Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Martin’

Sizing Up Love: Dunks, Data Or Victories?


VIDEO: Kevin Love executes perfect pass and dunk after practice in Phoenix

When taking the measure of an NBA superstar, what’s your preferred yardstick: Highlight videos or cold, hard analytics? Something visceral and dazzlingly in the moment, or something statistical, built on percentages and decimal points?

Minnesota’s Kevin Love had you covered both ways Thursday.

The fun stuff occurred after the Timberwolves’ practice in the Phoenix Suns’ gym at U.S. Airways Center, as the Wolves – after beating the Suns Tuesday, 110-101 – stuck around for a few days before heading to Sacramento for their game Saturday against the Kings. In an homage to LeBron James‘ impromptu dunk show after Miami’s practice on the same court earlier this month, a shirtless Love fired a ball off the side wall, caught it on the bounce and threw down a reverse, two-handed slam.

All of it, right down to the barechestedness, was just like LeBron. Only this time it was captured by teammate Ronny Turiaf on rookie Gorgui Dieng‘s cell phone.

Now it’s time for the math: The gap in the Wolves’ schedule allowed for some numbers-crunching that showed how much impact Love and his All-Star season has had on his Minnesota teammates.

If the 6-foot-10 power forward’s 26.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game aren’t enough, or his 38.4 percent 3-point percentage, a 28.3 PER rating, those 48 double-doubles (one triple-double) and 20 games scoring 30 points or more, consider how much better the other Wolves players are when Love is on the court with them than when he’s not.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, for instance, has an offensive rating of 109.8 and a defensive rating of 102.2 in the 1,603 minutes he has played alongside Love this season, a net rating of plus-7.6. In the 188 minutes Rubio has been out there without Love, those stats drop to 97.6 and 105.9, a minus-8.3.

Shooter Kevin Martin has had the same pattern: 107.1/102.8/plus-4.3 with Love, 100.7/108.2/minus-7.5 without him.

So has center Nikola Pekovic, at 109.7/102.8/plus-6.9 vs. 95.0/103.2/minus-8.1.

And Corey Brewer, 110.1/103.0/plus-7.0 vs. 95.2/101.7/minus-6.6.

And J.J. Barea, 105.3/100.1/plus-5.1 vs. 91.3/104.5/minus-13.1.

Love’s own on/off numbers for the Wolves: 113.8/104.8/plus-9.0 in 1,956 minutes played vs. 99.5/107.9/minus-8.4 in 784 on the side.

Love’s impact shows up in other ways. Martin, for example, has hit 43.9 percent of his field goal attempts with the big guy around to draw defenders but just 33.7 percent when he’s not. Rubio, Pekovic, Brewer, Barea and Chase Budinger also have shot better with Love on the court.

Only Turiaf of all the Wolves players, curiously, has been more efficient and/or productive with Love out of the game. Maybe that has something to do with some overlap in where they’re at their best.

So which is it that impresses you more: The grainy dunk-show video in all its individual glory, or the hardcore data tied to teammates?

Or are you old school, focusing on Minnesota’s 28-29 record and dreary spot (10th) in the Western Conference standings and withholding your ooh‘s and aah‘s until Love makes his impact felt with a playoff berth? Fair enough.

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…)

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Timberwolves Still Finding It Tough To Close The Close Ones


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks to the media after the Timberwolves’ loss to the Suns

Burdened by a failure rate in close games that soon might wrap itself constrictor-style around the team’s entire season — 0-10 in games decided by four points or less, 1-18 going back a full calendar year — the Minnesota Timberwolves might want to try something daring the next time they have a comfortable late lead:

If they find themselves up six or seven points and the game clock under, say, five seconds, they use a timeout to lay a red carpet around the 3-point line. Invite the other guys to hoist one final bomb, uncontested from long range, in the hope that they’ll hit it. Ideally, there won’t be enough time for the opposition to turn that last gasp into a serious comeback and the Wolves will let some air out of what’s becoming a burdensome dark cloud over their season.

It’s bad enough that Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the rest of coach Rick Adelman‘s squad have been spinning their wheels like a Camaro in a Minnesota snownami – they’re 0-8 in their attempts to push over .500 since slipping below on Nov. 27. Now these repeated failures at winning the sort of tight games wannabe playoff teams need come April is threatening to fray more than just some postseason ambitions.

