Posts Tagged ‘Kendrick Perkins’

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.

Durant: Open, honest and still growing

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks during the Thunder’s exit interviews on Sunday

Kevin Durant mesmerized the basketball world with a regular season for the ages — 50-point games, impossible buzzer-beaters and statistical anomalies that flipped the record books back to Michael Jordan.

It all seemed to happen so easily, so naturally for him.

But on Sunday, barely 12 hours after his Oklahoma City Thunder bowed out of the Western Conference finals, the league’s Most Valuable Player, in a very honest moment, admitted that the season’s many adversities had stretched his psychological boundaries.

“It felt like everything was being thrown at me as a leader, just talking about myself,” Durant said. “It just felt like everything was being thrown at me to try to get me to quit, and there were nights where I didn’t think I could do it, where I didn’t think I could lead these guys.”

With co-star Russell Westbrook sidelined for nearly half of it with a knee injury, and later two more starters, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, each missing six weeks with their own ailments, Durant said the burden of leading and lifting his team throughout these last seven months tested his resolve through multiple sleepless nights.

“There were nights where I didn’t think I could do it because sometimes I was going as hard as I could and it still wasn’t working,” Durant said. “But I just stayed confident and just knowing that there’s going to be good and bad days, days when you struggle, days when you do well. Just knowing that helped me out a lot, and it prepared me a lot for this season and hopefully for the future. I’m thankful for those times that I can grow through them and get better from them.”

In the end, Durant and the Thunder reached their third West finals in four seasons, but ultimately fell short of their ultimate goal of winning a championship.

Still, the team remains young, immensely talented and intact. This season, with its many hurdles the team faced for the first time — including the blow of losing power forward Serge Ibaka for the first two games against the Spurs — might come to be looked upon as the moment on the timeline when Durant and OKC’s core came of age.

“Physically, I think I can compete with anybody; you put me on the court with anybody, I can hold my own, that’s just how I feel,” Durant said. “But mentally, everything being thrown at you, from Russell getting hurt — from him never being injured before — to having to be out there and being our source of energy for everybody on our team, giving everybody confidence from Serge to Nick [Collison] to Steven [Adams] to Thabo to Perk, from everybody looking at me and looking for confidence and looking to feel confident in themselves.

“Once I saw that I could do it, I kind of saw it from there in terms of having confidence. It was a great season as far as learning for all of us and being part of such a great group of guys that accept me no matter what, on my good and bad days.”

Durant won his first MVP in his seventh season. He averaged career-highs in points per game (32.0) and assists (5.5), plus 7.4 rpg. He was one of the game’s most efficient scorers, shooting 50.3 percent overall and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.

When Westbrook received the stunning news that he would need a third surgery on his right knee just hours after posting a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day, the job of keeping Oklahoma City near the top of the West standings fell on Durant.

He bettered his season averages through 26 games without Westbrook — 35.0 ppg (52.7 percent shooting, 39.9 percent on 3s), 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg) — and virtually made the MVP award his to lose. Oklahoma City surged to the top of the West. An adjustment period upon Westbrook’s return eventually led to the Thunder finishing with the No. 2 seed and 59 wins, one off the previous season’s win total and the franchise’s highest since moving to Oklahoma City.

Durant’s scoring efficiency dipped in the postseason (29.6 ppg on 46-percent shooting, 34.4 on 3s) and his performances from game to game, starting against Memphis’ suffocating defense, were uneven as he averaged a team-high 42.8 mpg.

In Game 6 against the Spurs, the magic he performed all season eluded him. Trailing 100-99 in the final 27 seconds of overtime, Durant looked to make a move past defender Kawhi Leonard from a few feet above the top of the arc, but he slipped to the floor and lost the ball for his seventh turnover.

Finally, with a chance to tie coming out of a timeout, Durant missed an open 3 from the wing with 15 seconds left. It was his sixth misfire on eight 3-pointers in the game, and his last shot of a long, taxing season.

And one Durant will glean plenty of meaning from as he exits into the offseason.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Durant said. “And I’m very appreciative of the opportunity I had this season to grow as a leader and a man and a basketball player.”

He will be back.

