OKLAHOMA CITY – This wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Not this game. Not this series. Not this postseason. Kevin Durant’s historic offensive regular season came to a cringing, clanging conclusion Wednesday night, smothered for a fourth consecutive game by a focused Memphis Grizzlies defense.
Only the sixth player in NBA history to finish a season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from 3-point range and 90 from the free-throw line, Durant went down like this: 5-for-21, 0-for-4 and 11-for-15. Even his auto-dial free throws betrayed him in this series, 13 alone failing to go down in the final three games, likely flattened by fatigue as he played all 48 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 and 229 of 245 in all, and swarmed by defenders to the bitter end.
His first six shots failed to drop in the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder’s 88-84 defeat, just like his last one with 4.9 seconds left. It was a good look from 16 feet away, the kind he makes in his sleep, but this one caught a chunk of rim and had no prayer of rolling through like the mesmerizing, high-bouncing 3 that beat the Rockets in Game 3, the first game OKC played without Russell Westbrook.
And so there will be no Finals return. No revenge matchup against the Miami Heat. And for Durant, at least, there is no remorse, no regret.
“I gave all I have for my team. I left it all out there on the floor,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, kept being aggressive, and that’s all I could ask for. It is what it is. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time. It’s something we’ve got to embrace and get better from. It’s tough to lose your last game in the playoffs so you’ve just got to move on.”
On the other side, Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph came up large in the biggest game of his career. He went to work in the low post early and finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. He missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds to go to leave the door cracked for the Thunder’s late surge that closed an 80-70 deficit to 86-84 and a fifth consecutive game that came down to the wire. (more…)
Ibaka is missing easy inside looks such as the two dunks in Game 3. He’s missing contested jumpers and he’s missing wide open jumpers.
“I’m trying,” said Memphis forward Zach Randolph, the prime defender on Ibaka when asked if he feels he’s contesting the majority of Ibaka’s jumpers. “But he has missed open shots. He has.”
For the playoffs, Ibaka is 12-for-48 from the outside the paint. In this series alone he is shooting 30.8 percent overall. This from a player that shot a career-best 57.3 percent overall during the regular season and shot better than 50 percent from four of the seven areas recorded on shot charts from outside the key to the 3-point arc. In only one area, from the left wing, did he shoot below 46.9 percent.
“We can’t let him put too much pressure on himself. It’s all in his mind,” Durant said. “If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them. I have to pick him up and that is what I have been doing.”
Ibaka didn’t disagree with Durant’s assessment, suggesting that it is normal to have a dip in confidence when the shots aren’t falling. But he said that mechanically he feels fine and that he’s getting shots from spots on the floor that he normally would with Russell Westbrook pushing the tempo and running the halfcourt offense.
“Right now, for me, my focus is on this game,” Ibaka said. “Like people say, if you think about the past you cannot get better in the next one. So I am trying to do the best I can to forget about the last game and be aggressive.”
His shooting slump has not dulled his defensive effort as he takes on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randolph, one of the league’s toughest low-post covers. Ibaka held Randolph to eight points on 4-for-12 shooting, and one offensive rebound in Game 3. He has 20 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
After Randolph blew up the Clippers for 20.8 ppg on 56.8 percent shooting, he’s averaging just 13.8 ppg on 42.5 percent shooting against Ibaka, Nick Collison and at times Kendrick Perkins, who has his hands full mostly with Marc Gasol.
“Serge has missed some easy shots, a couple of layups, a couple of dunks,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There’s nothing you can do about it but step up to the plate and be ready to do it again. Whether it’s in his head or not, I don’t know. I think if we can get those same shots for him, I believe in the work that he puts in, that he can make his next shot.”
OKLAHOMA CITY – Seven-foot-1 Marc Gasol sat at his locker, both knees buried under a mountain of ice wrapped in plastic as bruise-brother Zach Randolph slowly made his way to the showers, teetering from side to side as if walking on wooden pirate legs.
Yes, the bludgeoning has begun in this anticipated battle between a half-ton of big men. The Memphis Grizzlies’ old-school duo (and inarguably the craftiest low-post offensive tandem going) are so far doling out the type of punishment that has to be concerning for Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks and his defensive-minded tandem of Serge Ibaka and the ever-scowling, always-scrutinized Kendrick Perkins as this series, tied 1-1, moves to Memphis’ Grindhouse.