After Kevin Martin‘s veering layup dropped off the front rim Wednesday night at Target Center in the 104-103 loss to Phoenix, a cranky Love called out some teammates for their demeanor:

“We can’t have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts,” Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. “We all need to be in this together. That kind of [ticks] me off. We’re supposed to be a team.”

The Timberwolves (17-18) are anything but a team right now. They are a collection of individual agendas tripping each other up as the franchise pursues its first playoff bid since 2004.

And:

“It’s two guys that we expect more from them,” Love said. “I think they expect more from themselves. I’m not trying to single anybody out and I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it’s just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn’t play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that’s really in it together.”

The tension is mounting. After the two-point home loss to Dallas on Dec. 30 – the game in which Shawn Marion‘s foul on Love’s game-tying shot wasn’t whistled until the following morning – the All-Star power forward criticized the bench for its five-point, 2-of-12, nine-turnover performance in 58 combined minutes. Five days later, it was Love bricking four free throws at the end of their 115-111 loss to the Thunder (with the bench again chipping in five points).

On Wednesday, the Wolves’ second unit won its matchup 29-27 but Love had a poor game (15 points, 4-of-20, 12 rebounds but just one assist). Minnesota got outscored 7-0 over the final 1:51 to yank that one out of its 17-8 “split” in games decided by five points or more.

So what is behind all the late-game gaggery? It’s dicey to allege that the Wolves are choking because “choke,” like its flip side “clutch,” are oft-challenged concepts these days in the sports world.

Another reason to tread lightly on what might be a mostly random occurrence is the belief that, if this were diagnosable, it would be correctable. An operation (like Minnesota or any NBA squad) deep in basketball wisdom and financial resources would find a fix before racking up this 0-10 mark.

What’s left, then, are largely theories, several of which the Wolves probably will poke and prod in search of answers. Such as:

  • Inexperience in such circumstances. Uh, 1-18 over a 12-month period seems like ample opportunity to learn something.
  • No proven go-to guy. Seriously? With Love and Martin on the floor?
  • Predictable play-calling in such situations. This is Adelman we’re talking about, folks, a Hall of Fame-bound coach with 1,019 victories and fat stack of kudos for his offensive wiles.
  • Nervous ballhandling. Minnesota did have four of its 12 turnovers vs. Phoenix in the fourth quarter, two in the final 46 seconds. Rubio threw the ball recklessly while in the air headed out of bounds with 24.9 seconds left. But as the Wolves’ primary ball handler, Rubio is not worse late in games (15.6 of his turnovers and 16.9 percent of his minutes come after the third quarter) or in close ones (51 percent of his turnovers, 50.1 percent of his minutes with margins of five points or less).
  • Lack of referee respect. Well, yeah, that one night. And the Wolves don’t have a glamour rep or, depending on what you think of Love, a marquee name like James, Durant or Anthony. But Martin merely dealt with the usual end-of-game traffic in the lane Wednesday.
  • Leadership. That’s it, the Wolves just need another traffic cop pointing and growling directions when everyone else’s heart is in his throat. Come to think of it, Love might need to seize that role more.

More likely, at this stage, they need something cool, the way Joe Montana lifted pressure off hjis 49ers teammates late in Super Bowl XXIII when they trailed Cincinnati 16-13 with 3:20 left in the game.

Longtime Minnesota sports fans might recall what the MLB Twins went through in the mid-1980s, when alleged closer Ron Davis got into an ugly run of pouring gasoline on ninth-inning leads. A collective mental block seemed to develop, certainly a bad case of group pessimism, and after blowing a 10-run lead to Cleveland in late September 1984 to crater out of a division race, third baseman Gary Gaetti famously said: “It’s hard to throw with both hands around your neck.”

That ball club was a frazzled mess by the end, unable to exhale. This Wolves team is headed that way, with six of its next nine on the road and 29 rivals convinced that, when facing Minnesota, merely staying close is the surest path to victory.