Morning Shootaround — June 2


VIDEO: Relive the Spurs’ West finals series with the Thunder

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Parker hopeful for Game 1 | Westbrook, Durant back Brooks | Celts’ history appealing to Love?| Parsons opens up on Houston future | Jackson, Perkins likely to stay in OKC

No. 1: Report: Parker should be OK for Game 1 of Finals — The San Antonio Spurs are three days away from their first ever back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals and their hopes of winning the series may rest heavily on Tony Parker‘s gimpy left ankle. Parker missed the second half of the Spurs’ win against the Thunder in Game 6 of the West finals with the injury and his status for The Finals was unclear. But Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that Parker should be OK for Game 1:

Despite a sprained ankle, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker is hopeful to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Parker “should be ready” to play in Game 1, two sources with direct knowledge told Yahoo Sports.

Parker will work to rehabilitate the sprain over the next several days of preparation for the Finals rematch with the Miami Heat.

Parker had been bothered by the ankle since Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and tried to play on it in Game 6 before missing the second half of the clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

*** (more…)

Brooks and the power of continuity


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks with the media on Sunday afternoon

OKLAHOMA CITY – The fickle and volatile nature of the NBA coaching business swept aside four 50-game winners the last two seasons. Memphis’ Dave Joerger nearly became the fifth last month, and the second in a row with that franchise.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks‘ job security always seems to be a topic fluttering in the breeze. He’s overseen three Western Conference finals appearances in the last four seasons, yet his critics continue to howl. Saturday’s Game 6 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs ended a second season of falling short of a return to the Finals.

However, it didn’t stop the franchise’s superstar, the league’s MVP from endorsing his coach.

“That’s our guy,” Durant said of Brooks during Sunday’s exit interviews, “and I’m riding with him.”

It would seem owner Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti would, too, but then Lionel Hollins, George Karl, Vinny Del Negro and Mark Jackson — fired 50-win club members — are still tidying up their resumes.

That’s typically not the case for a coach who has won better than 70 percent of his games in each of the last three seasons. Brooks has two years left on his contract at what is believed to be between $8 million and $9 million. The Thunder are not a franchise that takes a cavalier approach to paying one man not to work while paying another to fill his position.

Yet, Mike Brown is out in Cleveland with $16 million owed to him.

Is it possible the Thunder believe Brooks has taken this team as far as he can?

“It’s something that I don’t even consider. I do my job every day,” Brooks said. “I’ve had a lot of valuable lessons in my life from my mother and she’s always told me this: You do your job every day and you live with the results. ‘They say,’ you can’t worry about what ‘they say'; you never ever meet those people. I have many stories that I can tell you about my mom and that’s one of them — don’t worry about ‘them.’ Those are the people that told me I wasn’t going to make it as a 4-11 freshman in high school. My dream was to be an NBA player. If I would have listened to ‘they’ I would never have been able to make it.”

Presti won’t listen to ‘they.’ He’ll make up his own mind, if there’s even a decision to make. He spent Sunday conducting exit interviews with players and he will soon talk with Brooks, who Presti hired as an assistant onto P.J. Carlesimo‘s staff in Seattle and then promoted when he fired Carlesimo after a 1-12 start in Oklahoma City.

Soon after, Brooks elevated No. 4 pick Russell Westbrook to starting point guard. If Brooks and Westbrook have anything in common, it’s that criticism never strays far.

“Ever since I’ve been here and Scotty became the head coach, he’s done a great job of having confidence in me personally,” Westbrook said. “There’s times where things have gone south and he’s the only one that always, always, regardless of what happened, always had my back; regardless of people saying I was doing this, I was doing that, I was being selfish, being that, he always was the first person to step up and have my back and support me regardless of what’s going on. He does a great job of always staying positive and trusting in our guys and trusting in each and every person we have and in the organization.”

Brooks said the Thunder’s No. 7 -rated offense must continue to evolve around his two superstars, to become a better passing team with higher assist totals and fewer turnovers and periods of stagnation.
“I know I have to get better and I know our team has to get better,” Brooks said. “And we’re excited about moving forward together as a group as the summer unfolds, and coming back in October with a better team.”

If scheme isn’t Brooks’ forte, as his critics will claim, forging relationships is a strong suit. He’s helped develop a team of talented youngsters at the ages of 20 into perennial contenders now at 25. Before the All-Star break, Durant called Brooks the coach of the year for steering the team through Westbrook’s multiple knee injuries.