This matchup has yet to devolve into the dislike and sumo-wrestling tactics seen in the first round when Randolph battled Los Angeles Clippers nemesis Blake Griffin. But Randolph stressed that nothing has come easy in attaining his and Gasol’s impressive totals through two games: 38.5 ppg on 29-for-55 shooting (52.7 percent), 16.5 rpg and 6.0 apg.
“We’re just playing hard. I’m trying to stay away from that,” Randolph said, referring to the extracurricular activity between he and Griffin. “I’m just trying to play my game, play physical. I’m not trying to get into no altercation, ain’t trying to be like last series, me and Blake, just trying to go out and play.”
And for an extra tweak aimed at the vacationing Griffin, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph said this of the Thunder’s combo of Ibaka and Perkins:
“They are tough. They’re tougher than the Clippers — Ibaka and Perkins — they’re tougher than Blake. So yeah, they’re tough and they’re strong.”
In Tuesday’s Game 2, when Kevin Durant did everything imaginable and it still wasn’t enough, he was asked to take a turn defending the 265-pound Gasol. That strategy that backfired as Gasol scored seven of his 17 first-half points in a span of 96 seconds that flipped a 39-35 Thunder lead into a 45-42 deficit.
Late in the third quarter, Ibaka and Perkins each sat with four fouls, halting what might have been their best defensive quarter. Perkins held Gasol without a shot attempt until heading to the bench with about three minutes left, and Randolph scored four points on two shot attempts.
Down 54-51 at halftime, OKC managed a 74-69 lead after three.
But the fouls kept Ibaka, who has 10 rebounds and six blocks in the series, on the bench from the 4:29 mark of the third to 8:40 of the fourth as Memphis surged. Perkins sat out until the final 3:03 of the game when reserve forward-center Nick Collison fouled out. Perkins also drew the wrath home fans during that third quarter after bumbling plays where he couldn’t convert offensive rebounds and clumsily threw away two other possessions. (more…)
OKLAHOMA CITY – News that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the entire playoffs rippled across the NBA like an earthquake tremor. The epicenter was Oklahoma City where the shock was sudden and the aftermath is fueling new opportunities for a team that still aspires to win it all.
“It was kind of a gut-punch initially that day at practice, and the whole day you could tell guys were disappointed and down,” reserve forward-center Nick Collison said. “Of course we’re at a deep disadvantage without him, but I don’t think we work that way really. We do a good job of seeing what’s right in front of us.”
As the Memphis Grizzlies frustratingly discovered on Sunday afternoon, count out the Thunder at your own peril. Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on its own home floor, rallying from 12 down late in the third quarter to take a 93-91 decision on a go-ahead, pull-up jumper by Mr. Clutch, Kevin Durant, with 11.1 seconds to go.
“My teammates did a great job of setting me up all game,” Durant said. “I missed some easy ones, some chippies, and I was able to hit that one.”
Let the box score show Durant with a game-high 35 points on 13-for-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, six assists, a couple blocked shots and a steal in 44 exhaustive, mandatory minutes. Yet the opportunity for OKC’s Big One to put his team ahead for good was supplied, as much of the Thunder’s gusto on this day was, from role players coming up big in Westbrook’s absence.
As OKC continues to adjust and tweak on the fly, it is discovering what lies beneath.
They’re finding a resilient Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points, 15 in a critical second-quarter stand when OKC scored 33 points without Durant attempting a shot. Martin’s game, which also included a season-high seven rebounds and a late fourth-quarter swat of Quincy Pondexter in the lane, came on the heels of scoring 26 in the clincher at Houston after being left for dead and his OKC future being questioned, following his Game 5 stinker.
Derek Fisher proved he can still bring it in the clutch at age 38, hitting both of his 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first to start the period with OKC down nine. Then he’s making the defensive play of the game with 20 seconds to go, stripping driving Memphis guard Mike Conley from behind just before he can ascend to the rim and triggering a rush the other way for Durant’s big bucket.
The moment once again didn’t swallow second-year guard Reggie Jackson, who starts in place of Westbrook but watched from the bench while Fisher played down the stretch until the final possession when Memphis had to foul with 3.5 seconds to go — a sequence set up by Thabo Sefolosha’s deflection of an errant Marc Gasol pass. Jackson calmly sank both free throws, as he did against Houston, to make it 93-90 with 1.6 seconds left.
