Posts Tagged ‘Nick Collison’

Morning shootaround — July 29

Durant says he didn’t tell Westbrook he was coming back | Wade’s move shocks Anthony | Stoudemire wanted to retire with Suns

No. 1: Durant says he never made promise to Westbrook — Kevin Durant was one of, if not the biggest, names in free agency this summer. His decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors made ripples throughout the NBA that are still being felt today. On a recent podcast,’s Royce Young said Durant had essentially told his All-Star teammate in OKC, Russell Westborook, he was coming back to the Thunder. (Young has since clarified that statement back a bit.) Durant, in an interview with The Vertical’s Shams Charania, says he never said anything of the sort to Westbrook:

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant refuted a report that he told his ex-Oklahoma City teammates – including Russell Westbrook – that he planned to re-sign with the Thunder.

“It’s false,” Durant told The Vertical on Thursday. “I didn’t say that – words about me telling Russell or Nick that I would stay or leave never came out of my mouth. We met as teammates, but no promises came out of it. In this day and age, I can’t control anything people claim out there. Someone can go out and say something random right now, and people will believe it.

“I never told Russell or Nick [Collison], ‘All right, guys, I’m coming back to the Thunder’ – and then a week later, I decide not to. Never happened. I don’t operate like that. I heard people say that story, but it’s not the truth.”

In a quiet corner before USA Basketball’s practice at the United Center, Durant admitted he has heard – and refutes – the perception that he turned his back on Westbrook and his former Thunder teammates. “There were never promises given in a meeting before July,” he told The Vertical. “I went through the process.”

He held meetings with six teams – the Warriors, Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat – and committed to a two-year maximum contract with Golden State. Since joining the Warriors, Durant and several teammates, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, have fielded questions about acclimating the one-time NBA MVP to the starting lineup.

“I’m not coming into a team where a guy is playing my position and we have try to fit in two guys playing the same position,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’m not coming in trying to play the point guard, trying to play the shooting guard. I’m a small forward. The team didn’t have a small forward when I signed. Steph, Klay, Draymond, the bigs, we all play different positions.

“Whether it’s minutes, shots, opportunities, any good team will have players sacrificing. That’s the nature of the game. I’m not coming into a game saying that I need my 18 shots and I need to get to the line 12 times. I let the game flow naturally.”


No. 2: Anthony shocked by Wade’s move to Chicago — New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and new Chicago Bulls signee Dwyane Wade have been friends for years, dating back to before both were taken in the top 5 picks of the 2003 Draft. The two have had their share of memorable one-on-one showdowns through the years, even moreso over the last six seasons since Anthony was traded to the Eastern Conference. While Anthony should continue to face Wade on a regular basis in 2016-17 and beyond, he was like many others this summer who found themselves surprised Wade left the Miami Heat to sign with the Bulls.’s Nick Friedell has more:

“I was shocked,” Anthony said before Thursday’s Team USA practice at the United Center. “I was shocked more from a standpoint it was just hard to see. It’s hard to see some players in different uniforms and he’s one of those guys who I never thought I would see in a different uniform other than Miami. But it happened, and I got a chance to talk to him and sit down with him and really dig deep about his feelings and what happened. He’s at peace now. And when he’s at peace, I’m at peace with it.”

Wade surprised many in the league by spurning the Heat to sign a two-year deal with the Bulls earlier this month. Anthony, who was wooed by the Bulls two summers ago but ultimately decided to re-sign with the Knicks, acknowledged that the free-agency process can be mentally taxing for players.

“I don’t think the masses really understand how difficult those decisions are,” Anthony said. “And what goes into those decisions. And as athletes what’s going through our mind during those decisions. A lot of people think we can just wake up and we can just make those decisions — it’s not that easy.”

Anthony’s comments come just a few weeks after two of the most successful Bulls in recent memory, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, landed in New York. Rose was dealt to the Knicks last month. Noah signed as a free agent.