The Thunder remain as well-positioned as any club to challenge for Western Conference supremacy for at least the next two seasons, and beyond that if Durant re-signs when he can become a free agent in the summer of 2016. Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka have three years left. Reggie Jackson is eligible for an extension this summer.

The 2013-14 season was a struggle from the start of training camp when Westbrook was told he needed a second surgery on his right knee. He tore the meniscus in the second game of the first round last season and missed the remainder of the postseason. Westbrook had to undergo a third surgery in December just as he and the team were rolling. He was out through the All-Star Game.

Then OKC lost defensive-specialist, and now unrestricted free agent, Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins each for six weeks with injuries.

The Thunder still finished with 59 wins and Durant won the MVP. They beat Memphis in the first round and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers in the second round before falling to the Spurs. Both Westbrook and Perkins said the key area of improvement for next season isn’t personnel, but sharpening their mental approach to the game, specifically limiting careless turnovers that can turn a game or even a series against a team like San Antonio.

Changes will be made on the periphery of the roster, but the core is set for another run at a first title. It would seem the coach is, too, for a general manager and a franchise that place high value on continuity.

“You can easily say we lost the season because we didn’t win a championship,” Durant said. “But I don’t look at it that way because we learned so much throughout these years, throughout these last few months, especially, and it’s going to help us towards the future. When you look at it that way it stings not playing, but you also know that you’re just building the journey up, and hopefully one day you’ll look back at it and just enjoy what we went through.”


VIDEO: Scott Brooks talks about his future in OKC and more

Pop’s Game 4 retreat is no surrender


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discusses Game 4

SAN ANTONIO – Let’s face it. If any other coach in the NBA — maybe on the planet — had done what Gregg Popovich did in Game 4, he’d be online toast by now.

Just imagine what would be left of poor little Scott Brooks if he tried that stunt in OKC.

Down by 20 just five minutes into the third quarter, the Spurs’ boss called off his dogs. After all, there are only so many times he can watch them roll over and play dead and still thinks it’s a cute trick.

Trouble is, 19 minutes in this league that is built on runs and streaks and offensive explosions is an eternity and the question was asked in more than a few corners why a coach who once snarled and told his team during a timeout that he wanted “some nasty” folded his tent so politely.

“Thursday,” Pop said.

He meant, of course, Game 5 at the AT&T Center, where the Spurs’ season — if not their era as a championship contender — hangs in the balance.

Yes, Pop surrendered for a night. But just to throw the only punch he’s got left.

If Russell Westbrook brings his 40-point, 10-rebound, five-steal game, maybe it won’t matter much what the Spurs try to do. Not with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka also there to stamp the Western Conference for certain as their domain to rule for the foreseeable future.

Popovich spoke of the Thunder’s superior athleticism and length and noted that it gives you just a small margin of error. That margin was long gone in Game 4 and there was no sense chasing a pipe dream.

All, really, that Popovich was doing was following his instincts and his philosophy on managing playing time and energy expended that he’s relied on for years. Whether it’s November and it’s the end of a five games in eight nights stretch at Miami or it’s late May and the Western Conference finals, Pop watches his veterans and he watches their minutes.

With a 38-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker turning 32, Popovich has never watched and micro-managed minutes more. Not a single Spurs player averaged 30 minutes per game this season.

No matter the specific circumstance, the belief is that no one night of overextending an individual is worth the long term goal of being healthy and fresh for the grueling playoff run.

None of the Spurs looked fresh on Tuesday night. They were all outrun, out-jumped, out-hustled and outworked. Not quite three minutes into the third quarter, there was a sequence where Duncan and OKC’s Kendrick Perkins got their arms locked and tangled in the low post. It evoked a rare angry reaction from Duncan. When play resumed, Duncan turned to put up a short jumper and Ibaka blocked it solidly and even sent Duncan flailing and falling to the floor. Two minutes later, Pop pulled the plug.

While it was interesting to see the Spurs eventually fall behind by as many as 27 and then have the bomb squad of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and Jeff Ayres use sheer hustle to cut it to 12, that’s all it was, interesting.

Steve Kerr mentioned on the TNT telecast that if the lead got under double-digits, Popovich might have to consider returning his to starters to chase the win.

Uh-uh. Not for even a second.

