer after their dismantling of a Pacers team that has been the East’s most consistent so far this season.

The Pacers’ vaunted defense was no match for a Thunder attack that comes in waves now, thanks to improved bench play from the likes of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and the venerable Derek Fisher.

The superstar matchup between Durant and George was a one-sided affair for much of the night, with Durant providing a steady force to George’s at-times spectacular, though sometimes spotty, performance.

“Anybody who’s guarding me,” Durant told reporters afterwards, “I take it personal.”

And the Pacers, as deep and balanced as they are, had absolutely no one in their traveling party capable of matching what Westbrook brought to the party.

“As good as I’ve ever seen him,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after Westbrook turned in a vintage Westbrook performance against his team.

“Best game of the season,” Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins said of Westbrook. “I ain’t just talking about his scoring or what he did close to a triple-double. I’m talking about he was all over the place, digging, getting back to his man, running people off the three, jumping in the passing lanes.”

Credit Thunder coach Scott Brooks and general manager Sam Presti for resisting the urge to make changes and trusting in their own system. They believed in their youngsters and that they’d improve dramatically if they worked the way the organization demands. They went back to the basics that fueled their rise from a lottery outfit to a legitimate championship challenger.

Westbrook’s injury showed the Thunder just how delicate the balance is between a true contender and an aspiring one. Oklahoma City has lived on both sides of that line the past four years, finding out last season that without one of the franchise’s pillars, the Thunder were just as vulnerable as anyone else.

The Pacers would be wise to take note of that lesson. They are learning the ropes of life as a contender. For every stirring performance like the one they had in San Antonio, they’ll have to find the energy and effort needed to bounce back quickly for the next challenge.

The Thunder, as we saw Sunday, have done that and, in the process, have shown that being the best in the West is more than just a notion. It’s reality.

Be Careful If Underestimating Thunder


VIDEO: The Beat discusses the impact of Russell Westbrook’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Because James Harden and Kevin Martin left Oklahoma City within a year means Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook somehow emerged weakened?

Write off the Thunder and the championship mettle of their unguardable duo at your own shortsightedness. Is there plenty to prove? Heck yes. And why shouldn’t there be? But as you close that window on a title run, watch those fingertips.

The most driven second fiddle in the league, Durant is again side-by-side with his thoroughbred point guard Westbrook, leaping and bounding and spitting fire since his return from a torn meniscus in his right knee. They could be about to go gangbusters on the Western Conference.

Midway into the second week of the season, bowed-up West contenders in L.A. and Houston have proven they’ve got work to do. Hell, Barkley’s already read Dwight’s Rockets and Doc’s Clippers their last rites on live TV. That leaves the immovable San Antonio Spurs, galloping Golden State and perhaps an undetermined dark horse to keep the Thunder from recapturing their 2012 glory.

Yet some are already writing harbinger headlines of Durant’s exit for the big city three summers removed — an eternity for team stability in today’s NBA. The truth is this Thunder team, with a core of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — could quietly be at their most complete since hitching up in OKC.

Even if the offense takes time to integrate new bench players (and it has yet to fire on all cylinders), defense separates the Thunder. Flash-quick and long, it still seems overlooked even though they’ve been among the most disruptive forces in basketball. Top three last season, OKC ranks fourth in the league in defensive rating (allowing 95.2 points per 100 possessions) and is allowing the seventh-lowest effective field goal percentage (46.2 percent, adjusted for made 3-pointers being more valuable than a 2-point shot). That’s with Westbrook missing the first two games.

With the trigger-switch Westbrook, key reserve guard Reggie Jackson just shakes his head at the possibilities.

“The pressure that we put on people with our defense can be hard to explain,” Jackson said prior to the season. “Russ, the way he jumps lanes, the way he’s so tenacious on defense; me, K.D., just the length of the team, it’s something scary.”

The perceived weakness is the bench the bearded Harden once ruled. His individual offensive versatility served the Thunder well, all the way to the 2012 Finals before he petered out in what would be the swan song for OKC’s Big Three. Martin, while erratic last season, was a proven veteran scorer. This season the Thunder brass is undeniably placing faith in newbies to fill out a bench unit still captained by ever-steady power forward/center Nick Collison.