Fisher and Jackson totaled 20 points with a couple of assists and just one turnover. Conley, coming off a big series going toe-to-toe with All-Star Chris Paul, finished with 13 points, three assists and two turnovers. The final one cost Memphis the game.
“We got a nice little flow going right now,” Martin said. “I think we settled in, realizing that we’re not going to have Russell, and guys are stepping up.”
How about Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who absorbs criticism at times for stubbornly sticking to lineups? When he deployed a small unit for the first time in the game as he sensed it getting away at 70-58 with 1:57 left in the third quarter, the momentum shifted drastically in OKC’s favor. A 15-5 run — with three of the Grizzlies’ points coming on Pondexter’s halfcourt heave at the end of the third — cut Memphis’ lead to 75-73 with 10:10 to play.
And his trust in Durant to take the turnover created by Fisher’s poke of Conley uninterrupted by a timeout proved masterful. The ball came to Durant who pushed it up at his coach’s insistence. With Memphis trying to get back, Durant pulled up from 19 and banged it home.
It was a game the resolute Thunder could have lost and one the Grizzlies believe they should have won.
“I feel like we gave it away, honestly,” said Zach Randolph, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
But that’s not giving the Thunder enough credit. OKC’s big men, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, were atrocious offensively, going 2-for-16 from the floor, and Perkins nearly blew OKC’s chance altogether when Durant’s routine inbounds pass slipped through his hands, leaving Durant rolling his eyes and Memphis with the ball up 90-87 and 1:07 to go.
But the Thunder’s inside duo made Memphis’ Randolph and Gasol pay a physical price in the paint. Perkins played 34 minutes, the most of OKC’s starters other than Durant, and played big in holding the inside-oriented Grizzlies to just 32 points in the paint and four second-chance points on eight total offensive rebounds.
It wasn’t always pretty — OKC missed its first 10 shots and scored 31 points in the first and third quarters combined — and it won’t be the rest of the way. But in taking Game 1, the Thunder, down a star, are coming up with alternatives.
“We know what Russell brings to our team,” Brooks said. “He’s an amazing player and an incredible leader that has been missed, there’s no doubt. But we’ve changed in different ways. We’re different, but we’re still a good team and on both ends of the floor we present problems.”
HANG TIME, Texas – There’s little debate that Oklahoma City’s chances of holding a victory parade in June took a hit the moment it was announced that Russell Westbrook would be on an operating table instead of in the starting lineup for Game 3.
But there is no question at all when the Thunder ceased to be championship contenders in 2013.
There was exactly 5:51 left on the clock in the fourth quarter of Game 5 when Serge Ibaka ran up and clamped a hungry bear hug on Omer Asik.
It was that split second when Thunder coach Scott Brooks went to Hack-Asik and announced to the world that his club doesn’t have the stuff to go the distance through four rounds of the playoffs.
It smelled of gimmick and positively reeked of desperation for the No. 1 seed in the West against the No. 8 seed that approaches every game with a style and an attitude that is more Shirts v. Skins than the playoff wars.
Here were the mighty Thunder, virtually without an offensive clue that wasn’t named Kevin Durant, admitting that they had run out of bullets and ideas.
Never mind that over the course of the next 3 1/2 minutes Asik stepped up to the line and knocked down 8-for-11 free throws. It wasn’t simply the result that allowed the Rockets to get out with a 107-97 win that cut OKC’s lead in the series down to a scary 3-2 that made a statement. The real message delivered is that it’s only the first round of the playoffs and the Thunder already are out of answers.
Intentionally fouling a 56.8 percent free-throw shooter is legal and has proven through the years to be occasionally effective against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. But in this case, it was a Brooks waving a white flag.
What we have seen now in the three games without Westbrook is one thing we knew and another that we suspected: 1) there is very little anyone can do to stop Durant from getting his looks and getting his points; 2) the rest of the OKC roster is more of a crapshoot than a back alley dice game.
Durant finished with 36 points and poured in 18 in the third quarter, but was held scoreless in the fourth. Until Reggie Jackson tossed in a handful of buckets when the Rockets were holding them at arm’s length, the Thunder didn’t really have a second offensive option. Ibaka mixed drop-off dunks with thoughtless jumpers, Kevin Martin was a why-bother 1-for-10, Thabo Sefolosha scored just nine points, Derek Fisher eight, Nick Collison six and Kendrick Perkins two.