VIDEO: The Suns rally to overtake the Timberwolves in Minnesota

Wolves Better Than Their Record Says


VIDEO: Kevin Love leads the Wolves over the Sixers

The List

Biggest difference, Pythagorean wins vs. actual wins

Team Wins Losses Win% PWins PLosses Diff.
Minnesota 17 17 0.500 23 11 6
Toronto 16 17 0.485 18 15 2
Golden State 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
L.A. Clippers 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
Atlanta 18 17 0.514 19 16 1
Orlando 10 24 0.294 11 23 1
Sacramento 11 22 0.333 12 21 1
Denver 17 17 0.500 18 16 1
Chicago 15 18 0.455 16 17 1

Pythagorean wins = Number of games a team should have won based on its point differential.
PWins = PTS^16.5 / (PTS^16.5 + OppPTS^16.5)

The Context

The Wolves have the point differential of a team that’s 23-11, a mark which would be good for fourth place in the Western Conference. But they’re 17-17 and 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. No other team comes close to matching Minnesota’s differential between their Pythagorean wins and actual wins and only two teams – Oklahoma City and Houston – had a bigger differential over 82 games last season.

How did the Wolves manage to underachieve so much in 34 games? By going 1-9 in games decided by five points or less and 8-1 in games decided by 15 or more. In the last two weeks their four wins have been by 22, 22, 12 and 31 points, while their two losses have been by two and four. After Monday’s blowout of the Sixers, the Wolves’ average margin of victory is 16.9 points and their average margin of defeat is 7.4.

So the Wolves are a better team than their record says they are. And though they’re 0-7 when trying to get back over .500 (since falling below on Nov. 25), their point differential says they should win 32 or 33 of their final 48 games. That would give them a total of 49 or 50 wins and, likely, a playoff spot.

Strength of schedule has to be taken into account. And it bodes well for the Wolves’ future as well. Of the 10 West teams at .500 or better, Minnesota has played the fourth toughest schedule. Eighteen of their 34 games have been on the road and they’ve played seven games with *a rest disadvantage vs. four with a rest advantage.

A rest disadvantage is when a team is playing the second night of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. Only one team – the Clippers (4-5 in those games) – has played more games with a rest disadvantage than the Wolves (1-6). Cleveland (3-4), New Orleans (2-5) and Orlando (2-5) have also played seven such games.

Of course, while success or failure in close games is mostly arbitrary, the Wolves’ record in close games can’t be dismissed as just bad luck. Yes, a foul should have been called on Shawn Marion at the end of the Mavs’ 100-98 win on Dec. 30. And yes, Kevin Love doesn’t usually miss three free throws (that he was trying to make) in a row, like he did at the end of Saturday’s 115-111 loss to the Thunder.

But the Wolves have also had the league’s worst clutch-time defense, allowing their opponents to score almost 120 points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. When the game has been on the line, they’ve been unable to get stops.

In that Dallas loss, the Wolves gave up 11 points in the final five minutes. In the OKC loss, they gave up 17. And only two of those 28 total points were a result of an intentional foul in the closing seconds.

Overall, the Wolves rank 13th in defensive efficiency. But in clutch time, they’ve forced (far) fewer turnovers, fouled (a lot) more, and rebounded (a lot) worse.

Minnesota defense

Timeframe DefRtg Rank OppEFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Overall 102.4 13 52.1% 29 75.3% 10 17.2% 3 .210 1
Clutch time 119.5 30 49.6% 30 65.1% 26 12.5% 18 .576 27

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppEFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA / FGA

So, while the Wolves can take some solace in their point differential, they still have things to clean up if they want to perform better in close games.

The Video

The bottom of the list

The team that has overachieved the most is the team the Wolves blew out on Monday. The Sixers are 12-23, but have the point differential of a team that’s 8-27, having lost 10 games by 15 points or more (four by more than 30). The Jazz also have a differential of four games and should be 8-29 instead of 12-25.

Next on the list are the Lakers (with 11 Pythagorean wins and 14 actual wins), the Nets (11 and 13), and the Cavs (10 and 12).

Trivia question

The Knicks led the league with 87 second-chance 3-pointers last season (25 from league-leader Carmelo Anthony). This year, they rank 11th with only 23 (Anthony has just six). What team has 13 more second-chance 3-pointers than any other team in the league?