Pop knows his team and he knows the situation his Spurs are now in. There isn’t a strategic adjustment that’s going to turn the series around, suddenly make the Thunder look less youthful and less athletic.

The only chance in Game 5 — and for all intents and purposes, the season — is to meet that OKC athleticism with as much energy as those old Spurs legs can muster.

That’s why it was the right decision, even if it was tough to watch and no other coach in the league could have gotten away with it without taking a public flogging.

One reason: “Thursday.”

The only real minutes left that matter.


VIDEO: Game 5 preview between the Thunder and Spurs

Spurs letting Thunder party like it’s 2012


VIDEO: Thunder wax Spurs in Game 4

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s deja vu all over again.

Hello, 2012.

Can Obama win a second term? Can the Spurs win another game against the Thunder?

There was no need for postgame locker room fireworks this time. Things got explosive early in the third quarter when coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan went jaw-to-jaw over another uncertain pass that led to another sure-thing dunk at the other end.

It’s no longer just about the inspirational presence of Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup.

It’s about the entire energetic, athletic, run-til-the-cows-come-home Thunder lineup. And a Spurs lineup that, just as it did two years ago, suddenly looks like the morning after.

This is no longer a matter of simply asking Tony Parker to play better. It’s about finding a way for the Spurs to regain their poise and effectiveness against an OKC team that in the last two games has come at them like a rolling bundle of butcher knives.

There have been four games played now and four blowouts. But no matter what the series score sheet says, it doesn’t feel like the Western Conference finals are tied at 2-2.

You could say the Spurs have been put back on their heels, if it didn’t look like they were flat on their backs. It’s looking just like two years ago, when the Thunder spotted San Antonio a 2-0 lead and then roared back for a reverse sweep.

Remember Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio when the Thunder front line of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha put up just nine combined points? It pushed Thunder coach Scott Brooks to make a lineup change to get Reggie Jackson on the floor with the starters and Jeremy Lamb into the rotation.

Here was Duncan (nine points) Tiago Splitter (3) and Danny Green (3) managing to squeeze out just a few more drops and the solution is hardly to sound the trumpet for more of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and the Desperation Cavalry.

With the young arms and legs of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Lamb and Jackson cutting off angles and jumping into passing lanes, the Thunder have smothered San Antonio’s offense.

With their driving, relentless aggressiveness, OKC has also overwhelmed the Spurs’ defense. Of Westbrook’s 40 points and Durant’s 31, a lion’s share came with them going to hoop and making the Spurs look helpless to do anything about it.

It ended up 21-0 in fast break points. What’s more, in the first half the Spurs did not even run a single transition play. That’s plays, not points.

While Parker came out determined to re-establish his attack mode in the paint, his constant challenging of Ibaka actually took the Spurs out of their offense.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They’d know who Serge was.

“(It was) really unwise basketball … instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We have seven turnovers in the first half, but really 14 because of seven blocks. You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error. You’d better be smart the way you play and you can’t afford to screw up as many times as we did.”

At this time of the season with a core of veterans, there are not Xs and Os to be rearranged on the chalkboard that will deliver a solution. That’s the reason why Popovich pulled Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard when the OKC reached 27 points and it was still the third quarter. He needs to conserve whatever is left in those worn tanks for what is left of the series and maybe the season.

“This has got nothing to do with adjustments,” Popovich said. “It’s about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes.”

Not doing that has turned Chesapeake Arena into the Spurs’ own house of horrors.

Since the 2012 conference finals, the Spurs have an NBA-best road record of 62-33 against 28 other teams. But they’re also 0-9 in OKC since then, too.

“I think we should not think like that,” Parker said. “Each game is different, each series, each year.”

So how come it feels like 2012 and we already know how the election and everything else turned out?

Difference from 2012? Spurs just better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich speaks at Spurs practice ahead of Game 3

By the time they finally take the floor for the opening tip on Sunday night (8:30 ET, TNT), they will have reviewed it, relived it, dissected it more than a frog in a high school biology class.

Everywhere they turn, every newspaper or blog they read will remind the Spurs of the last time they were in Oklahoma City with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs actually brought 20 consecutive victories and an air of invincibility onto the court at Cheasapeake Energy Arena. And they left it eight days later with a fourth straight loss and the shards of a season in their bloody hands.

But you’ll excuse Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the silver and black for not being kept awake by scary reminders and bumps in the night.

This time around is like returning to the haunted house in broad daylight when it doesn’t seem quite so spooky. Gone, for one, is the ghost of James Harden, who hit big shots and was the third weapon in the OKC armory. Then there’s the skeleton of Serge Ibaka, out with a calf injury, that is now locked away in a closet.

“We’ll remind everyone of that situation,” said Duncan, showing the proper amount of the so-called appropriate fear. “We need to go into Oklahoma for that first game with the focus we’ll need to win the game.”

However, there is another more basic reason that the Spurs can walk a bit more boldly. They’re better.

In the past two years, the Spurs have added to their depth, improved their balance and become a more potent overall team than any of the remaining contenders in either of the conference finals.

The Heat are the two-time defending champs and may still have the best player in the game in LeBron James. But his supporting cast, beginning with Dywane Wade, has fallen off and James is now required to do more. Often much more.

The Pacers with the emergence of Paul George may be a step up from 2013. However, their late-season swoon, near-cratering in the first round against Atlanta, overall mood and performance swings — not to mention George’s physical status for Game 3 — makes Indiana shakier than a rope ladder.

The Thunder, of course, have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but are playing without two ingredients that made the previous comeback possible and three-fifths of a starting lineup — Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — that has produced a total of nine points in the first two games.

While the Spurs’ solar system still revolves around the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the fact is it’s the emergence of the others that have allowed the veterans to keep their minutes down to all-time lows during the regular season in order to step up now, along with providing some punch of their own.

Danny Green — Parker’s partner in the starting backcourt became so lost and discombobulated during the 2012 series that he was eventually benched by coach Gregg Popovich for the final two games, playing less than four minutes in each.

“He’s come a long way,” Popovich said. “We cut him a couple of times and other people cut him, and he went to Europe and he went to Russia and he went to the D-League and he went all over the place. But the light went on and he become a little bit more aggressive, so that I think he could play at the defensive end. But I think his confidence grew shooting-wise, and I think that he gets a lot of credit for persevering and ending up where he is right now.”

That’s hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 2, giving him 21 points for the night, which is more than the total of 20 he scored in the entire 2012 series against OKC.

Kawhi Leonard — He’s steadily grown into the role that Popovich described as a “future face of the franchise” after the Spurs traded for the No. 15 pick on the night of the 2011 draft. He was a 20-year-old rookie in that previous series against the Thunder, taking the occasional wide open jumper and hustling for loose balls. Now Leonard is the Spurs’ No. 1 defender, locking up with Durant, James and every other big gun in the NBA while also blossoming at the offensive end to quite devastating effect at times, bull-rushing to the hoop or confidently stroking shots from the perimeter. His 14.7 rating is the best in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs by any player.

“He’s growing month by month, week by week,” Popovich said. “He’s been pretty special for us.”

Tiago Splitter — After nearly two full seasons in the starting lineup alongside Duncan, the Brazilian big man is showing more and more of the ability that got him named MVP of the Spanish League in 2010. OKC coach Scott Brooks shook his confidence by intentionally fouling Splitter during the 2012 series. But now he’s a key Spurs element at both ends of the floor. He and Duncan have developed rugged defensive combination, limiting opponents to 93.4 points per 100 points when they’ve been on the court together in the playoffs. He’s also an excellent interior passer and had a breakout Game 2 with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Splitter has more rebounds (18) in two games than the entire 2012 series (11).

“What he does for us now is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years,” Popovich said. “He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”

Patty Mills — The Australian dynamo only got off the bench for mop-up duty in the 2012 meeting with the Thunder. But now he’s Parker’s first backup at the point and he steps onto the floor with a fearless sense of belonging. His offense punch has not been needed so far against OKC, but Mills scored in double figures six times in 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Dallas and Portland.

Marco Belinelli — The free agent signing is the only newcomer to the core rotation since the 2012 series and has been invaluable all season long with his on-court smarts and excellent perimeter shooting. He was the team’s top bomber from behind the 3-point line this season and has had the best overall shooting year of his NBA career.

Spurs’ defense tightens its grip

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: A slow-motion look at the best plays from each conference finals’ Game 2

SAN ANTONIO – When the passes are crisp, the ball is moving and the shots are falling, it is easy to become hypnotized and think the Spurs are all about a smooth offense that should be set to waltz music.

But there’s a little head-banging defense that helps them rock and roll, too.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may have finished Game 2 with their playoff low of 15 points apiece because they sat out the entire fourth quarter. But when they were part of the 112-77 massacre in the Western Conference finals, the Thunder top guns were a combined 13-for-40 from the field shooting.

Through the first two games, OKC has connected on just 14-of-47 shots (29.8 percent) from behind the 3-point line and hasn’t been able to develop any kind of offensive rhythm that isn’t just Durant or Westbrook going 1-on-1.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t professing to have solved the dilemma of stopping the Thunder permanently.

“I’m sure at times we guarded them well and I’m sure that at times they had open shots that they didn’t make,” he said.

Knowing that OKC doesn’t have Serge Ibaka as a third option in its offense, the Spurs have been able to play more aggressively on Durant and Westbrook, closing out faster on jump shots and contesting drives to the basket.

After Kawhi Leonard handled the lion’s share of the defensive assignment on Durant in the series opener, he got into early foul trouble and played just under 16 minutes in Game 2.

Danny Green and Manu Ginobili stepped into the breach for the most part, while Marco Belinelli also got a few trips down the floor on Durant.

“First Marco took Durant, then I came in,” Ginobili said. “Of course, we got worried because Kawhi is our designated defender on him. Besides that, even if he wasn’t our designated, he’s a huge part of what we do and we need him on the court.”

It certainly helps when the Thunder are starting games with a lineup that might as well be the equivalent of a one-armed juggler. The combination of Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison scored just five points in Game 1 and came back with a worse output in Game 2 (four points).

“You’re not going to stop (Durant and Westbrook),” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “We know they’re going to keep being aggressive and they’re going to score some points. So far, we’re doing a pretty good job. I think we can do better. It’s going to be harder to stop them at home.”

The Spurs had the No. 3-rated defense in the league during the regular season, giving up just 102.4 points per 100 possessions. But Green said the Spurs still needed to turn up the level of energy and aggressiveness after built a 36-33 lead about four minutes deep into the second quarter of Game 2.

“They were doing pretty much everything they wanted, the things that we didn’t want them to do in the first quarter,” Green said. “We changed some things, tried to show them different looks and they started missing shots.

“We started contesting harder, being more aggressive and trying to limit them to one shot, not to let them get second chances and offensive rebounds.”

Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan also ramped up their protection of the basket, blocking five shots in Game 2 and going over others.

In two games, the Thunder have made only 72-of-169 shots (42.6 percent) in the series.

“Those guys can score the ball so easily,” Leonard said. “So holding them under 50 percent is a great job.”

Reeling Thunder seem out of answers

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew hands out some advice for struggling Thunder

SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder had to feel pretty good. Relatively speaking. No, they hadn’t shot it well and the offense remained a combination of two overburdened superstars and haphazard execution.

But they had also stemmed another early San Antonio paint party and were getting enough hustle and grit from role players off the bench to survive Kevin Durant sitting out the first 5:42 of the second quarter, darn near a vacation for Mr. Inexhaustible during this postseason.

As the MVP checked back into the game between Tim Duncan free throws, the first tying it 36-36 and the second giving the Spurs back the lead, 37-36, the Thunder did have to like what was happening. They were hanging in, defending well enough that the Spurs, shooting under 40 percent, had to earn their looks.

Coming out of a timeout with 2:37 left in the half, San Antonio went up 47-42. Then the hurricane hit with a devastating wallop. First a Danny Green 3-pointer followed by a Boris Diaw reverse layup and then another quick-trigger Green 3 as Durant lunged, helplessly out of position to contest.

Suddenly it was 55-44 — an 8-2 explosion in 81 seconds.

Durant and Westbrook exchanged words heading to the bench for a timeout — leaders getting on one another, Westbrook explained, “what leaders do” — although it’s doubtful either could hear what the other had said.

The ascending roars inside AT&T Center reverberated off every seat in the house until the place felt as if it was going to blast off. For the Thunder it must have felt like the roof had caved in on them, leaving them stumbling through choking clouds of rubble. At least that’s how they played on the Spurs’ next possession.