The idea that the Thunder can survive with Durant playing point forward and distributing the ball from the top of the offense only is valid if his teammates can consistently make shots. And they can’t.
Funny isn’t it, how all of the howling about Westbrook’s wild and crazy game and penchant for mind-altering shot selection has suddenly become as quiet as the so-called Loud City itself?
Even if the Thunder can pick themselves up off the floor and get past the Rockets — and history says they will — there can be no strong belief that OKC can keep trotting the same “KD-and-a-prayer” attack with success as the competition level gets stronger.
If that wasn’t apparent before, it came clearly into focus with 5:51 left in the game when Ibaka wrapped up Asik.
It was the moment the Thunder ran out of real answers and stopped being a 2013 championship contender.
Twelve seconds left in the game and the only way for Francisco Garcia to have gotten any closer to Kevin Durant’s jersey would have been to wear it with him.
This is life now, as far as it goes without Russell Westbrook, for as long as the Thunder can keep going in the playoffs.
OKC has always been a team looking for Durant as the ultimate bailout guy in the final seconds of a game. Trouble is, now the Thunder pretty much need him to be loading, pulling and driving their wagon from opening tip to the final horn.
Yes, Durant got a luxurious six minutes of rest in Game 4 on Monday night, but he still had to make 12 of 16 shots, score 38 points, grab eight rebounds and deal six assists just to give his team an opportunity to flub the final possession.
Without Westbrook on the court, there is nobody else to simply step in and step up and make the plays at both ends of the floor that can change the tide and halt momentum. He couldn’t be a game-changer on defense when the Rockets were scoring 38 points in the third quarter and he couldn’t be the difference maker when OKC was scoring only 19 points in the fourth.
There are no more “Gipper Games” left in OKC’s locker room as it tries to rally round its fallen buddy. Now the Thunder have to live with the reality of being without their unpredictable lightning bolt if they are going to follow through on those plans to get back to the NBA Finals.
“It was a different feeling, for sure,” backup forward Nick Collison said. “I think for us, we have to be able to get over that. Russ is not going to be with us in the playoffs. It can’t always be this emotional ‘Win one for Russell’ for us because it’s too much an emotional roller coaster.
“I think for us we have to focus on what we’re doing on the court, getting ready to play and take a business-like approach to these games. Still have the emotion you need for a playoff game, but really focus on what we need to do on the floor.”
Quite simply, the margin for error to make a serious reach for the Larry O’Brien Trophy is the kind usually familiar to only the bomb squad and the Wallenda Family.
The Game 4 score when the Thunder lineup was on the floor was 31-14 in favor of Houston. The rest of the combinations beat the Rockets 89-74.
A couple of questions: How many times can OKC get away with such insignificant production from the starters? Can the reserves deliver consistently enough to tip-toe through the minefield of four full playoff rounds?
As splendid as he is and as many clouds as Durant may be able to scrape with his soaring talent level, it’s going to take much more Serge Ibaka (eight points), Kendrick Perkins (zero), Thabo Sefolosha (five) and Collison (three) to keep rowing the Thunder ship through the deeper waters. The Rockets are young and athletic and play with the abandon of a shirts-and-skins game on the playground, but they are no real threat to beat the Thunder in a seven-game series. That will come when they have to body up against the bruising Grizzlies or lobbing Clippers in the next round or the much deeper Spurs in the Western Conference finals, if they make it that far.
If the Thunder are going to stay afloat, they have to do it with the unlikely combination of the second-year man Reggie Jackson and 38-year-old veteran Derek Fisher manning the point. Jackson score 18 points before seeming to run out of gas at the end, while Fisher kept advancing the AARP cause by knocking down four 3-pointers.
While playing the point-forward position may give Durant a better view of where he can create his own scoring chances, the Thunder can’t let it come at the expense of not producing enough offense of their own.
Durant is young and willing with the legs and spirit that are capable to play virtually from start to finish every time out from here to June, if that’s what it takes. Nobody doubts that he can deliver individually. But in the end, how he can take them is not in his hands.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The shocking events of this afternoon in Boston touched off passionate reactions from folks all over the country and all around the globe, and NBA players were not immune.
With the details on exactly what happened and why at the finish line of Monday’s Boston Marathon still being investigated, the response of players on Twitter was swift and simple. And it echoed the sentiment of a nation.