More Wolves notes

  • The most important thing you can do defensively is defend shots, so it’s pretty amazing that the Wolves are an above-average defensive team (points allowed per 100 possessions) while ranking 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage. Ten of the 13 teams with an opponent EFG% over 50 percent are below-average defensive teams. The other exceptions are the Heat (who rank 24th in opponent EFG% and ninth in defensive efficiency) and the Hawks (18th and 11th). Miami is actually below average in defensive rebounding percentage and opponent FTA rate as well, but has forced more turnovers per 100 possessions (18.8) than any team in the last 15 seasons.
  • The Wolves are the third most improved offensive team in the league this season (behind only Portland and Phoenix), having scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
  • But they’re still a poor jump-shooting team. Last season, they ranked dead last in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint at 42.3 percent. This year, despite the additions of Kevin Martin and a healthy Love, they’re only slightly better, ranking 27th at 42.7 percent. They rank 30th in mid-range field goal percentage, 29th from the corners, and 11th on threes from above the break.
  • In games played between the 10 West teams at or above .500, Minnesota has the worst record. They’re 4-11 against the other nine, having gone 2-10 since a 2-1 start. Six of the 11 losses have come by four points or less.

Trivia answer

The Blazers lead the league with 53 second-chance 3-pointers, ahead of the Hawks (40), Warriors (33), Lakers (33) and Sixers (29). Damian Lillard and Kyle Korver are tied for the league lead with 14 apiece, and Lillard’s teammate Wesley Matthews ranks third with 12.

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs — Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers — As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns — A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks — He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets — He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors — The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies — He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap, a quick rundown of the 12 games played Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bosh rises to sink Blazers | Smith lashes out at Cheeks | Clippers interested in Bynum? | Wolves back to .500

No. 1: Bosh rises to sink Blazers — On a night the Miami Heat were looking to avoid consecutive losses for the third time this season, LeBron James sat out with a groin injury and Dwyane Wade didn’t have it going. But there was the often overlooked member of the Big Three, Chris Bosh, an All-Star in his own right, standing by to save the day. The Heat’s power forward outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge, posting 37 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, the West’s No. 1 team. In the final huddle Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew up a play, but Bosh overruled it, wanting to take the 3, and Spoelstra smartly rolled with it. After Bosh drilled the shot, the Heat bench, including James, erupted and showered Bosh with a wild celebration that revealed how big that win was and how much Bosh’s teammates enjoy seeing him succeed.
Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report provides the details:

“My call at the end of the game was much more conservative,” Spoelstra said, after the Heat’s 108-107 victory. “I drew something up to get him on the move, and he said no, I want it for three.”

Bosh wanted the extra space, especially since he knew his momentum would take him away from the hoop anyway.

He wanted the extra point too.

“I told him I wanted to go for the jugular,” Bosh said.

“So he overruled it and became a prophet,” Spoelstra said. “Why did I even diagram something else for him? I mean, he already hit two threes. He was feeling it, he wanted it, and as soon as he said it, I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ It was much better than what I had planned.”

It was. So much better.

Norris Cole inbounded to Dwyane Wade from the left side, with Mario Chalmers running Damian Lillard down the baseline from right to left, while Ray Allen occupied Mo Williams‘ attention on the left wing. It was similar to the previous play, in which Allen’s screen freed Wade for a slam.

Bosh set a brush screen—and this time, Aldridge left him to help Nicolas Batum chase down Wade.

“My job was to drive his man to me,” Wade said.

It went just as they planned.

“It didn’t really go exactly like that,” Wade said.

OK, it didn’t. Wade lost the handle briefly, before chucking the ball behind him on one bounce, fortunate that Williams didn’t budge.

“He threw a crazy pass a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” Bosh said. “But I was able to see it, nobody was in the vicinity, so I didn’t have to rush, and I was able to lock into the goal the whole time.”

Bosh collected it with his left side touching the three-point line, backing up, stepping in and launching from 26 feet with 2.6 seconds left.

With 0.5 seconds left, it fell through.

***

No. 2: Smith lashes out at Cheeks — The Detroit Pistons were on the verge of hitting .500, but have now lost four of five and two in a row, blasted on back-to-back nights by Orlando and then at Washington on Saturday. And now the Pistons have the first signs of internal conflict brewing with big free-agent acquisition Josh Smith unhappy about being benched for the entire second half and suggesting that coach Maurice Cheeks called him out for not playing hard. As David Mayo of MLive reports:

Josh Smith didn’t play the second half of a 106-82 blowout against the Washington Wizards, the second time head coach Maurice Cheeks has made that decision this season.

This time, Smith suggested Cheeks called him out for not playing hard, and that he took “real offense” to the accusation.

Smith also was benched the second half of a Nov. 12 game at Golden State.

“Like I told y’all before when we had this conversation, when you hit adverse times, characters are gonna be tested,” Smith said. “It’s either that we’re gonna come closer together and make it all one team, or are you gonna use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand?”

What’s really at hand is the Pistons (14-18) have lost four of five, bombed in a two-game road trip against sub-.500 teams this weekend, and now have their first hint of internal upheaval.

How long it lasts remains to be seen.

Asked if Smith will start Monday’s home rematch with the Wizards, Cheeks replied, “I assume he will. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. We’ll wait until that next game gets there.”

Smith said he isn’t inclined to have a personal discussion with Cheeks about their disagreement before the next game.

“To me, it’s over with,” Smith said. “But you know, some people hold grudges longer than others. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not saying that he (Cheeks) does. I don’t know.

“But I’m not the type of person that really likes to go all the time in the coach’s office and have one-on-one sitdowns. I’m more of a team morale guy, worrying about what we can do, as far as teammates are concerned, to make ourselves more successful.”

***

No. 3: Clippers interested in Bynum?The former Lakers big man, troubled by knee injuries and possibly a lack of desire to play at the highest level, was suspended indefinitely by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday for conduct detrimental to the team. Reports have the Cavs eager to deal Andrew Bynum. The Clippers, in need of frontline support behind center DeAndre Jordan and power forward Blake Griffin, could be one team interested in trying to make it work with the troubled 7-footer who had not long ago put himself in the discussion alongside Dwight Howard as the league’s top center. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times breaks it down:

The Clippers would have interest in Bynum if he was released by the Cavaliers, according to several NBA executives who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But according to one Eastern Conference executive, the Clippers would have competition for Bynum because the Miami Heat also would have interest in the seven-footer.

The Clippers have the NBA-maximum 15-player roster and would have to waive a player if they were to sign Bynum, who is still only 26.

The Cavaliers signed Bynum to a two-year, $24-million deal over the summer. But only $6 million of Bynum’s $12.2-million contract for this season is guaranteed if he is waived before Jan. 7.

The Eastern Conference executive said it’s possible Bynum will be released by the Cavaliers in early January if they can’t trade him so the team is not on the hook for the last $6 million Bynum would be owed.

Bynum has averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.0 minutes in the 24 games he has played with the Cavaliers. He had 18 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes when he started for the Cavaliers against the Clippers on Dec. 7

.***

No. 4: Wolves back to .500It had been since Dec. 10-11 that the Minnesota Timberwolves had won consecutive games. A team expected to make the playoffs this season following last year’s disastrous injury problems, the Wolves have yet to find any consistency and have lost late leads in multiple games. On Saturday night, they avoided a letdown on the second night of a back-to-back, blowing out woeful Milwaukee to get back to .500. They haven’t won three in a row since starting the season with three consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance to match their season-high win streak at home on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, a team they handled twice in November. Kent Youngblood of the Minnesota Star Tribune has the story:

The message, at halftime, was something like this: Don’t let it happen again.

The Timberwolves were winning against the lowly Bucks on the road Saturday night, but Milwaukee was getting too many easy baskets and points in the paint. This was feeling a bit too much like last week’s game against the Lakers. Or the week before in Boston, when the Wolves had followed an impressive win with a listless loss.

Not to worry.

With Kevin Love leading the way, the Wolves scored the first 14 points of the third quarter and built their lead to as much as 31 late in the quarter at Bradley Center. That was enough to withstand some shoddy play by the bench to start the fourth quarter. The result was a 117-95 victory that ended a three-game road losing streak and put the Wolves (15-15) back at .500 with five of their next six games at home.

“We haven’t played great in the second night of back-to-backs,” said Love, who scored 33 points with 15 rebounds. He made four of six three-pointers and had six assists. It was his 10th consecutive game with 25 or more points, most in the league this season, and his fifth game with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds.

The Wolves, who won Friday against Washington, have won two in a row, sweeping both ends of a back-to-back for only the second time in eight tries this season. Love and center Nikola Pekovic (19 points, 11 rebounds) took advantage of a Bucks lineup missing 6-11 John Henson. Kevin Martin added 20 points and Corey Brewer had 12.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Deron Williams‘ season keeps getting uglier as Nets get crushed by superior Pacers … Knicks hope to get Carmelo Anthony back for tough Texas road swing. … Bradley Beal makes welcome return 24 hours after limping off the floor and helps Wizards rout of Pistons … Nets center Brook Lopez will undergo foot surgery next Saturday

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Sometimes Love isn’t enough | Stephenson spoils Indy return for Stevens | Pistons ride roller coaster | Wade’s Holiday surprise

No. 1: Timberwolves get monster effort from Love and still lose — Kevin Love has been toiling like this now for a while. He puts up monster numbers, epic numbers often, only to see his Minnesota Timberwolves come up short in seemingly winnable games. Sunday night was no different, with Love posting just the fourth 45-points on 65-percent shooting, 15-rebounds and 5-assist game since the NBA/ABA merger and the Timberwolves found a way to fumble away a late lead in regulation and lose to the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime.

It makes you wonder if the Timberwolves are ever going to figure things out with this particular group … Rick Adelman in charge, Love and Ricky Rubio leading the way and Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and others as role players.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com ponders the thought:

It’s getting harder and harder to believe in Minnesota, even for those among us who were ready to anoint them as this season’s Warriors. It all looked so promising six weeks ago. The Wolves were quickly mastering Adelman’s read-and-react offense from the high post and perimeter, but could also bully opponents down on the block.

The defense wasn’t half-bad either. Through the end of November, the Wolves ranked 9th in defensive efficiency. They didn’t have a legitimate rim protector on the roster, but they had good size, Ricky Rubio’s pressure up top, Corey Brewer’s skills as a stopper on the wing, and a very large man in Pekovic who nobody wants to encounter in the paint.

The December schedule hasn’t been terribly friendly, but the Wolves have been terrible, their big home win over Portland last Wednesday the one strand of hope. The offense looks nothing like anything Adelman has ever presided over. Half-court possessions are labored affairs, slow grinds into post isolations for either Love or Pekovic.

Martin has battled a knee injury for much of the month and hasn’t looked like himself. As a linchpin of the corner offense, Martin is often a bellwether for Adelman offenses, and if he’s not producing, chances are the offense is dragging.

The Wolves’ 3-and-D guy, Brewer, is shooting 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, defenses willingly slough off Rubio, practically begging him to shoot. With his confidence waning, Rubio is still racking up assists, but is less a playmaker than a reversal machine, swinging the ball to the second side without truly challenging the defense.

Speaking of defense, the Wolves have given up 106.6 points per 100 possession, a mark that would rank 28th in the NBA. Asked to identify the specific problem prior to the game, Adelman said, “We’re not guarding anybody.” Those big bodies now just look slow. Whether it’s Martin or J.J. Barea alongside Rubio, the Wolves don’t get much defensively at the 2. Brewer has conceded that his wayward shot is affecting his defense.

***

No. 2: Stephenson’s triple double trumps homecoming for Stevens — So much for that storybook homecoming for former Butler and now Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The Indiana Pacers, particularly Lance Stephenson, were having no part of the Holiday cheer. Stephenson collected his league-leading third triple-double of the season as the Pacers trounced the Celtics. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t help but dance a little bit (something Pacers coach Frank Vogel could have done without) on his way to yet another stellar performance.

Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star explains:

Stephenson finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and looked very much like a player deserving of his first All-Star berth. No other player in the NBA has more than one triple-double this season.

“I’m happy I did it,” he said. “It was in the flow of the game. My teammates helped me out. We played smart. It was easy because I know my teammates are going to knock down shots.”

Stephenson did get plenty of help, most notably from Paul George, who scored 18 of his game-high 24 points in the second half. Danny Granger, playing in his just his second game after returning from a calf strain, was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and had 12 points. Roy Hibbert had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

But his teammates acknowledged afterward that Stephenson provides them an emotional lift like no one else.

“He’s just starting the game off more aggressively,” George said. “In practice, he’s been great. We’ve seen it develop over time. Now, when he gets into the game, it’s second nature to him.”

Added veteran forward David West: “One of the biggest things for young guys in the NBA is that once you work your way into the rotation and you become a guy we rely on, that just fills you up. We give him a lot of room to go out and play his game. … He definitely keeps us on our toes and keeps things light. He’s able to just do something we’ll talk about on the plane. It’s just who he is.”

Vogel wasn’t thrilled with a couple of celebration dances Stephenson did after baskets, but didn’t have much else to complain about.

“He’s such a gifted passer and playmaker for us and a huge part of our team success,” Vogel said.

STEVENS‘The emotions are in coming back and seeing friends’

Stevens, the former Butler coach who left the school in July to join the Celtics, got a warm ovation during pregame warmups and his team kept it close for one quarter.

But after that, the Pacers (22-5) showed why they have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They outscored Boston 50-22 in the paint, got 40 points from their bench and held the Celtics to just 38.1 percent shooting (32-for-84) en route to an easy victory.

As the game ended, Stevens shook hands with Vogel, a rarity at the end of a NBA game. He also shook the hand of several Pacers players.

“It was just because we’re friends and we know each other well,” said Vogel, noting they also shook hands after the Pacers’ 97-82 victory in Boston last month. “I came down and told him he was doing a great job with that team.”

***

No. 3: Pistons’ roller coaster season confounds — If Maurice Cheeks had the answers he’d have pushed those buttons already. But he doesn’t and he hasn’t. And therefore, the curious ride of the Detroit Pistons continues as the coach and his staff try to figure out how to stop the roller coaster ride that is their season and stabilize things. That’s a lot easier said than done, however, as Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News points out:

The last two home games, losses to the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats on consecutive nights over the weekend, is a clear example of nobody knowing which team will step on the floor on a given night.

“You know we’re still trying to get better,” Cheeks said. “As I said to our players, there’s going to be some good nights and bad nights. Last night (Friday) and (Saturday) was not our best.”

Cheeks believes the Bobcats loss led to the poor showing against the Rockets. The Pistons blew a 20-point lead to Charlotte on Friday and looking almost apathetic on Saturday.

“I believe there could’ve been some carryover,” Cheeks said. “I can’t discount that because it was a tough loss.”

Losing five of six at home is an unexpected circumstance, although there isn’t much shame in losing to the Miami Heat in a game where the champions were intent on sending a message.

But blowout losses to the Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves are combined with come-from-ahead losses to the Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers, mixed in with a win against the Brooklyn Nets that was tougher than it needed to be.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess that’s determined when we go up and down the floor a few times,” said forward Josh Smith, when asked about getting a pulse on the team’s energy before games.

.***

No. 4: Wade surprises Union with Holiday ring — Heat guard Dwyane Wade has no problem mixing business with pleasure. He used Heat boss Pat Riley‘s annual Holiday party as his impromptu engagement party after officially popping the question to longtime girlfriend Gabrielle Union before they arrived at Riley’s affair. The surprise engagement was announced via social media. But Union showing up with a huge diamond ring on her finger added an extra dash of flair to the festivities, upstaging Riley at his own gig in the process, not that anyone was complaining about that. In fact, Wade popping the question was a bit of a team effort, so says Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Wade proposed to Union before the party at his home and then announced the engagement on Twitter and Instagram.

Wade said his children helped him pop the question.

“We asked her to marry all of us, not just me,” Wade said. “It was a package deal.”

Wade and Union have dated since 2007.

“She was ready,” Wade said. “She had the ‘yes’ in her back pocket.”

At the holiday party, Wade then surprised his teammates with green custom-made sports coats commemorating their 2013 championship. The blazers featured the players’ jersey numbers on the sleeves and white Heat logos on the front pockets.

Wade said his inspirations for the unique mementos were the Masters golf tournament and Rasheed Wallace. Wallace famously had pro wrestling-style replica championship belts made for his Pistons teammates for winning the 2004 NBA Finals. Wade liked Wallace’s idea but wanted something a little classier.

Said Wade: “You know me, I’m always trying to do something different and out of the norm, and I started thinking about what have previous champions done … and then it came to be me, because of fashion and because of the Masters and how amazing it is when they win the green jacket and all the previous winners come back and take pictures with the green jackets and how prestigious it is … so I got with my stylist and created this Masters kind of feel.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Thunder fell victim to the red-hot Raptors and the schedule in their first home loss of the season Sunday … Much like their NFL counterparts, the Dallas Mavericks are having no problems scoring. It’s the defense that they are struggling with these days … The Hawks have brought big man Lucas Nogueira to Atlanta for treatment of his ailing knees.

ICYMI Of The Night: Kevin Love put up the stat line of the night and delivered the elbow of the week, but Blake Griffin got the win, the knot on his forehead and the shine on Nightly Notable …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin gets the shiner (on his forehead) and the shine in the end

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.