First Diaw grabbed Ginobili’s missed layup. Then Ginobili snuck inside of Durant and rebounded Tony Parker‘s errant 3. Ginobili dribbled freely all the way out beyond the arc as if taking it back behind an imaginary line on his driveway, lined up a 27-footer and buried it with 33 seconds left in the half.

It was 58-44, a 22-8 burst being the precursor to a second consecutive blowout, 112-77.

“You can’t go from down 5 to 14, not in two minutes,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said.

“I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter,” Durant said. “I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I overhelped and he got another 3, and then Ginobili hit the 3. All those plays was on me … We shouldn’t have been down that much at halftime, but I made three bonehead plays.”

Durant sounded a lot like Chris Paul after the Clippers’ Game 5 loss at Oklahoma City. Paul shouldered blame for a series of bungled plays. This one obviously had much more time to play out, but just as the Clippers never recovered, there’s an undeniable dire feeling attached to this so-far non-competitive Western Conference finals.

Durant and Westbrook could have combined for 60 points and it still wouldn’t have been enough. Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was held scoreless again. He, Perkins and Ibaka fill-in Nick Collison have combined for nine points in the two games. Only Jeremy Lamb off the bench cracked double-digits and those points came after this one was long over.

With 5:41 to go in the third quarter the Spurs led 76-50. “Sweet Caroline” played over the audio system during a timeout and 18,581 swaying fans turned the arena into a rollicking sing-a-long.

With 1:47 left in the period, the margin stretched to 87-58 after a Kawhi Leonard layup, another layup that accounted for 54 point in the paint, 120 in the series. Durant slammed the ball to the floor and Thunder coach Scott Brooks threw in the towel. Durant, just 6-for-16 for a playoff-low 15 points, and Westbrook, 7-for-24 for 15 points, watched the rest of it from the bench.

Inevitably, the Thunder’s 2012 West finals comeback when they went home down 0-2 to the Spurs and then steamrolled them with waves of athleticism in four straight, became a popular line of postgame questioning. And OKC’s players all answered as they should, that they’re not giving up the fight.

But three key differences make this time feel a whole lot different: James Harden plays in Houston, Serge Ibaka is on crutches and this souped-up Spurs team, humming at top efficiency, is even better than that one.

Game 3 in Oklahoma City is not until Sunday night, leaving Brooks 72 hours to dissect this two-game train wreck and seek solutions to questions that seem unanswerable. Ibaka’s athleticism to defend Duncan in the post, meet Parker on penetrations and step out for 15-foot target practice on the offensive end, appear too much to overcome.

Brooks went small in Game 1 and he tried to go big in Game 2. He got by with again starting the second quarter without Durant and Westbrook on the floor. At the 9:13 mark, Westbrook returned with OKC up one. They’d keep it right there over the next three minutes when Durant returned to anchor another newly concocted lineup with Westbrook, Collison, Perry Jones and Steven Adams.

They got flattened. Now comes three days of introspection before the Thunder puts their season, their championship dreams, on the line in Game 3.

“It’s hard to do, but like I said, we can do it,” Durant said. “Of course everybody is going to try to spread us apart these next few days, but we’ve never been a team that front-runs. We always stick together no matter what. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

24–Second thoughts — May 21

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Danny Green and the Spurs raised the roof on the Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Spurs Way is real.

It’s a quantifiable force and can be seen on the tread marks all over the Oklahoma City Thunder after the first two games of these Western Conference finals.

From Danny Green making it rain from deep to the 3,000 points in the paint the Spurs have piled up in Serge Ibaka‘s absence, oh yes, the Spurs Way is live and in living color.

Whatever adjustments the Thunder made after watching the Game 1 slasher flick/film (they did watch it, right?) didn’t provide any insight on what could be done differently to fix all that has gone wrong for Scott Brooks and his team.

And before anyone reminds me that these two teams were in this same situation two years ago, when the Thunder stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to win four straight and advance to The Finals, remember that neither Ibaka nor James Harden (who was huge in that series two years ago) are walking through the door for Game 3 in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

So it’s your move Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

How do you respond to the worst playoff loss in Thunder franchise history?

:1

Serge still believes!

:2

There is no greater testament to the Spurs’ greatness in this series than their ability to make sure everyone, even folks out around these parts, gets a decent night’s sleep!

(more…)