Everyone is concerned for the citizens of Boston and beyond that have been impacted by this tragedy:
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Kevin Durant has all but handed Carmelo Anthony the scoring title this season to chase a bigger, more team-oriented goal.
Durant wants that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase and he wants the road to The Finals to run directly through Oklahoma City this year. He could have those goals wrapped up this evening if the Thunder can handle the Sacramento Kings (8 ET, League Pass).
I understand the need for a team, particularly one led by young superstars, to achieve certain things. That top overall seed is a status symbol, an indicator that the Thunder organization is interested in being dominant in every facet of their operation.
But that top spot also comes with a few thorns this season, namely a potential first-round date with the one team that could prove to be the biggest wildcard in the playoff field.
Should L.A. hang on to their ever-so-slim lead on Utah for the No. 8 spot, they’ll get a date with OKC (provided the Thunder can topple the Kings and Bucks) in the opening round. The Thunder have no reason to fear the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz … none at all.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have to be wary of what an unpredictable Lakers team without Kobe Bryant looks like in a playoff setting. There are things the Lakers do without Bryant (move the ball more freely, work deeper into the shot clock and play through Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol inside and then out) that no one in the league has had much time to prepare for.
A dangerous Lakers team battled a hobbled San Antonio Spurs team, the same Spurs we’ll see this weekend, and won an emotionally charged game to move one step closer to locking up that No. 8 seed.
If the Lakers can keep up the same sort of intensity for another week and a half, that first-round matchup in the playoffs will be considerably more difficult than it might have with Bryant in the mix and the rest of his teammates taking their usual backseat.
The Thunder have every reason to be confident, if they do indeed match up with the Lakers in this weekend. They still have decided advantage on the perimeter with Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge. And Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are more than capable of dealing with Howard and Gasol inside.
Every step of the process that any team is supposed to take to become a championship team the Thunder have gone through it, one painstaking step at a time. Remember, it was a Bryant and Gasol-led Lakers crew that dispatched a youthful OKC crew in the 2010 playoffs that was the postseason debut of Durant, Westbrook and Co.
OKC has yet to enter the playoffs with the pressure that comes along with that No. 1 seed. In order to achieve their ultimate goal, they’d have to carry that extra weight from wire to wire in the postseason.
That hasn’t been done by a team in either conference since the Boston Celtics did it five years ago. That Celtics team, with the way it was put together, was hardened by a season-long grind that carried them through both the regular season and playoffs.
There were veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and of course, coach Doc Rivers, around to help guide youngsters like Rajon Rondo and Perkins through that journey. Those Celtics faced their own wild card in the first round of the 2008 playoffs in the Atlanta Hawks. And they needed seven games and everything that home court advantage brings to get through that series, the first of two seven-game series (and the only ones of that postseason, mind you) that Boston had to endure.
On paper, the Celtics had nothing to worry about with the Hawks. They were the superior team in every way. The Hawks backed into the playoffs that year with a sub-.500 record, something the Lakers won’t have to do this season. Boston got past a solid LeBron James-led Cavs team in the East semifinals in the next round, too, with the help of home court. But it was another opponent waiting to test the mettle of the conference’s No. 1 seed.
And that’s why the Thunder need to study the recent history of No. 1 seeds and be mindful of the responsibility that comes along with No. 1.
SAN ANTONIO — The future of the San Antonio Spurs came roaring toward Kendrick Perkins like a runaway tractor trailer with no brakes.
First, Kawhi Leonard swiped the ball out of the hands of Russell Westbrook; then, he hit the gas pedal while accelerating across the 3-point line; finally, he lifted off and planted a tomahawk dunk in the middle of Perkins’ forehead.
It was a play that took five seconds from origin to YouTube clip, giving the Spurs an explosive lift toward their 105-92 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and, more importantly, a glimpse of what they’ll need if the anticipated Western Conference Finals rematch occurs in a couple of months.
You never read too much into any one game over the course of the long NBA regular season. OKC was playing its fourth game in five nights. The Spurs were rebounding from having their tail stuck in a 30-point blender the last time out against Portland. If there was ever a time for San Antonio to make one last heroic hold on the No. 1 playoff seed without injured point guard and fire-starter Tony Parker, this was it.
Yet, there was a peek at how the Spurs could turn around last season’s playoff flop when they let a 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the playoffs turn into four straight sets of tire tracks down their backs.