“We love them,” Anthony said. “We love those additions. And we’re looking forward to getting the season going. And I think everybody is excited, the excitement is back. Right now there’s an adjustment on paper, but of course we have some work to do putting it all together, making it work. But we’re going to ride the wave of this excitement right now.”

As for a rekindling of a rivalry between the Bulls and Knicks, Anthony said he knows that it’s possible with all the moves both teams have made.

“I know you guys want that,” Anthony said. “I know you’re living for that. But we embrace that. I think as players, as competitors, we embrace all of those challenges and rivalries, that’s what makes the sport great again, so we embrace that.”


No. 3: Stoudemire says Suns weren’t receptive to him returning — After six All-Star Game apperances, a Kia Rookie of the Year trophy, and being named an All-NBA player several times, Amar’e Stoudemire retired from the NBA on Wednesday. Stoudemire was a free agent this summer and decided to hang it up as a member of the New York Knicks, whom he played for from 2010-15. Although Stoudemire had some memorable days in New York, most associate his peak seasons with the Phoenix Suns, who drafted him in 2002. Stoudemire told the Arizona Republic‘s Paul Coro he wanted to retire as a Sun, but the team didn’t seem receptive to that idea:

Amar’e Stoudemire gets sentimental the moment he reflects on his first eight NBA seasons spent in Phoenix, where a raw teenager became a skilled All-Star.

“Where do you want me to start?” Stoudemire said Thursday, shuffling through his mind’s fondest Suns memories. “It doesn’t stop.”

Stoudemire quickly recites Suns times like flying with a Phoenix contingent to recruit Steve Nash out of Dallas, watching Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic arrive in Phoenix from foreign countries, his career’s most successful seasons as an individual and a team, experiencing a preseason tour of Italy and Germany, watching Nash’s soccer skills on the Suns practice court and using his Hollywood connections to entertain teammates on the road.

All of that, dotted by conference finals runs and five All-Star Games as a Sun, will carry more weight in time than his decision to retire on a one-day New York Knicks contract for his less successful NBA home of 4 ½ years.

Stoudemire just did not feel the same love back in the past two offseasons, when he hoped to return to the Suns to close his career. That prompted him to reach out to New York this month for a ceremonial contract with a “Once a Knick, Always a Knick” quotation to cap his 14-year career.

“The last two years, we made phone calls to Phoenix but I wasn’t getting any positive response,” Stoudemire told azcentral sports on Thursday. “That would’ve been the perfect way to go out. I didn’t want to beg Phoenix. My heart was in two places – Phoenix and New York. I just went where I was wanted.”

“I love my fans in Phoenix. Most of my high times and highlights were in Phoenix. I put forth the effort to finish my career in Phoenix but it wasn’t well-received.”

Stoudemire watched Steve Nash be inducted into the Suns Ring of Honor last season and thought, “I might be next.” There are currently 14 members.

Even with missing nearly a full season during his eight-year Phoenix stay, Stoudemire ranks highly in Suns career annals – fourth in points per game (21.4), third in total rebounds (4,613), fifth in total blocks (722), third in free throws made (3,044) and seventh in field goal percentage (54.3).

“I’m praying for that,” Stoudemire said of a Ring of Honor induction, “because my glory years are in Phoenix. My best times are in Phoenix. I bleed purple and orange. My roots are in Phoenix and the tree bloomed from there.”


Stoudemire wanted to make it clear that his positive feelings for the franchise remain in tact, especially his respect for Suns fans and managing partner Robert Sarver.

“I never have received so much love and loyalty than I did with Suns fans,” Stoudemire said. “I love them unconditionally.

“I understand what Robert is trying to do. I know Robert is trying to win and I know the organization is trying to create a winning environment. I respect what they are trying to accomplish. If they need my help with anything, I am here for them.”


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: ICYMI, the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers will square off in a regular-season game in London next season … The cost of the Washington Wizards’ new practice facility just went up … Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler says he no longer has a chip on his shoulder motivating him, but he’s just as driven as ever … Sacramento Kings VP Vlade Divac is predicting a big Olympics for his team’s star center, DeMarcus Cousins … Gerald Green is glad to be back where his NBA career started — with the Boston Celtics …

Pump the brakes on a Durant exit

VIDEO: Kevin Durant speaks after Sunday’s practice

SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder are three defeats away from kicking off the Summer Of Durant, which will be slightly less intense than the Summer Of LeBron (2010 version), because of course Kevin Durant will be the most desired free agent to hit the market since LeBron James.

But the closer you look, and the more you apply common sense, Durant stands a far better chance of staying in Oklahoma City than a tumbleweed does on a windy day. Because there’s one advantage the Thunder have going for them, one factor you cannot easily dismiss:

The Russell Westbrook factor.

Even if OKC doesn’t rally after being buried in Game 1 against the Spurs and get eliminated in the conference semis, Durant will probably feel he still has a chance to win with the Thunder and that’s because of Westbrook. Their roots run deep, and their chemistry on and off the court, by all accounts, is strong enough to convince Durant to give it one more try. The sensible solution is to stay linked with Russ, sign for one more year, and then that creates the Really Big Summer Of Russ And Durant in 2017, when both are free agents.

This way, Durant accomplishes three things: One, he gives himself a shot of making even more money a year from now when the salary cap rises; two, he knows he’ll still be in demand by contending teams in ’17; and three, he can continue riding with Westbrook well into the future either in Oklahoma City or elsewhere as a — compose yourself, now — package deal.

Not many A-list free agents would hitch themselves to a teammate with so much on the line, but then again, not many teammates have the bond that ties Westbrook and Durant together. Just a hunch here, but Durant probably believes he’ll never find a higher quality of co-star, and that likely includes Steph Curry; going to Golden State would be trading the known (Westbrook) for the unknown (Curry).

And really, Durant’s decision this summer is only about the Warriors or Thunder. Durant can sign with the Wizards, Lakers, Knicks or almost any other team in ’17 and still get the max or close enough to it. But if he wants to join the Warriors, he must do it now, because otherwise Harrison Barnes will swallow up a good portion of Golden State’s cap going forward.

There is another inducement that would keep Durant in OKC for at one more year: He’s comfortable in the city, OKC has a solid nucleus and the franchise is steered by a sharp GM in Sam Presti. But it starts with Westbrook; walking away from him would be difficult.

Just last week, the depth of their relationship was revealed when Durant ran to the rescue of Westbrook when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to elevate Russ with the game’s greats, saying the point guard was just an All-Star.

When Westbrook was pressed for a response, he was waved off by Durant, who called Cuban “a idiot” while Westbrook sat back and allowed his friend to have the floor.

“Russ already knows that Kevin has his back,” said Nick Collison, who has been their teammate from the start, “but it’s just one more thing to say it publicly and take some of that on himself. It was definitely appreciated by Russ, for sure.”

Collison has had a point-blank view of the development of both players and how they’ve bonded. He noted how it’s not easy for two stars to always be in-step; history says that egos and agendas often get in the way. But that hasn’t been the case here. Even when Westbrook developed a habit of taking more shots than Durant, and caused outside observers to howl, Durant never took offense. On the contrary; he constantly harps on Westbrook never getting his due, and made a point to predict Westbrook would become the second Thunder player to win an MVP.

“They really appreciate each other,” said Collison. “There’s so much shared history. They’ve been through a lot together. They recognize how important each other is to the team. Look, there’s things that happen on the court that don’t always go over well, but they’ve always been able to figure it out. They have a common respect for each other and know how tough it is for them to do what they do. That allows them to get through anything that comes up.”

If Durant was looking to score his first big contract this summer, maybe money would get in the way. But he’s already had one big contract. And he’s making additional money in endorsements. And so Durant is one of the few NBA players who doesn’t need to seek the financial security of a long-term deal right away. He can go short-term and give OKC another try.

It’s the smart move this summer: Return for one more year, score a financial blockbuster later, and most important, keep Westbrook by his side.


Morning shootaround — March 21

VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games


Durant calls Oklahoma City ‘home’ | Lakers’ youngsters will finally get to play through mistakes | Gentry comes to defense of beat up Davis | Mavericks say they owe it to Dirk to make playoffs

No. 1: Durant calls Oklahoma City ‘home’ — The speculation won’t stop anytime soon. That’s just the way it is when a superstar like Kevin Durant is approaching free agency. So reading between the lines is the only thing Oklahoma City Thunder fans can do until July. They can take solace, though, in the fact that Durant continues to show love to the city he calls “home” right now. Royce Young of ESPN delivers the latest bread crumbs for those trying to figure out Durant’s thinking on Oklahoma City and what it means to him:

When the Oklahoma City Thunder visited New York a couple months ago, Kevin Durant was asked specifically what he thought about the city. When Durant was in Boston last week, again, he was asked about the city. The premise is easy to understand: Big market, big team, big future free agent. You can piece that puzzle together.

But on Sunday, standing on a red carpet next to his mom outside the front doors of his restaurant in Bricktown, just a few blocks from the arena he currently plays in, Durant stopped to answer a few questions.

One of which being: You get asked about all these other cities, but what about this one?

“It’s home,” he said. “It’s home.”

Like any other answer he’s given over the last few months, that’s no more a breadcrumb leading to answering what he’s going to do come July 1, but it is a reaffirmation of Durant’s affection for the place he’s called home the last seven years.

“I’ve always felt that this place meant so much to me,” he said. “It has a special place in my heart and my family’s heart as well. And we want to do our justice by giving back and giving to the less fortunate. That’s how I was raised, that’s how my mom taught me, how my grandmother taught me, is to give back. I’ve been blessed with so much I want to be a blessing on someone else.”

As is the case whenever the Thunder do anything, virtually the entire organization was present for the event, including Russell WestbrookSerge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams.

“Since I’ve been doing this job we’ve walked into the same building every single day,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of Durant, who he drafted at the age of 18. “I can honestly tell you there’s never a day that goes by that I take for granted that I work in an organization that has Kevin Durant representing it. His evolution as a person has been as steady, consistent and impressive as his evolution as a player. And that’s quite the statement.”


Thunder happy to have fresh KD

VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook talk about coming into the season well-rested

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant turned 26 on Monday. Not exactly old age, but he’s also no longer the kid leader of the 25-and-under Oklahoma City Thunder fun bunch climbing the rungs of the NBA ladder.

He is on the climb to 30 now and things have become a bit more serious as titles have become more elusive. Human frailty has twice sabotaged potential championship runs in successive seasons and Durant’s upcoming eighth season in the league — and who knows, perhaps his penultimate season in OKC — presents another excellent opportunity to finish first. So with age comes a sharpened perspective, a narrowing of time and thus, a wisdom to make different decisions than one might have made previously.

Durant made one such decision in early August and not everybody appreciated it. After committing to play for Team USA and participating in its July training camp in Las Vegas, Durant exited it conflicted. He wanted to uphold his commitment, but his fatigued body was pushing him the other way and his head was telling him training camps would open two short weeks after the six-week World Cup odyssey with Team USA.

“He had actually texted me before he actually made it public that he was going to take a step back from it,” Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins, a Durant confidant, said Monday. “He asked me what I thought about it. I said it’s what’s best for you. KD did a lot. He carried the load when Russell [Westbrook] was out, he was averaging a lot of minutes, played a lot of time on the court. Going through the season he kept it going to win his MVP and he played at a high level. And we’ve been playing damn near to June every year since I’ve been here. So it’s well-deserved.”

Durant’s decision to leave Team USA three weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup in Spain came as a surprise to everybody, including chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. Durant had made a well-intentioned commitment to play even when many of the NBA’s other superstars had not. The 2010 world championship MVP and 2012 Olympic gold medalist put his employer and Thunder teammates ahead of country this one time. He’s been clear he plans to play for Team USA in Brazil 1n 2016.

Yet when Durant offered a well-reasoned explanation for leaving the team on short notice, some called him a quitter, suggested he was being selfish during a summer in which he reaped millions in endorsement deals and said he unfairly left the team in a lurch. The next day, Rudy Gay happily accepted an invitation to replace Durant and the U.S. cruised undefeated to another gold medal, without even having to face Durant’s Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka and might Spain, thought to be Team USA’s toughest foe.  The Americans won their semifinal and championship games by a combined 65 points.

If only they had KD.

“I think it was more so that I didn’t want to be in full-season mode in August or July,” Durant said during the Thunder’s media day on Monday when asked about his decision not to play. “I just wanted that time to just free my body and my mind of it all and just go out there and workout and work on my game and just enjoy the rest of the summer. Because I know how long the season is, and I just wanted to be fully prepared for that.”

Durant has led the Thunder to at least the Western Conference finals in three of the last four years. No player logged more minutes than he did last season and his workload over the last five seasons is beyond reproach.

“I’d rather have a guy tell the powers-to-be, ‘you know what, I can’t give you my 100 precent effort both mentally and physically,’ because if you don’t you’re not going to help your team,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I have a lot of respect for Kevin stepping up. That was not an easy decision, but he stepped up and said, ‘I wasn’t mentally and physically ready to compete with the 12 guys we had.’ He played a lot of basketball. He’s entitled to have a summer off, right?”

Westbrook also pulled out of Team USA to properly rest a right knee that had been operated on three times in the span of eight months and sidelined him for half of last season. Both players had as restful a summer as they’ve had in years. Ibaka is back at full strength from the calf injury that forced him out of the first two games of the West finals against the Spurs. There is a lot of optimism entering camp that OKC is equipped to get back to the NBA Finals.

“I was glad to see him make a decision he felt like he needed to do,” said Nick Collison, Durant’s teammate since his rookie season in Seattle. “He felt that he needed to step away and I was glad he was able to make that decision because I know that was a tough decision. So, yeah, for our team, for us, I think it’s a positive that those guys [Durant and Westbrook] are coming in fresh.”

Durant: Open, honest and still growing

By Jeff Caplan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will be back.

Hang time podcast (episode 162) featuring Nick Collison and Jamal Crawford

VIDEO: Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers joins the crew this week on the Hang Time Podcast

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — How quickly things change in the Western Conference finals.

After two games the basketball world was reading the Oklahoma City Thunder’s last rights. They were finished, crushed beneath the big toe of the mighty San Antonio Spurs.

It’s a good thing for Nick Collison and his Thunder teammates that you have to win four games to advance to The Finals. Because with the series tied at 2-2 after back-to-back blowout wins the Thunder has new life. It’s the same kind they showed against Jamal Crawford and the Los Angeles Clippers in finishing the Western Conference semifinals in six games.

Both Collison and Crawford, two HT faves, join us on Episode 162 of the Hang Time Podcast, offering their unique perspectives on all things playoffs and more.

Collison talks about what it’s like to be stitches free (for a change), playing with the whirlwind that is Russell Westbrook and watching Kevin Durant‘s evolution from rookie string bean to MVP.

Crawford shares his insights on the Donald Sterling drama from the inside, what it’s like looking at the Western Conference finals from the outside (when you want in), how Doc Rivers guided his team through it all and a love for the game that hasn’t wavered in 14 seasons in the league.

You get all of that and our take on Phil Jackson, the coaching vacancies the Knicks and Lakers are trying to fill and who we feel is the best candidate (Lex Morrison, Derek Fisher, etc.) for each job and plenty more on Episode 162 of the Hang Time Podcast featuring Nick Collison and Jamal Crawford:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of,  Lang Whitaker of’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Off Season – Trailer from Vuguru on Vimeo.

Spurs letting Thunder party like it’s 2012

VIDEO: Thunder wax Spurs in Game 4

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

Hello, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference from 2012? Spurs just better

By Fran Blinebury,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spurs’ defense tightens its grip

By Fran Blinebury,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder’s star duo under more pressure

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook address the media after the Game 2 loss

SAN ANTONIO — The game suddenly and irrepressibly slipping away under a second-quarter Spurs blitz that melted the Thunder into a pool of mistakes and frustration, Russell Westbrook glared at co-star Kevin Durant as they labored to a timeout.

Durant had lost his man on the previous play and Westbrook was simultaneously jabbing his index fingers at either side of his head, a motion unmistakably meant to coerce league MVP Durantto “Think!” or “wake up!”

The interaction was inevitably perceived as the first sign of fissure for a team whose championship dreams are breaking apart.

“I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff and he got on me right back,” Westbrook said after the 112-77 Game 2 loss, the Thunder’s second consecutive blowout in San Antonio’s that puts them in an 0-2 West finals hole.

“That’s what teammates do, that’s what leaders do, we get on each other, we come back and we talk about it and then we come out like nothing ever happened.”

Nothing more happened for the Thunder. Midway through the third quarter, the Spurs’ approached 30 points. It’s become clear how badly OKC misses Serge Ibaka, its 6-foot-10 shot-blocker and mid-range jumpshooter. Without him, the Thunder have shrunk from title contender to not even belonging on the same floor as the well-oiled Spurs.

“It hurts us, it hurts us without him, there’s no question,” said veteran forward Nick Collison, who has just two points and five rebounds in the two games while starting in Ibaka’s spot. “But a lot of the breakdowns are basic [coverages] you start on the first day of training camp.”

The Thunder have three days to simmer and come up with a plan. It’s less about X’s and O’s and more about will. At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Durant said he has another level he can achieve, but that did not happen in Game 2. The Spurs, with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, have made him work hard for his offense.

Durant was 6-for-16 for just 15 points in 28 minutes. He missed all four 3-point attempts and got to the free throw line just five times, all coming in the first quarter. That mirrored Game 1 when he made three trips to the foul line in the first quarter and then just once after that.

Westbrook took 24 shots in 29 minutes and also finished with 15 points. He fell into funks of rushing shots and wasting possessions that helped fuel a Spurs roll that reached 43-14 during a stretch from the second quarter to third.

He has arguably been the Thunder’s best player this postseason, but with the Spurs able to key their defensive approach almost exclusively on Westbrook and Durant, there’s been little room to operate with no one stepping up to reduce that pressure.

Both superstars say they’re not overcompensating for the loss of Ibaka. But they’re getting so little help that it’d be impossible to blame them if they feel they must, if they think superhuman efforts are their only hope.

Durant was asked why he and Westbrook lost faith in their teammates as reasoning for combining for 40 shots in the less than three quarters.

“We didn’t stop trusting,” Durant said.

Then why did you stop moving the ball, he was asked.

“We didn’t,” Durant said.

Then how do you explain so many shots during the period in which the Spurs broke it open?

“Because we’re the focal point of the offense,” Durant said.

Thabo Sefolosha has been lost, going scoreless in both games. He could be benched for Game 3 in favor of Caron Butler — which was the lineup change OKC made in Games 6 and 7 of the first round. Collison has been ineffective. Reggie Jackson, who averaged 21 points and shot 68 percent in four regular-season wins against San Antonio, has 22 total points in the two games. He attempted only seven shots in 26 minutes in Game 2.

“We’re just going to play the way we play, man, regardless of what happens,” Westbrook said. “We’re going to play the way we play, man, regardless of miss or make shots. We’re going to live by it. That’s how we won all season. We’re not about to change now. We’re going to continue to trust our teammates, continue to play our game, and continue to compete.”

At this point, there’s little else they can do.