But look what’s happening. Coach Scott Brooks is going deep, using 11 players for at least 13.0 mpg through the first four games. The combo-guard Jackson has started slowly, but is quick, fearless and opportunistic, a breakout candidate on a number of preseason prediction lists. Jeremy Lamb, the lanky 6-foot-5 second-year wing with so much outside pressure foisted upon his shoulders, has erased a shaky preseason by averaging 10.3 ppg in 18.8 mpg. His 38.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc has fueled games of 13 and 16 points.

Rookie center Steven Adams (4.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg in 17.5 mpg) could prove a hugely significant addition and a gift to Thunder fans low on patience with Kendrick Perkins. The armor-clad Stevens is just scratching the surface yet his all-business approach is already validating the front office’s expectations when they nabbed him with the No. 12 pick. Thunder fans initially raised a questioning eyebrow.

“I think we probably got the steal of the draft in my opinion,” said Perkins, the man Stevens will eventually replace. “A lot of people probably don’t know too much about him, but he can play.”

OKC’s forgotten 2012 first-round pick, 6-foot-11 forward Perry Jones III out of Baylor, is logging 13.0 mpg. Derek Fisher, the ultimate safety valve, can return to on-call status with Westbrook back.

Brooks will find out what works and what doesn’t, and will eventually tighten the rotation. But gaining experience now for young players will help later. There is skepticism, and demands for Thunder general manager Sam Presti to prove he’s still got it by making a trade for veteran know-how by the deadline. Give it some time and he might not have to. This club is poised to make a run this season, and positioned to keep Durant happy well into 2016.

“I like the progress of individuals, how everybody came back and made their games better,” Durant said on the eve of training camp. “I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I’m excited for the opportunity I’m going to get as a leader, [to] step into a different phase as a leader, and just see what happens.”

It’s not a popular prediction at the moment, but who knows, a parade might happen.

Durant MVP-Ready, But Needs Help



HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kendrick Perkins told us so earlier this summer.

“We’re all watching Kevin growing into a man. He’s becoming a man,” Perkins said. “Not to say he wasn’t before, but he’s becoming his own man, and Kevin wants to be the best. He wants to be the best player in the NBA.”

Kevin Durant all grown up in this league — resolute, robust, refined — must scare the heck out of the poor souls whose job it is to match up against him. Entering the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fourth of seven preseason games Thursday night against the intriguing New Orleans Pelicans, Durant is making it look so easy that it doesn’t seem fair. Even while his teammates struggle to throw it in the ocean, Durant is shooting 55.3 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 27.0 points and 6.3 assists. Even without All-Star running mate Russell Westbrook, OKC is 3-0 and averaging 102.3 ppg.

Durant is doing it all, expanding his repertoire within the flow of the game and context of the Thunder’s scheme. He scored 36 points in 23 minutes in Tuesday’s win at Denver. Before that he dished out 12 assists with 21 points to beat Philadelphia.

With Westbrook’s sudden exit from the 2013 postseason, Durant tried to carry the franchise on his shoulders, a desperation forced by the urgency of the moment and the impossibility of a team built on a two-star system to adjust to one star, on the fly. Five months later, Durant’s guiding hand and evolving leadership are lessons absorbed over an offseason and being implemented in the preseason. With Westbrook expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season, the Thunder, with Durant as ringmaster, are polishing up their act.

If Durant can lead OKC to a sparkling record through Christmas, he will pad his MVP resume early and open a gap that perhaps even the great LeBron James won’t be able to close.

A fast start without Westbrook is possible. OKC’s first six games, seven of its first 10 and 11 of its first 18 are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season. But even an all-grown-up Durant will have limits as defenses undoubtedly pressure him to give up the ball.

His teammates will have to rise for OKC to charge out of the gates. As scary as Durant looks through three preseason games, the rest of the Thunder have been frightful: Durant is 31-for-56; his teammates are 83-for-194 (42.8 percent). Durant is 8-for-17 from 3-point range; his teammates are 5-for-41 (12.2 percent).

Much of the preseason spotlight is shining on second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, just because his shooting has been exceptionally poor. Expected to contribute perimeter shooting as a backup, Lamb hasn’t gotten off to a confidence-inducing start. He’s 9-for-33 overall,1-for-13 from beyond the arc, 0-for-9 in his last two games.

He has been a pleasant surprise on the defensive end with eight steals and four blocks.

“They’re not falling right now,” coach Scott Brooks said of Lamb’s shots after he went 3-for-12 in Tuesday’s 109-81 over the Nuggets. “But there’s no reason to not believe that they will.”

There’s also no reason to believe that Durant won’t continue to flourish when the real games start. Still, even Superman needs a hand from time to time.

Ibaka Beefs Up Pockets As Well As Game

 

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Serge Ibaka‘s four-year, $49.4 million extension kicks in this season just as James Harden digs into his five-year, $78.8 million free-agent contract.

The former Oklahoma City teammates will forever be linked. Ibaka is the Thunder’s shot-blocking frontcourt specimen, an emerging two-way force whose ascending trajectory seems as limitless as his team’s once did. Harden is the Houston Rockets’ uniquely gifted combo guard poised to be an All-Star for the next decade.

With paydays coming and the collective bargaining agreement tightening OKC’s purse strings to a hard-line course, general manager Sam Presti in August extended his big man, the less-expensive option, and in late October traded his sixth man.

How wise a strategy it was will be debated until the day the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Ibaka trio hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. If Harden, flanked now by Dwight Howard for the next four seasons, wins one first, well, the case will be slammed shut.

The immediacy isn’t lost on Ibaka, 24, who enters his fifth NBA season saddled with enormous responsibility. The backbone of the Thunder’s top-four defense must also step up as its third scorer, a task made even more essential early on as Westbrook’s recovery from two right knee surgeries is expected to drag four to six weeks into the season.

Three weeks, Ibaka said, is all the time he allowed to step away after last season’s playoff disappointment. Three weeks and he was back in the gym with an agenda to expand an offensive arsenal that last season introduced a dangerous mid-range, pick-and-pop jumper. It worked to increase his usage from 15.5 percent in 2011-12 to a career-high 18.0 percent last season, and raised his scoring average from 9.1 ppg to a career-best 13.2 ppg.

His usage should rise even higher and the Thunder will need his points to as well.

“I’m working on my game and creating my own shot,” Ibaka said. “That is something I’ve been doing all summer, so I hope it will pay off. … I’ve been working on putting the ball on the floor and post moves.”

To suggest an offense that has been nothing short of a juggernaut the past few seasons could struggle to score beyond its big two might seem odd. But those past teams included the dynamic Harden and last year featured Kevin Martin as the sixth man. As streaky as Martin was, he delivered 14 ppg and better than 42 percent shooting from beyond the arc, on top of Ibaka’s production.

Martin’s in Minnesota and OKC promoted from within, expecting second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb to join third-year speedster Reggie Jackson to fill some of the scoring void off the bench (Jackson will start at point guard until Westrbrook returns). Lamb has had a sluggish start to the preseason, only heightening concerns that OKC will field enough firepower around Westbrook and Durant.

If the chiseled, 245-pound Ibaka, the reigning two-time shot-block king, can establish himself as a presence around the offensive rim, it would give the nearly unguardable duo of Westbrook and Durant a previously unavailable option. The lack of a low-post game with Ibaka and the offensively limited Kendrick Perkins has long been a glaring void, and a constant criticism, of the OKC attack.

“You know,” Ibaka said, “I’m sure I will be better than last year because I put a lot of work in this summer.”

Ibaka will take home more than $10 million than he did last season, and he’ll be asked to earn it. His shot attempts jumped from 7.42 a game in 2011-12 to 9.73 last season. During the playoffs they spiked to 12.2 a game. In the nine playoff games without Westbrook he took 10 or more shots eight times and 12 or more in six games.

Through two preseason games without Westbrook, Ibaka is 5-for-8 from the floor for 15 points in 27 minutes, and 9-for-16 for 18 points in 36 minutes.

The latter stat line, which included 11 rebounds and three blocks, likely resides in the neighborhood that will define success over failure for this edition of the championship-or-bust Oklahoma City Thunder.

“That’s why this summer I decided to only take three weeks,” Ibaka said, “and go back to work on my game and try to get better for next season.”

Seasoned Durant Says OKC Will Be Back

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant turned 25 on Sunday yet it seems like he’s already claimed a career’s worth of accomplishments:

  • Three-time scoring champ
  • 4-time All-Star
  • 4-time All-NBA First Team
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Olympic gold medalist

“Man, it seems like yesterday I was in high school,” Durant said. “Now I’m going into my seventh year in the best league in the world. It’s unbelievable how time flies, especially when you’re having fun playing the game you love. … I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I’m excited for the opportunity I’m going to get as a leader, to step into a different phase as a leader and just see what happens.”

There is one significant achievement Durant has yet to pocket and it’s one he’ll hear about until he raises the Larry O’Brien trophy. That’s just the way it is for the game’s great players, and right now only two-time champion LeBron James stands ahead of Durant. His mission is to return the Oklahoma City Thunder to The Finals after last season’s disappointing West semifinal loss following Russell Westbrook‘s knee injury.

Memphis choked off Durant down the stretch of the final four games to win in five, opening him up for the first time to instant, if largely unjust, criticism. Knee-jerked into the can’t-win-it-all category that James found himself in following the Cavs’ miserable ending to the 2010 playoffs, Durant and the Thunder were said to have lost their championship momentum. Somehow their window, despite their youth and All-Star credentials, was shrinking with the Clippers, Warriors and Rockets all on the move.

“That stuff comes from the outside, from fans that only look at ESPN or comes from media guys; that doesn’t come from the inside,” Durant said. “That’s the most important thing is worrying about what comes through the group, how we feel as a group and as an organization, and we feel that we’re in a good position. We’re all excited. If we come in thinking we lost momentum or anything like that, that’ll mess us up. So we just try to focus on each and every day and we’ll be fine.”

Durant said he’ll be better this season. Asked where his game has improved, he put it this way:

“It’s more seasoned. You get better with time and that’s how I feel, I just feel more seasoned, more experienced,” Durant said. “Once you hit that stage it just kind of clicks for you so hopefully it helps me out this year. Of course, I put work in on my game, different parts of my game, but I just feel more like a vet and just ready to take on … I’ve been through every situation, so I’m ready to take it head on and ready to just embrace everything.”

James won his first title in his ninth season at age 27. Michael Jordan was also 27 when he claimed his first of six rings in his seventh season, the one Durant is about to enter. The depth question has gained plenty of traction in OKC, particularly if young guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb can replace the bench scoring of Kevin Martin (who replaced super sub James Harden).

This is a team that boasts two top 10 players in Durant and Westbrook, 24, who might miss the beginning of the season as he continues to rehab from knee surgery. But, he is expected to return to his fearless ways before long. Add reigning shot-block king and evolving offensive weapon Serge Ibaka, 24, and the Thunder, which finished last season ranked No. 2 in offense rating and No. 4 in defense rating according to NBA.com stats, should once again be equipped to compete for the championship.

“Yeah, we’re really confident that we can,” Durant said. “We’re not going to come in and say, ‘look, we can’t win it all, we don’t have enough.’ We’re all a confident group of guys and an experienced group of guys. So, yeah, I think so.”

Expectations Of A Recovering Westbrook

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When the Oklahoma City Thunder holds Media Day — the prelude to the official start of training camp — in 11 days, it will mark exactly five months since Russell Westbrook had surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.

The injury, sustained in Game 2 of the first round against Houston, derailed the franchise’s championship hopes. It’s no secret that the Thunder won’t sniff the 2014 Finals without a healthy, bouncy, frenetic, All-NBA Westbrook.

Oklahoma City has lost its sixth man in consecutive offseasons. The team traded James Harden to Houston prior to last season and this summer the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Kevin Martin to a contract beyond the Thunder’s tax bracket.

It leaves improving third-year guard Reggie Jackson, high-mileage veteran Derek Fisher, plus hopeful second-year shooter Jeremy Lamb as the backcourt backups. That makes OKC’s bench scoring as uncertain as it has been since the Thunder moved into the NBA’s elite. If a reliable scorer doesn’t emerge, it will require even more of Westbrook’s locomotive-like play as he rebounds from the first serious injury of his career. Westbrook’s recovery and the Thunder’s questionable bench scoring are causing some to ponder if OKC has enough firepower to again reign in the stacked West.

“How will Russell Westbrook return?” is the question Darnell Mayberry presented to Thunder fans on Sunday in The Oklahoman. The good news is Westbrook’s injury was not an ACL tear and so not as difficult from which to recover. Still, it is a question that can’t be answered until the three-time All-Star takes the floor. Even then it might take time for Westbrook to regain full confidence in his knee to resume his hard-charging style.

Westbrook had a monster 2012-13 season, averaging 23.2 ppg and 7.4 apg — but also 3.3 turnovers a game (second-highest among point guards). If there are areas of improvement for Westbrook they are reducing unforced turnovers and increasing his shooting percentage. Westbrook has become far more proficient with his high-bounce free-throw-line jumper, yet he still shot just 43.8 percent last season (20th among point guards), barely up from his career average of 43.2 percent, and down from his career-best of 45.7 percent in 2011-12.

How can Westbrook better his percentage? The simple answer is to become a more selective shooter (something critics have pleaded for from Kevin Durant‘s teammate), which some might suggest means becoming a smarter, more aware floor general.

But can a player whose game is structured on athleticism, explosiveness and high doses of improvisation actually slow the game down enough to regularly make what are often split-second decisions?

Westbrook might have started to figure out that answer for himself as he watched playoff games from high above the floor in a suite, a bird’s eye perspective he said allowed him to better dissect the game and his impact on it. When he addressed the media during the Thunder’s West semifinal series loss to Memphis, Westbrook said he believes he will come back “a better player mentally:”

“I think that’s the biggest thing. Mentally, it’s going to be a big step for myself and moving forward with this team. Getting the opportunity to kind of sit back — this is my first time basically seeing the game from a different view — to kind of sit back and watch a whole game when I’m not playing is different. I think it’s something that can help me to see some of the things that you guys [the media] may see or somebody may see, the crazy shots I shoot, I can sit back and see, so I think it’s good for me.”

For a player who is typically short-winded and often defensive in discussions with the media, the “crazy-shots-I-shoot” revelation has to be a great sign to coach Scott Brooks. He has always taken Westbrook’s bad with his good, understanding that attempting to put a restrictor plate on Westbrook could diminish his natural advantage over opponents.

But if Westbrook discovers ways to implement his own restrictor plate at appropriate times, it could make an already efficient, high-scoring attack — but one dogged by frustrating turnovers (OKC finished in the bottom eight in the league in four of Westbrook’s five seasons and 30th twice) all the more effective.

Summer Dreaming: Sixth Man of Year

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HANG TIME, Texas — Nothing says it’s summer like an ice cream cone (mint chocolate chip, if you’re buying) on one of those blazing afternoons where it’s so hot that your tongue has to lick into overdrive to keep the tasty treat from running all the way down your arm.

That’s kind of the role of the sixth man in basketball, to pop off the bench and get right to work cleaning up the mess. As the dog days of August continue, we’ll leap ahead once more in our summer fantasy with my five picks for the 2013-14 Sixth Man of Year.

Andrei Kirilenko, Nets He’s 32 years old and it’s been a while since he was the Jazz’s do-it-all player known as “AK-47.” Durability issues dot his past couple of NBA seasons — he spent 2011-12 with CSKA Moscow — but with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Brooklyn now, Kirilenko won’t be expected to rack up big minutes. That will leave him free to pass, cut and get plenty of easy baskets from Deron Williams on offense and to cut off the angles, hit the boards and block a couple of shots per game on defense. He’ll accept his role and make the most of it. He left $10 million on the table in Minnesota for a chance to win big in Brooklyn and could be a key ingredient if the Nets’ big offseason gamble is going to pay off.

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans The career path is not supposed to go from winning Rookie of the Year to having your scoring average decline in each of the next three seasons. But after languishing in Sacramento, much of it his own fault, Evans is getting a chance to shine in New Orleans. Yes, the backcourt is crowded with ball handling scorers. All-Star Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon are likely to start, which could work to Evans’ benefit by making him the main offensive option off the bench. At 6-foot-6, he didn’t like playing small forward with the Kings, even though it could be required in a pinch for the undersized Pelicans. Evans says he’s ready and willing to embrace the sixth man role and with his dynamic talent, he could really shine.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers With a healthy Danny Granger returning to the lineup, it’s quite possible that the Pacers could ask Stephenson to accept a bench role. Depending how the mercurial one accepts it, Indiana could take a big step toward closing the gap with the Heat by having a rotation of wing players that can match up with anybody. There are so many different specific parts of Stephenson’s game that you can pick apart, but his overall energy and attitude played a big part in the Pacers getting to the Eastern Conference finals and pushing Miami to a seventh game. He and Granger will both be free agents in 2014, so this gives Stephenson a chance to show that he’s the one the Pacers should keep.

Jarrett Jack, Cavaliers He makes the move from a young Warriors team that was trying to break into the Western Conference power structure to the same kind of young, hungry and talented bunch in the Eastern Conference. This is certainly Kyrie Irving’s team, — at least until LeBron comes back — but the future MVP candidate needs a backup and Jack is not just capable, but explosive. He was third in voting for the award last season (behind J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford) and is likely to pick right up in Cleveland from where he left off in Golden State. Remember, last season he became the first bench player to score 30 and deal 10 assists in a game since Magic Johnson in 1996. Fast company.

Jeremy Lamb, Thunder The deck is cleared and the stage is set. The ball will come to him for open shots and Lamb has to knock them down. Simple, huh? Well, the game is always going to be easier when a couple of your teammates are named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The second-year man who saw little playing time outside of Tulsa in the NBA D-League last season is no James Harden coming off the bench at this point. But he should step into the void left by Kevin Martin’s departure and get plenty of opportunities to make defenses pay. He’s a long shot in his first year with significant playing time, but is worth keeping an eye on for the future and will likely have played a big role if OKC makes a run for best record in the league.

PREVIOUSLY: Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Summer Dreaming: Most Improved Player

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HANG TIME, Texas — Fire up the grill. Ice down those frosty cold beers. Nothing says summer like a backyard barbecue.

Or sitting out in the hot sun daydreaming.

Sure, the NBA schedule comes out in a few days. Sure, the season openers are less than three months away. But why stop there? Let’s continue to wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my handful of picks for Most Improved Player and you can chime in below.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs Doesn’t everybody already know about the many splendored talents of the guy with Charles Barkley’s favorite name after he played a key role in the Spurs’ run to The Finals last last season? Of course, Leonard drew the toughest defensive assignment though every round of the playoffs, doing a creditable job on LeBron James. There were also nights when he had bust-out games on offense. But the feeling here is that Leonard has only scratched the surfaced of what he can do. It’s no longer a stretch to think he could live up to coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” prediction. As the years keep piling up and the minutes keep getting restricted on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, The Quiet One is going to get every chance to make big noise as he shoulders more of the burden. He could take the leap that last year’s winner Paul George did for the Pacers.

Harrison Barnes, Warriors Before he conked his head on the floor and eventually had to leave Game 6 of the West semifinals, Barnes was doing all that he could to force a Game 7 in the series with the Spurs. A member of the All-Rookie first team, he averaged 9.7 ppg and 4.1 rpg in just 25.4 mpg. When coach Mark Jackson went to him more and more in the playoffs, Barnes showed more and more of the things he can do. He got to the basket. He drained 3-pointers. In other words, as the games got bigger, he showed why Golden State made him the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft. With Andre Iguodala around to run the floor and get plenty of attention from opposing defenses, the opportunity will be there for Barnes to take that big step up.

Jonas Valanciunas, RaptorsAfter being named MVP in the Las Vegas Summer League, there are lot of folks on both sides of the border who are expecting the young Raptors’ big man to take off this season, especially now that he doesn’t give up minutes to Andrea Bargnani. He’s done work building up the upper half of his slim body without seeming to have surrendered quickness. His rookie numbers of 8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 mpg showed that there’s room for growth with increased playing time, particularly on offense for a player who makes smart decisions and doesn’t force shots. But the Raptors will have to make an effort to get him to the ball. He gets to the foul line, trailing only Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Barnes among last year’s rookies in free throw attempts. As long as he keeps building up his bulk and strength, he can be a solid rim protector on defense. There is every reason to believe he can be the guy that Toronto spent the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft on and then waited for year to get him to join the NBA. If not this season, then the next.

Eric Bledsoe, Suns There were a lot of places where Bledsoe could have wound up that would seem to make more sense than Phoenix. The Suns already have Goran Dragic at the point. But rookie coach Jeff Hornacek will likely play them in tandem and Bledsoe’s got the chops to play at the ‘2’ and use his defensive prowess to get steal and create transition chances and easy buckets for the offense. He’s been champing at the bit to get out from under Chris Paul’s shadow with the Clippers and if he can rein in a tendency to get a bit wild with his shot selection, Bledsoe could put up some nice numbers for a Suns team that will be thirsting for offense.

Jeremy Lamb, Thunder He moves around the court and makes every thing look so slow and easy that half the time you want to check to make sure that those sleepy-looking eyes are really open. He didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, doing a constant shuttle between OKC and Tulsa in the NBA D-League to get game experience. He scored big and played well at the Orlando Summer League and now with the departure of Kevin Martin, the door is wide open for the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft to come in and knock down all those wide open shots that are created by playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If those eyes are wide awake, Lamb could see his way to some very big things on the championship contender.

PREVIOUSLY: Sixth Man of Year | Defensive Player of YearRookie Of Year