Tiago Splitter plundered the Thunder on the inside for 21 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green went 4-for-4 from behind the 3-point line for 16 points. Leonard finished with 17 while also keeping Kevin Durant as bottled up as seems humanly possible at the other end of the floor.
They’re the three players who shrunk like a cotton shirt thrown into the dryer a year ago in the playoffs.
“They’re maturing right in front of our eyes,” said team captain Tim Duncan.
Maybe no one more than Leonard. Virtually from the time the Spurs made the deal on draft night in 2011 to get Leonard as the No. 15 pick, coach Gregg Popovich has been calling him the “future face of the franchise.”
Pop, of course, is talking about the days when the only place the three-headed monster of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili is hanging around the AT&T Center is up in the rafters with their retired jerseys.
However, it’s the long and strong Leonard who could give the the Spurs the boost they need in another series with the younger and more athletic Thunder if he continues to move forward and asserts himself.
Nobody in this league or on this planet is going to stop Durant from getting his points. The idea is to make him work for every single one.
“It has nothing to do with Kevin Durant,” said Popovich. “It’s got to do with who Kawhi Leonard is. He guards the 3s. He guards the people who are the difficult matchups on the other team. He’s our so called stopper-in-training. So, it doesn’t matter what team we’re playing. That’s the guy he’s going to take.”
At the same time, Leonard is showing growth at the offensive end to be more than the second-year player who just picks up the scraps left by his All-Star teammates. In the four games since Parker has been sidelined, Leonard has bumped his scoring up from 11.2 to 15.3 per game and his shooting has risen from .493 to .519.
“He just plays the game,” Popovich said. “You don’t go to a player and say, ‘You will score X number of points and we’re going to run these plays for you to make up Tony’s points.’ You don’t know how points are going to get made up. People step up. He just matures. You never know — a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler.”
Leonard is no longer just lurking the corners, waiting for the ball to find him for a wide-open jumper. He’s taking it and he’s making things happen without pausing to think about deferring.
“He’s been playing in the middle of the court as much as on the baseline,” Popovich said. “He’s been doing what he feels is available to him, what the defense allows. He’s just becoming more aggressive in a variety of situations. It doesn’t matter where he is on the court, we want him to think about being an aggressive scorer and he’s developed that very quickly for a young guy.”
The Spurs had been hit with a 32-22 blast in the first quarter by OKC when their young guns went to work. None with more of an explosive flash than Leonard, confidently drilling a 16-footer, a 21-footer, a 3 from out of the corner and then making the steal and hammering home the dunk on Perkins. He was 4-for-5 with a couple of rebounds in the 33-9 eruption that smothered OKC.
“You can’t coach it into somebody,” said Popovich. “There are some guys who want to take shots; want to step up when the lights get brighter. Some guys don’t and you find out who they are, but he’s one of those guys. Just like Tony Parker, who was 19 years old when we gave him the ball, and he could handle it. Kawhi is one of those guys.”
Who could hold the Spurs’ long and short term future in his hands.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: That much-ballyhooed Pacers-Heat matchup turned out to be quite a dud, but if you’re interested in hearing about it, our man Sekou Smith has perspective on the game from both the Miami camp and the Indiana camp. Since that one was such a letdown, we’re forced to pick another game and the Blazers-Hornets matchup from New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly well-played one. Rookies Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis put forth solid nights, Wesley Matthews continued to showcase his mostly unnoticed clutch shooting game this season and the even more overlooked Ryan Anderson came through with a clutch bucket of his own. It’ll be a season or two before the Hornets or Blazers will be fighting it out for a spot in the West elite pecking order, but for now, enjoy the solid effort put forth by these young squads.
Howard apologizes for messy Orlando exit — With 18 wins this season, the Magic are not far removed from their 21-61 season of 2003-04, which was their last season of play before Dwight Howard came first aboard. Although Howard provided many great memories in Orlando, his messy departure this summer — preceded by a will-he-stay-or-go act last season in Orlando — left many Magic fans with a sizable disdain for the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year. All that said, Howard isn’t so unaware of his actions that he’s beyond apologizing to the folks in his old town — especially as the Lakers ready to visit the Magic on Tuesday. Sam Amick of USA Today chatted with Howard at his palatial, nine-bedroom, 14-bathroom, 11,000-square foot home in Los Angeles about his ‘Dwightmare’ season in Orlando, his first season with the Lakers, playing with Kobe Bryant and more in a must-read interview:
The famous view on the road to Dwight Howard’s house in Bel Air is nothing short of spectacular, the Hollywood Hills below unfolding into the valley where stars have come and gone.
