Posts Tagged ‘jeremy lamb’

Talking Defense With Scott Brooks

VIDEO: Serge Ibaka turns defense into offense vs. the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – When you think of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant‘s scoring comes to mind first. He leads the league by a wide margin, after all. But the Thunder have been a better defensive team than offensive team this season. Heading into Thursday’s matchup with the Heat, they rank sixth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.

To be a true title contender, you have to be good on both ends of the floor, and the Thunder are the only team that has ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency each of the last three seasons.

That’s a credit to head coach Scott Brooks, who spoke with NBA.com for a few minutes at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

NBA.com: When looking at teams, I usually evaluate their offense and defense separately. Do you look your offense and defense like that, or is there more a relationship between the how well you play offensively and how well you play defensively?

Brooks: I look at it in a bunch of dimensions. One, I look at it as strictly an offensive team and a defensive team. And I look at it combined, hand in hand. I believe you have to be able to be a be a two-way team in order to have success. Especially in the West, there are so many great teams.

And that’s the thing I take pride in. I know there are so many times when we have to focus on defense, defense, defense, and there are holes. We have to try to repair it. And we do that and the offense becomes stagnant, and you try to fix that up. That’s just part of coaching. You have to find balance, fix the problems as you see them, and try to envision problems before they even happen.

NBA.com: We always think that good defense leads to better offense, but I once asked Jerry Sloan how his team could get better defensively, and he said it started with better floor balance on offense. For your team, does one end of the floor help the other more than vice-versa?

Brooks: We say that the start of good defense is a good shot. Also, we say that the start of a good offense is a rebound off a miss. So they go hand in hand. Our guys really believe that. They’ve done a good job of focusing on making teams miss and trying to score in transition before the defense is set. And then, focusing on getting a good shot and having good floor balance, so you can get back in transition and get set before the offense attacks you.

NBA.com: Do you value certain things defensively more than others? Do you care about forcing turnovers?

Brooks: I don’t look into forcing turnovers. If we’re in a defensive mind set, we’re going to get our fair share of steals. I’m really concerned about making sure that every shot is contested. For basketball players on all levels, it’s proven that if you’re shooting contested shots, you have less of a chance of making them. So we focus on that. And we focus on making sure we rebound. Our rebounding numbers have gone up the last few years.

Thunder defense, last four seasons

Season DefRtg Rank OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank Opp FTA/FGA Rank
2010-11 104.0 13 49.3% 11 73.6% 17 14.5% 19 .307 19
2011-12 100.0 9 46.5% 4 72.1% 23 14.6% 23 .270 13
2012-13 99.2 4 46.9% 2 73.4% 17 15.2% 17 .254 8
2013-14 99.3 3 47.8% 4 75.5% 9 15.3% 16 .286 13

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppeFG% = Opponent (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions

NBA.com: Defense has been a big part of your bench success. Your best defensive numbers have been with your reserves on the floor. Is that just about them playing against other reserves, or is there more to it than that?

Brooks: We have some toughness on our bench. There’s no question. I think people don’t give our toughness, as a team, enough credit. They don’t look at guys like KD and say “That’s a tough guy.” He’s so athletic. He’s slender. But he’s tough.

With our bench, we feel that [Derek] Fisher, [Nick] Collison, Reggie [Jackson], Jeremy [Lamb], Steven [Adams], and Perry [Jones] bring that type of toughness. Obviously, when you’re going against the other team’s bench, that kind of negates the difference. But I think our bench has done a good job.

I try not to really look at our team as two units. I know, as a player, it kind of bothered me that … “Hey, bench guys go over there and shoot” or first team and second team and all that. If you’re going to talk about the first team and second team, don’t talk about “team” to me. That was kind of my mind set as a player.

So I look at our group as a team and with the flexibility that we have, we can mix and match our starters and the guys that come off the bench and form a pretty good unit.

NBA.com: On that note, your defense has been very good (in 234 minutes) with Russell Westbrook and Jackson on the floor together. Does your defense start on the perimeter or on the interior?

Brooks: That’s a question that I go back and forth on. I come up with the conclusion that all five guys have to be engaged. We have to have Serge [Ibaka] and [Kendrick Perkins] ready to protect the paint. We have to have Russell, KD and Thabo [Sefolosha] ready to man the perimeter. I think both perimeter and interior guys have to be ready to play. There are too many skilled players in this league to relax at one position.

NBA.com: And when Russell and Reggie are on the floor together, can you be more disruptive?

Brooks: I haven’t really dove into those two playing together. That’s something that we can always go to. I like it more as an offensive unit, because Reggie gives us a third penetrator.

You just have to understand who they can guard. Russell can guard just about any guard in this league. And Reggie, you have to be able to pick and choose who he can guard. One of them’s going to have to guard a bigger guard. Some of the guards in the league don’t post up, but some do.

OKC Ready To Adjust To Westbrook’s Return


VIDEO: Thunder coach Scott Brooks talks about Russell Westbrook’s potential return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Russell Westbrook picked a heck of a game to make his return.

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has been cleared to play Thursday night for the first time since Christmas Day against the revenge-minded and LeBron James-fueled Miami Heat on TNT (8 p.m. ET). It was just three weeks ago that Durant and the Thunder, minus Westbrook, torched the Heat on their turf. As of Wednesday, Westbrook is officially listed as a game-time decision.

OKC stunned the league in the weeks without Westbrook, climbing to the top of the Western Conference behind Durant’s magnificent performances that have vaulted him ahead of James to the top of the MVP race. Now the Thunder will be whole again for the first time since Westbrook underwent a third surgery to his right knee after Christmas.

“You have to worry about one superstar and then you bring in another,” James said Tuesday night after scoring a season-high 42 points, his first 40-point venture of the season, in a win at Dallas.

Between Westbrook’s anticipated return and another showdown between the game’s two biggest stars, Miami-OKC, a potential NBA Finals preview, is must-watch TV.

“Is it a statement game?” James asked rhetorically. “It’s not a statement….we don’t need to make a statement. We want to continue to play at a high level like we have been playing.”

It could be good timing for the Heat to keep their momentum flowing. Since losing to the Thunder on Jan. 29, Miami’s reeled off six of seven, including three in a row, with James reminding all that until further notice he is the four-time MVP with averages in those seven games of 30.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 7.6 apg. The lone hiccup came at Utah during an otherwise sparkling, 4-1 all-Western Conference trip bridging the All-Star break. The road finally ends in OKC.

Now they’ll get a Thunder team in their first game after the break and back in adjustment mode, working in their three-time All-Star point guard with their do-it-all superstar, a talented crew of role players that have stepped up big. Thunder coach Scott Brooks called Westbrook’s impending return a “time for sacrifice.”

“When Russell comes back, there’s roughly 35 minutes that have to be taken away from players,” Brooks said. “There’s going to be shots that are going to have to be taken away, there’s going to be fourth-quarter minutes that are going to be taken away from players. But when you give players minutes, it’s not easy to relinquish the minutes, it’s not easy. It’s a lot easier if it’s a one- or two-game sample size. They’ve had a big chunk of the season with a lot of extra minutes. There’s going to be sacrifices, everybody. KD’s going to have to continue to make sacrifices, Russell, Reggie [Jackson], Jeremy [Lamb], but we have a team that does that.”

There will be scrutiny, too, instantaneous and often irrational if the Thunder — 20-7 during this stretch without Westbrook — slip. Critics will pounce if Westbrook is perceived to be shooting too much or stalling the offense or generally getting in the way of Durant’s MVP path, one that would prevent James from becoming the first three-peat MVP since Larry Bird some 30 years ago.

The easy-going, eager-to-serve Durant, as usual, brushed off any concern of being able to put it all back together on the fly with his partner of six seasons now.

“I don’t think it will be too much of an adjustment,” Durant said. “He’s a dog, man, you just got to let him go out there and be him. He has great intentions, he’s a team first guy, so it’s going to work. I’m excited to have him back and I know he’s excited to play again. We’ve just got to ease him into it a little bit. He’s been out 31 games, I think, so just make sure his body is right and his stamina is up, he’s a high-energy guy.”

Through his unexpected absence, Brooks effectively utilized his young bench, starting Jackson at the point as he did in the playoffs after Westbrook went down. Second-year swingman Jeremy Lamb, who came over from Houston in the James Harden deal and watched from the bench last season, has emerged as an effective sixth man and rookie center Steven Adams and second-year forward Perry Jones have been solid contributors.

Now Jackson will run the point with the second unit, and at times play with Durant and Westbrook, who was averaging 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.0 rpg before he went down. Through it all, OKC is the lone team to rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. In December, when they really got things rolling with Westbrook, the Thunder ranked in the top three in both categories and No. 1 in defensive rating.

And in January, as the Thunder kept rolling and Durant kept soaring and stealing the headlines, James, the four-time MVP and reigning two-time champion was taking notice, subtly, and not-so-subtly dropping hints that he’s watching it all.

As Westbrook returns, his best basketball might be a bit down the road, but for tonight it only adds to the tantalizing intrigue of this final regular-season showdown between two mesmerizing MVP candidates who can only meet again in June.

The Trade Deadline: Let’s Make A Deal?




VIDEO: Thunder guard Reggie Jackson gets it done on both ends

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The clock is ticking.

The trade deadline is near. It’s time for general managers and front office executives around the NBA to earn their money. Fix your team. Make it better. Pave the way for a brighter future by pulling the trigger on the deal, blockbuster or not, that creates the space for your franchise to go to the next level — whatever that level may be.

It’s easier said than done in most cases, mostly because a willing partner is needed to complete the trade dance. And everyone is out to fleece their potential partners in one way or another. Whether we see a blockbuster deal or not, we are guaranteed to see a flurry of activity by Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline.

A team’s wants and needs are two very different things. We’re focusing on what is needed here, which should coincide with what these teams want out of the trade deadline. Planning for the future is fine, but these deals are designed for immediate returns for (almost) all involved …

1. Reggie Jackson to the Bulls – Jimmy Butler to the Thunder 

The skinny: This is a nuts-and-bolts trade for both teams, one that doesn’t rise to the blockbuster ranks by any means. But this deal involving youngsters with extremely manageable salaries allows the Thunder and Bulls to shore up their key weaknesses. Jackson would be Derrick Rose insurance for the Bulls, a young point/combo guard who could be groomed to play alongside a healthy Rose whenever Rose returns. He’s acquitted himself well in Oklahoma City in Russell Westbrook‘s absence but will be reduced to a role player when Westbrook returns and assumes his position alongside Kevin Durant (which is expected to happen Thursday). Butler fits the Bulls rough-and-rugged mode perfectly, but if they are in rebuilding mode, he’s expendable. He offers the Thunder something they simply don’t have on the roster right now, and that’s a player capable of matching up with elite small forwards on defense. Imagine him in a Thunder uniform in The Finals going after LeBron James the way Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard did last year.

2. Rajon Rondo and Kris Humphries to the Pacers — Danny Granger and George Hill to the Celtics

The skinny: This is a risky move for a Pacers’ team that has rock-solid locker room chemistry and has played at a consistently high level without boasting an elite point guard. Hill, an IUPUI star, is a hometown guy and is widely regarded as one of the league’s most respected professionals. He’s a guy Pacers All-Stars Paul George, Roy Hibbert and team leader David West trust to run the show. But Rondo gives the Pacers the chance to add a game-changer at point guard, a guy who, come playoff time, has an edge in either the talent and/or championship-experience department with any other East point guard. The hang up, of course, is going to be Danny Ainge trying to do his usual and shake everything he can out of the Pacers’ pockets in the name of his rebuilding efforts. Granger and Hill are established players who could help facilitate any rebuilding plans for the more immediate future. Of course, Pacers boss Larry Bird doesn’t have to play ball. He doesn’t have to deal. He can go to battle in the playoffs with the roster as is, though there is a consensus among most observers that an upgrade at the point would give them a clear edge in matching up not only against the Miami Heat but any team that they could potentially face in The Finals, were they to reach that summit.

3. Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and Jason Smith to the Cavaliers — Austin Rivers, C.J. Miles and Anthony Morrow to the Warriors — Earl Clark and Dion Waiters to the Pelicans 

The skinny: Believe it or not, the Cavaliers are just three games out of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase as the post-All-Star break portion of the season kicks off. As Kyrie Irving showed us at the All-Star Game, he knows how to shine amongst other elite players on his team. Since he hasn’t had any suit up with him in Cleveland, Thursday’s deadline is acting general manager David Griffin‘s opportunity to upgrade the crew around Irving and see if the playoffs can become a reality. Barnes needs a fresh start somewhere, as a starter, and would be a great running mate for Irving and Luol Deng. Both Speights and Smith would provide much-needed big man depth. The Warriors get role players to help fill out their roster and Waiters, a HT fave whose talents have never shined in Cleveland the way they have when we’ve seen him during All-Star weekend or during his stints with USA Basketball, gets a fresh start of his own in New Orleans. He and Anthony Davis could help elevate the Pelicans to a playoff-level team in the future.


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving stole the show at All-Star Weekend

4. Omer Asik to the Hawks — Elton Brand, Gustavo Ayon, John Jenkins and a Draft pick to the Rockets

The skinny: This is certainly not the way Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is used to doing business. He’s used to fleecing much more from the opposing team’s executives (that mode of operation would explain the bevy of assets the Rockets have piled up the past few years). Brand and Ayon aren’t big names but when healthy, yet they have been surprisingly productive for the Hawks. That said, the Draft pick is the Rockets’ real prize … that and getting Asik out of town. And that’s where the needy Hawks swoop in and rescue their season — they had lost five straight heading into All-Star weekend. Asik helps stabilize the frontcourt rotation and joins All-Star Paul Millsap as the staples up front for a team that still has lofty aspirations for playoff positioning. Fellow All-Star center Al Horford is not walking through that door in Atlanta as his torn pectoral muscle will keep him out of action until well into the summer. Adding a physical presence like Asik at a relatively reasonable price makes a ton of sense for the Hawks right now. And the three of them together in the future is complicated, but certainly something Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer could tinker with and make work.

5. Emeka Okafor, Alex Len and Chris Singleton to the Grizzlies — Zach Randolph to the Wizards — Trevor Ariza, Jan Vesely and Eric Maynor to the Suns

The skinny: Randolph and Marcin Gortat balancing the frontcourt in Washington with All-Star point guard John Wall and sharpshooter Bradley Beal would be an interesting mix for a Wizards team that is definitely on the rise in the Eastern Conference. Just think of Randolph and Gortat as the Eastern Conference version of Randolph and Marc Gasol (Grit and Grind lite?). The Wizards have been an above-average team defensively, and now they’d add some serious toughness in Randolph. The Grizzlies need a building block for the future and would get that in Len, who was always viewed as a long-term project when the Suns selected him with the 5th pick in the 2013 Draft. The Suns are taking the opportunity to seize their surprising playoff moment in the Western conference with the aid of quality veterans in Ariza and Maynor and would also have a developmental prospect to work with in Vesely. There’s always a healthy dose of risk involved when you talk about trade deadline deals. And this one would come with plenty for all involved.


VIDEO: John Wall talks with the Game Time crew after shining on All-Star Saturday night

Trust Binds Brooks, Young Stars To OKC


VIDEO: Take a closer look at Scott Brooks’ coaching style and strategy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.

Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.

“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”

Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.

In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.

Now here they are again.

The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.

On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

The only team in the league to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive rating? The Thunder. They’ve popped East powerhouses Miami and Indiana by a combined 41 points.

This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West. (more…)

D-League Effect Keeps Growing on NBA


VIDEO: Ryan Blake on Day 4 of the NBA D-League Showcase

RENO, Nev. — For the better part of a week, morning through night, the squeak of rubber soles on hardwood floor is louder than any sounds that come from the stands. What passes for a crowd often looks like a handful of marbles rolling around in a bathtub.

The truth is the bare bones atmosphere inside the Reno Events Center makes the annual NBA D-League Showcase more closely resemble a testing lab than an extravaganza. It belies what has been a resounding success.

Now in its 13th season, the D-League continues to grow as both a business model and the future of cultivating young basketball talent. In short, it is the most scouted professional basketball league on the planet, and not just for this week when coaches and general managers from every NBA team are on hand.

“Players have come to realize that a league where you can get a direct call-up to an NBA team is the cleanest, fastest way to reach their goal,” said Ryan Blake, NBA director of scouting. “There aren’t hoops you have to jump through to get free from a foreign contract. There’s the closeness and familiarity that lets everyone keep up and know who they are.”

Fourteen of the league’s 17 franchises now have exclusive relationships with NBA teams, either through direct ownership or a hybrid management. The realistic goal, according to many officials, is to one day have 30 teams, one for each NBA club.

“Thirty for 30 is something that we’re closer to than I ever expected at this point,” said D-League president Dan Reed. “Ten NBA teams have acquired a 1-on-1 relationship in the last three years and we have more and more teams constantly getting interested. The idea is to eventually be more of a real farm system for the NBA.”

The number of NBA players with D-League experience is now approaching 30 percent and could hit 50 percent in the not-too-distant future. The Spurs’ Danny Green played in the D-League as did the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin.

More of the big clubs also have come to understand the value and utilize in-season assignments of young players to the D-League. Last season Jeremy Lamb spent much of his time shuttling between Oklahoma City and Tulsa to get playing experience and now is a key member of the Thunder rotation. Reggie Jackson cut his teeth with the 66ers a year before. Beverley signed a year ago with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, made his D-League debut here at the Showcase and four months later was starting in the playoffs in Houston. Terrence Jones went from being a Vipers regular to starting for the Rockets this season.

“I think it’s still a little bit of a stigma, but it’s going away,” said Gersson Rosas, Rockets executive vice president of basketball operations, who filled the role of Vipers GM the past four years, winning two D-League titles and getting to the finals three times.

“I don’t think Terrence would be who Terrence is now without the time that he spent here last year. I think that’s a great testament to the league and it’s a great testament to Terrence that he applied himself, he got better and once he got the opportunity he made the most of it.

“Having said that, affiliated teams have a big advantage because they have 1-on-1 relationships and they’re also the ones hiring the coaches and staff and that staff is spending a lot of time preparing the team. As a result, the philosophy is cleaner and the result is cleaner because you can develop players and get a better feel of where they’re at.”

The next logical step in the league’s own development would be to establish a system for NBA teams to sign players to D-League contracts that do not count against the 15-man NBA roster and yet maintain their rights. Currently, except for players who are on temporary assignment from the NBA, any other NBA club can swoop in and sign any D-Leaguer.

If an NBA team could hold signing rights and exclusivity, then D-League salaries for some players could rise dramatically from what they are paid now, roughly $25,000 per season. It could also enable the D-League to compete with some of the top European leagues for frontline prospect talent. At the very least, some executives say, NBA teams should have the right to match any offers that come to one of their D-League signees by another NBA club

“The biggest strides the league has made over the last few seasons is the talent level,” said Rosas. “In the next five to 10 years, it’s all only going to get better.”

With Westbrook Out, Thunder’s Success Will Start With Defense


VIDEO: Brent Barry and Dominique Wilkins discuss the impact of Westbrook’s injury on OKC

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Scoring don’t come easy. Not without Russell Westbrook.

Friday’s bombshell that Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard needed a third surgery within nine months to repair more damage in his right knee hit his teammates hard.

“Obviously it was an emotional day with Russell,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Friday night after his shorthanded club beat the Charlotte Bobcats 89-85 to improve to 24-5. “But I thought we did a good job of handling that.”

The only other time this season the Thunder, averaging 106.3 ppg, failed to reach 90 points? The second game of the season and the last that Westbrook would sit out following his surprising second surgery in early October. Ever since, including a masterful Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden, Westbrook has been dynamite: 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.0 rpg.

A festering knee issue? A third surgery? Out through All-Star Weekend? Yeah, right.

Yet that’s the deal. The meniscus Westbrook tore in the first round of the playoffs when he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley isn’t going away nearly as quietly as the Thunder did in the second round without their dynamic second star.

The extended absence OKC expected at the beginning of the season is now here unexpectedly. The league’s scoring leader and MVP candidate Kevin Durant – who wowed Charlotte with 34 points (on a season-high 28 shot attempts), 12 rebounds and six assists — will again, just as he did during last year’s playoffs without Westbrook, attract the glare of the spotlight.

But to focus solely on Durant’s ability to carry the team over the next six weeks would be misguided. The Thunder’s success — or lack of it — will be defined at the end of the floor that rarely draws the headlines. While OKC will blind you with dazzling offense, it mostly goes unsaid how they’ll muzzle you with a quick-twitch defense. Only Indiana allows fewer points per 100 possessions. Only Indiana holds teams to a lower field-goal percentage than OKC’s 41.8 percent. The Thunder have been a top four defense for two seasons and top nine for three.

The Thunder’s ‘D’ might just be the league’s best dirty little secret.

“It’s what we take pride in, we’re a defensive team,” Brooks said. “We’re a team that can score, but we are a defensive team. We take pride in every possession. We take pride in stopping the man from scoring and contesting shots and rebounding. I thought our defense was superb [Friday]. We did a good job of making them miss shots, and not hoping that they miss. And that’s our mentality. Give our guys credit that they stepped up.”

OKC held the Bobcats to 37.5 percent shooting and outrebounded them 48-43. The upcoming competition delivers decidedly more sophisticated offenses with three of the Thunder’s next four games against Houston (Sunday), Portland (Tuesday) and Minnesota (Jan. 4). Westbrook could miss as many as 27 games.

No doubt the Thunder are better prepared now to soldier on without Westbrook than during the suddenness of last April and May when Durant tried unsuccessfully to shoulder everything, even through constant late-game double-teams. He’ll still naturally assume more of a do-it-all, triple-double Magic Johnson-type approach, but he can’t do it all. Reggie Jackson, who will again assume the starting point guard duties, is a much more confident player, although he had a rough start at Charlotte, and the bench is deeper.

Still, the realities of Friday’s initial game without Westbrook can’t be overlooked. Durant scored 34 points while Jackson, Serge IbakaThabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb combined for 44.

This is drastic change. Over a six-week stretch, there’s simply no replacing Westbrook’s ferocious athleticism and attitude, his ability to discombobulate a defense and create easy scoring opportunities for himself and others. In the last two weeks he averaged 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.

In the nine games he missed during the playoffs, the Thunder averaged 95.3 ppg after averaging 105.7 ppg during the regular season. Against Memphis’s stifling defense, they scored more than 93 points once in the five games. This season OKC ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. In the three games Westbrook has not played — the first two of the season and a Nov. 24 game against Utah for extra rest — OKC scored 101, 81 and 95 points.

Scoring don’t come easy without Westbrook.

If the Thunder are going to maintain a top-four spot in the West until their indispensable playmaker returns, the defense will force a few more headlines.

Thunder Keep Rolling With Easy Christmas Win


VIDEO: Westbrook leads OKC to easy win over Knicks

NEW YORK – Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the league’s two leading scorers. Any comparison between the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks ends there. And with Anthony sidelined with a sprained ankle, their Christmas Day matchup was not a fair fight. The Thunder rolled 123-94. Durant scored 29 points, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double, and neither needed to play the fourth quarter.

The Thunder are a machine right now. They’ve won 18 of their last 20 games, with the league’s second-best defense in that time. At 23-5, they are tied for the league’s best record with Portland and Indiana. They rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and, given their matchup advantages over the San Antonio Spurs, are the favorite to get back to The Finals.

Go back two months and we were wondering if they’d be able to stay near the top of the Western Conference with Westbrook recovering from knee surgery and their bench going through more changes. Well, Westbrook is just fine. He shot poorly on Wednesday, but finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in just 29 minutes.

“He had a triple-double in three quarters,” Durant said. “I think that speaks for itself.”

Health has obviously been a much bigger concern for the Knicks, but with or without Anthony, they’re a mess. The loss dropped them to 9-19 overall and 4-11 at Madison Square Garden. As if to introduce the national TV audience to their atrocious defense, they sent two guys to double-team Durant in the low post on the Thunder’s second possession of the afternoon, leaving Serge Ibaka wide open for a short jumper.

Getting into the paint relatively easily, Westbrook found more wide-open teammates throughout the afternoon. The Thunder recorded 32 assists on their 45 field goals.

“Our offense was probably the best we played all season,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “Our ball movement, our ability to make the extra pass for shots was outstanding tonight.”

While the Knicks can’t seem to find any answers to their long list of problems, the Thunder seem to have everything figured out. They lost James Harden and then his replacement, Kevin Martin, over the last two offseasons. Yet they only broke stride when Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the 2013 playoffs.

Without Martin this season, the OKC bench has been the best in the league. While their starters had been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions before Wednesday, all other OKC lineups were a plus-12.2 per 100. Their best per-possession plus-minus (NetRtg) marks all belong to their reserves. Reggie Jackson taken his experience from the postseason and turned into a serious playmaker, while Jeremy Lamb has replaced Martin’s perimeter shooting.

“They’re just buying in to what we need them to do, and they’ve been helping us a lot,” Durant said of the young reserves. “We’re just growing together.”

“I thought everybody came back focused and understanding we have to get better as a group,” Brooks added, “and not one guy needs to step up for the guys that we lost.”

And really, the Thunder depth is a perfect representation of the contrast between the two franchises. OKC is thriving because of the young players it has developed. Of its top nine guys in minutes played, only two — Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — have played for another franchise.

The Knicks have imported most of their roster, haven’t had any kind of continuity over the last several years, and have paid the price. The latest square peg is Andrea Bargnani and the only guy they’ve had a chance to develop — Iman Shumpert — is the guy most mentioned in trade rumors.

There should be no more doubting the Thunder’s decision-making. Within the confines of a much stricter budget than New York’s, GM Sam Presti has made the right picks and his coaches have made the most of them.

“I take pride in guys getting better every year and I think it’s a reflection of our staff,” Brooks said, noting that the development of the team’s younger players is also a product of its stars’ work ethic. “We have great leaders in our locker room. They understand that how they perform and how they work trickles down to the rest of the team. And Kevin and Russell have done a great job of that.”

The Thunder continue to roll, game to game, season to season. They lose big-name players, move younger guys into bigger roles, and remain at the top of the Western Conference.

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.