On a clear day, it has been said of this classic route on Mulholland Drive, you can see all the way to Canoga Park, some 14 miles away. And on this day, Howard — the Los Angeles Lakers center and aspiring actor whose dreams of becoming an icon had so much to do with him coming here — can see all the way to Orlando.
The big man who was so beloved there returns Tuesday for the first time since he was traded seven months ago, this time as the villain. In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports, Howard acknowledged that this script — the one that included twists and turns and battered his once-sparkling image — should have been written differently.
“In Orlando, I handled a lot of stuff the wrong way,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table. “If any of those people in Orlando are upset with how I did it, I apologize for the way I handled it and the way it was handled in the media.
“I really just got caught up in wanting to please everybody else. I really love that city. That was the hardest thing to do was to leave that city because I basically grew up there. That was my whole life. Orlando was it. I did not want to leave all that behind — the city, just everything about it. The fans. But I wanted a change for my life. I just felt like there was something else out there for me.”
“There are a lot of things about me that have changed,” said Howard, a 27-year-old Atlanta native who was drafted first overall out of high school in 2004. “I’m becoming a better man because of the stuff that has happened to me this last year and a half. Everybody goes through stuff like this. Even though I’m going through it where everybody in the world can see it, I’m happy that it’s happening.
“If it didn’t happen, I’d be stuck in my ways. I would never change, and then it would be a lot worse. For all this stuff to happen, for me to sit back and see and evaluate myself and what I could’ve done better and realize that I needed to make a change, I’m getting better. I’m growing up. I’m maturing.”
Howard, who had taken the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference finals in 2010, said he should have spent more time separating fact from fiction to those who mattered most.
“Whenever something happened, I should’ve let my teammates know. I should’ve said, ‘OK, this is what’s going on. I know what’s being said, but this is how I really feel,’ ” Howard says. “Or, ‘Hey, Coach, this is what’s being said, but this is how I feel,’ instead of just letting everything pile on and me not saying anything.
“I just felt at the time like, ‘I’m not going to say anything. I’m just going to sit back and let it unfold.’ By doing that, everybody was getting mixed signals. They’re hearing this on TV, or I might make a quote about this and they twist it and turn it into something else. Now you’ve got everybody like, ‘What is he doing?’… It was story after story after story start coming out saying it was me saying this and me saying that, and I’m like, ‘I never said none of this stuff.’ I could tell some of that stuff started to bother my teammates, but I didn’t say nothing because I’m like, ‘They know that I’m not saying this.’ And it just kept piling on and piling on.”
Hornets’ Davis spices up ROY race — Since practically the first week of the season, Portland guard Damian Lillard has been the presumptive favorite to win the Kia Rookie of the Year Award, and he’s got the resume to back it up. Lillard has been West’s rookie of the month every month this season, is second on the Blazers in scoring while leading them in assists and has had the poise of a veteran player throughout most of the season. Before the season began, the ROY race was thought to be one between Lillard and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets, but injuries kept Davis from truly making an impact until the last few months. After last night’s Portland-New Orleans showdown in Louisiana (which the Hornets won), the race might be closer than expected, writes John Reid of NOLA.com:
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard still appears to be the frontrunner to the win this season’s NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. But New Orleans Hornets rookie Anthony Davis got another opportunity to close the gap in Sunday’s matchup against Lillard and the Trail Blazers.
Coming off a sensational 20-point, 18-rebound performance against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night, Davis put forth another solid effort in the Hornets’ 98-96 victory against the Trail Blazers.
Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his 14th double-double of the season. Lillard, who leads all rookies with a 18.8 scoring average, scored 20 points and had eight assists.
“We’re just getting better as a unit,” Davis said. “We haven’t done a great job of closing out games in the fourth quarter, but we’re doing a better job and we have to continue doing so.”
On the final play of the game, Davis forced Trail Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews to miss a desperation 3-pointer as time expired.Since returning from a sprained left shoulder, Davis had averaged 16.7 points, 13 rebounds in the past three games He grabbed a season-high 18 rebounds and scored 20 points Saturday night against the playoff contending Memphis Grizzlies.
Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, is the rookie leader in assists (6.4) and 3-pointers with 134. But he couldn’t lead his team like he did in December, when he made a game-clinching 3-pointer as time expired to lift the Trail Blazers to a 95-94 victory against the Hornets at the Rose Garden.
“Tonight, it was just one of those games where they made some shots,” Lillard said. “They got going on a run. It was kind of a game of runs and we just came up short.”
Griffin awed by Jordan’s jam — The Clippers live up to their “Lob City” nickname just about every night, with Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin alley-oops serving as the main source of highlights for L.A. But as exciting as Griffin’s jams are, you can’t overlook what DeAndre Jordan can do each night off a lob or a clear lane to the basket. In case anyone forgot, though, Jordan showed his talents off last night with a posterizing, monster flush over the Pistons’Brandon Knight that drew respect from L.A.’s resident dunk expert, writes Dan Woikeof the Orange County Register:
Blake Griffin has Timofey Mozgov, Kendrick Perkins and Pau Gasol. And after Sunday night, DeAndre Jordan has Brandon Knight.
“That was the best dunk of the year,” Griffin said. “It’s the best dunk I’ve seen in person.”
Jordan caught a lob from Chris Paul, cocked back and turned Knight into a trending topic on Twitter with a vicious slam during the Clippers’ 129-97 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday at Staples Center.
“It was a great pass by Chris, and honestly, I didn’t see Brandon until I caught the ball,” Jordan said. “After that, was just, yeah….”
Paul described what followed the dunk as “the aftermath.” The crowd went nuts as the scoreboard replayed the highlight over and over. The bench nearly rushed the floor, and Paul, usually pretty calm, howled as he slapped Jordan on the chest.
“It was pretty impressive,” Paul said. “I usually try not to react after all those different types of dunks, but that one was pretty good.”
Perkins still loves facing Celtics — Hard to believe, but it has been 25 months since the Thunder swung what was a then-surprising deal with the Celtics, picking up defensive big man Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green. Perkins was at his stopping best on Sunday afternoon against the Celtics (and particularly Kevin Garnett) as OKC picked up a 91-79 victory. But for Perkins, who was a key part of Boston’s 2008 championship team, playing his old team will always get the juices going, writes Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman:
As the Celtics inbounded the ball at midcourt during the first half Sunday, referee Scott Wall had to caution Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett. They were getting a little too physical jostling for position.
Were they being serious? Were these avowed blood brothers getting riled?
“It was serious at the time,” Perk said with a smile. “But there wasn’t nothing behind it all. We damn near could have gave each other a hug.”
No one would have been surprised. But rest assured they were serious. Gran Torino and Garnett are nothing if not serious. And Garnett paid for that seriousness he helped instill in Perkins.
The Thunder beat the Celtics 91-79, and here’s the No. 1 reason. Garnett made just five of 19 shots. That’s Garnett’s most misses in a game since Jan. 16, 2012, when he also went 5-of-19 against Perkins and the Thunder.
No coincidence there.
“Perk took the challenge,” said Kevin Durant. “That’s his mentor, the guy he looked up to, the guy he learned a lot from, and he took the challenge by making him shoot tough shots.”
Garnett was 3-of-11 with Perkins on the bench, with all three makes at the basket and only two of the misses outside the paint.
Perkins kept Garnett away from the basket. That’s how games are won.
“Perk didn’t do anything new tonight,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “He was typical Perk.”
It’s been 25 months since the Celtics traded Perkins, their 2008 NBA championship center, for Jeff Green. It’s not getting any easier for Perkins and his old team to share the court.
“He’s moved on to his new family here, which is great,” said Celtic star Paul Pierce. “But Perk knows he’ll always be family, he’ll always be remembered, especially by me and the Boston organization.”
Perkins was particularly close to Garnett and point guard Rajon Rondo. Those two and Pierce are the only remaining players from the title team.
“I think it’ll be easier when a lot of the guys that I played with be off the team,” Gran Torino said. “Still pretty hard going against guys I went to war with.
“We had great times over there. Not easy at all, especially going against a coach who pretty much raised me. Who started me who I was as a player. It’s always difficult, but know I’m always trying to get the win.”
ICYMI of the night: Watch this dunk … that’s all we’ve got to say: