Posts Tagged ‘Nick Collison’

Mental game opens new vistas to Durant

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant had 35 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls on Monday night (3/17)

CHICAGO – Kevin Durant had just done it again. The Oklahoma City thin man had just taken on one of his profession’s most stifling defenses, five (pick ‘em) of the Chicago Bulls’ most physical and resistant players and 22,000 partisans happy to enjoy Durant’s talents but determined to see him lose by night’s end, and he had beaten them all. Again.

Durant had spent a chunk of the pregame period with his legs encased in long black sleeves, hooked up to a contraption meant to promote circulation and healing. After all, he not only leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 points a game) but in minutes played (2,534) and arguably in workload shouldered.

Yet, 24 hours after a miserable 23-point home loss to Dallas, Durant dialed it up again and fended off the Bulls at United Center. He subbed back in mere seconds before Chicago drew within 76-75 with 10 minutes left and sparked OKC on a 13-0 run over the next six minutes that buttoned up the outcome. Durant finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and stretched to 32 games his streak of scoring 25 points or more. That’s the longest such streak since Michael Jordan did it for the Bulls in his breakout 1986-87 season.

Durant has averaged 34.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists during the streak, while shooting 51.7 percent (39.2 percent on 3-pointers). The Thunder are 21-11 since it began, with a dip (6-6) coming since teammate Russell Westbrook returned from right knee surgery and triggered a readjustment.

“Russ goes down, Russ isn’t playing, Russ comes back in – you know, the constant is him,” said veteran forward Caron Butler, whose appreciation of Durant has only grown since joining the Thunder March 1. “He remained the same. To keep guys going, keep everybody on point.”

Durant, 25, has been performing at an MVP level all season, displaying all the skills and attributes with which NBA fans have grown familiar: Silky smooth shooting, remarkable vision thanks to his 6-foot-10 height, impeccable timing and touch to his passes and occasional explosions to the basket that can surprise everyone in the gym.

But he has added a consistency, owing to an ever-sharpening mental approach, that has taken it all to new heights.

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

“What impresses me the most is two things: His consistency and his ability not to worry about [a scoring streak],” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “I know when I had a three-game streak of four [points], I was worried about that next game and how I had to make my first shot. He’s not worried about it. He’s worried about playing hard and playing the correct way and finding ways to help his team win. He’s amazing and so consistent, he’s done this from Day 1, from November all the way through March 17.”

Said Durant: “It definitely takes mental toughness, especially on the road.”

You wouldn’t have known about his growing seriousness and depth from the wildly colored boxer briefs and socks with Pete Maravich’s photo on them Durant wore after Monday’s game. But it’s a topic that lately has been on his mind, one might say. While opposing teams cope with the mental pressure of facing an assassin like Durant, accounting for his every movement across 38 minutes or so, Durant more and more plumbs the depths and possibilities in his game that aren’t strictly by-products of his physical gifts.

It was something he talked about in a Wall Street Journal magazine feature (March 2014) in which several celebrities or reputed authorities were asked about their notion of power. Here’s what Durant said:

“Something that’s often overlooked in basketball is mental power. A game is 50 percent mental—mental toughness. Going through ups and downs during a long season, you have to really set your mind to have the power over everybody else—over opponents, fans, bad refs, tough games. You gotta fight through that. When I was young, I was always the skinny kid and got pushed around a lot, and my mental toughness goes back to that.”

And:

“…There will always be someone taller, someone stronger, somebody quicker. Having that willpower and extra fight is what’s going to set you apart. On the court there’s trash talk, you can hear fans trying to disrespect you, but just being quiet, never being too high or too low, is the most powerful place to be in a game.”

All NBA players have mental toughness to one degree or another, said OKC guard Derek Fisher, or they wouldn’t have made it this far. But when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau talks about that trait in legendary players such as Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and others, it isn’t just hindsight. Mental toughness dripped off those guys like perspiration.

“It’s the reason why we talk about them the most,” Fisher said. “Because there are certain things they do that seem to mentally take themselves to a level other guys can’t. Everybody can’t show up night in and night out, from a mental standpoint and perform at a high level.”

It’s not just Kobe Bryant baring his teeth after a clutch shot in a close game.

“It’s in the daily preparation,” Fisher said. “The willingness to be the first guy at practice and the last one to leave. Taking the time to get extra shots up. Studying the game. Watching film. Taking care of your body. Kobe’s history of playing through injuries, that requires it.

“Kevin is exhibiting mental toughness every night. Not just showing up and, at the end of the game, he has 20 points but you didn’t really know he was there. He’s impacting the game at both ends every night.”

And stealthily getting 35 before folks feel the sting of his presence.

Nick Collison, another Thunder veteran, has been with Durant from the start back in Seattle. He’s an eyewitness to the growth, externally and internally, in the scoring star’s game.

“”When he first came in the league, he was like all guys – you’re just trying to find your way,” the backup forward said. “Now he’s at the point where he’s thinking, how can he help everybody be better? It’s not just in his play, it’s not just in his decision-making. It’s trying to talk to guys and trying to lift the team up. All the phases of the game, he appreciates the importance of that stuff now.”

One Western Conference advance scout Monday said he has noticed a peace in Durant’s game this season, compared to 2012-13′s edginess. “Last year I thought he was trying too hard. He was getting some techs doing things that were out of character, complaining,” the scout said. “Now he’s toned that back some, and he’s a beast. Maybe he felt he needed to get respect from referees or other teams or something. He’s got the respect. Now it’s all coming together.”

Said Collison: “We’re all human. We have things going on in our lives and we all have those stretches. But I think this year, his mind is free. He’s having a good time. And he’s more mature. That’s a big part of it too. He’s been around – he’s 25 now – and we all get a little more perspective as we get older.”

Where does Collison see the gain? In how locked-in Durant is now.

“More possessions being engaged,” he said. “Fewer possessions of spacing out. I think that’s all of us. It’s a long season, 82 games, and to avoid the distractions and always be engaged in the play that’s right in front of you… the more possessions you have like that, the better you are. A sign of that with him is, defensively, he’s taking less plays off. He’s in the right spot.”

Durant, asked about this before the game, admitted he still has work to do.

“That’s half of the game to me, is mental,” he said. “My focus every time I step on the court is, what am I thinking about?

“To be honest, there are some games where I think about what I have to do instead of what the team has to do, and that takes my focus off the big picture sometimes. But just staying conscious of what we need to do as a team and how I can help that is something I tell myself every time I step on the floor.”

And yes, he has sought counsel on this aspect, from some of the very best.

“I’ve talked to Karl Malone – he’s been a big help to me. George Gervin, those guys. Larry Bird, I’ve talked to him before,” Durant said.

“Just trying to see what their thoughts was in shootarounds and practices and games. See how they approached it and what they were thinking about when they were going out there performing. Just picking the brains of the greats can definitely help. I’m looking forward to growing as a leader, as a player mentally. I have a long ways to go, so I always ask questions.”

Which will leave his opponents with questions of their own. Mostly along the lines of, How are they going to stop this guy now?

Will Thunder Miss Perkins Or Not?

The Thunder are losing one of their vocal leaders in Kendrick Perkins. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Thunder are losing one of their vocal leaders in Kendrick Perkins. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – That’s one way to get Kendrick Perkins out of the lineup. Analytics faithful have long called for him to sit and so, too, has a growing segment of the league’s friendliest fans.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 6-foot-10, 280-pound brute is probably more renowned now for his imposing scowl than for his imposing, no-holds-barred approach that helped the Celtics win one title and might have cost them another when an injury forced him out of Game 7 against the Lakers in 2010.

On Tuesday, the Thunder announced Perkins will miss up to six weeks after undergoing surgery on his left groin, an injury that occurred in the third quarter of Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat. On Sunday, the Thunder lost again to the Los Angeles Clippers, and afterwards Perkins’ former coach Doc Rivers couldn’t help but give Perkins some good-natured ribbing.

The Clippers torched the Thunder for 72 points in the first half with 27 coming on the fastbreak. Rivers was asked if OKC missed Perkins’ defense considering the plodding center probably wouldn’t have been much help chasing Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down the floor.

“He was good for us,” Rivers said regarding Perkins in those Boston days. “That was in his younger days when he ran the 40 [yard dash] in 4.5 [seconds], I think. Now he might run it in 44.5, but I’m not sure — maybe 50, I don’t know.”

Rivers got a good chuckle out of it, but will the Thunder and their fans be laughing without the polarizing big man to pick on? Here’s Rivers again, this time being a bit more serious about the less visible impact Perkins has on his team.

“Where he helps you, even if it’s not that [in transition], he’s a voice that tells you you’re not getting back,” Rivers said. “People don’t understand how important those voices are when you have a guy talking your defense, holding people accountable, you miss that. They missed that [Sunday].”

The Thunder will likely replace Perkins in the starting lineup with impressive, 7-foot, 250-pound rookie Steven Adams, 20, a raw talent, but a physical player and a hustler. Veteran Nick Collison will likely see a bump in minutes and rising, two-way power forward Serge Ibaka will likely see more time at center in smaller lineups.

Like Rivers, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has long praised Perkins for delivering the less-heralded, but necessary aspects of the game like hard-nosed defense and bone-jarring screens that spring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others for open looks.

Durant, too, has always had his teammate’s back.

“He’s one of those guys that sacrifice and puts it all on the line for his team,” Durant said of Perkins prior to this season as the 11th-year center returned from hefty criticism following last year’s second-round loss to Memphis. “He’s a guy that I go to war with every single night and a brother for life, so I’m behind him 110 percent.”

But by any metric it becomes increasingly difficult to defend Perkins’ 19.7 mpg, which ranks as his lowest in the last eight seasons. His inclusion against smaller, quicker lineups such as the Heat is even harder to defend. Perkins is averaging 3.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg and is shooting 44.2 percent, low for a player who attempts nearly 80 percent of his shots from within eight feet.

The Thunder’s offensive efficiency is 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the floor and it soars to 110.1 with him off. Their defensive efficiency barely fluctuates with him on or off the floor.

The Thunder traded for Perkins in February 2011 believing they’d need him for years to come to battle the Los Angeles Lakers’ frontcourt combo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Obviously that didn’t last and utilizing smaller lineups has become the trend throughout the league.

OKC’s regular starting lineup of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins has played 287 minutes together with an offensive rating of 96.7 and a defensive rating of 104.2. The likely new starting lineup with Adams replacing Perkins has played 82 minutes together with an offensive rating of 100.4 and a defensive rating that nose dives off the chart at 122.0.

Numbers are meaningful, but can also be interpreted in different ways when comparing lineup combinations. All we can do now is watch the games and try to determine if the Thunder indeed miss Perkins’ nearly 20 minutes a game, or if he’s really been more of a hindrance all along.

Talking Defense With Scott Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder defense, last four seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…)

Brooks Equates KD’s Work Ethic To Denver Broncos QB Manning’s


VIDEO: Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman joins GameTime to discuss Durant’s hot streak

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Thunder coach Scott Brooks marvels at the barrage of points, the evolution of the pinpoint passes and all that Kevin Durant does on a basketball court in front of 18,000 people 82 nights a year.

Mostly though, he finds himself blown away by Durant on those days in between, in the gym, working, relentless. No crowds going bananas, no flashing bulbs, no glory. Only guts.

This is when Brooks equates Durant with a certain Super Bowl quarterback.

“Kevin Durant, Peyton Manning,” Brooks said Tuesday night. “You just look at the parallels between the two. They just come in, they do their job every day. They don’t have to tell the world what they do, they just do it every day and it seems to work perfectly fine.”

Durant is the Thunder’s tone-setter on game day and especially so on so-called “off” days.

“I’m just having fun out there,” Durant said Tuesday night after dropping 46 points on the Trail Blazers. He followed up Wednesday night with 36 in a road win over the Spurs. “It’s a player’s game, so every moment I’m on the court is fun for me.”

Lately it’s been a barrel of laughs. Durant has now gone nine consecutive games scoring 30 points or more, a career-best stretch. During the Thunder’s five-game win streak — victories over Golden State, Houston, Sacramento, Portland and now San Antonio — Durant’s all-around dominance borders on mind-boggling: 40.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 6.2 apg in 39.1 mpg. He is shooting 59.5 percent overall and 56.3 percent from beyond the arc (for the nitpickers, he’s coughing it up 6.0 times a game).

As Blazers coach Terry Stotts noted after Tuesday’s game, nothing about Durant’s game at the moment is forced. He isn’t ball-hogging. He isn’t chucking. He’s taking what’s given and delivering the entire package with supreme efficiency.

“Kevin, I say this all the time, he doesn’t want to be known as a scorer, and I give him a lot of credit for that,” Brooks said. “Some guys say that but they really, their moods are predicated on how many points they score the night before. Kevin’s not like that. He was equally as happy the next night [after scoring 54 points against Golden State last Friday] when he had nine assists [and 30 points against Sacramento on Sunday].”

Durant, a leading MVP candidate now averaging 31.0 ppg on the season, salted away Wednesday’s win at San Antonio with a pair of late 3s. He did the same thing the night before to bury the Blazers. He went 6-for-7 from deep in that one.

“When he’s shooting the ball well from 3, that opens up a lot for him,” said Nick Collison, Durant’s teammate back to the the franchise’s Seattle days. “He’s unguardable when he’s able to hit 3-point shots.”

After the final dagger against Portland, a straightaway swish, he looked toward a thunderous home bench and seemingly reluctantly, almost bashfully, uncorked a smile.

“You look to the bench and you see your teammates so happy for you, all I could do is smile because I know they’re genuinely happy for me and for the team,” Durant said. “It’s a great feeling just knowing you have a group of brothers out there supporting you no matter what. So that’s what I was smiling for.”

Durant and his team are on quite a roll following a rough patch immediately after the unexpected injury departure of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. His projected return remains around the mid-February All-Star Game. While some might have predicted Oklahoma City to drop in the post-Christmas standings without Westbrook, the opposite has occurred: The Thunder sit atop the Western Conference.

They’re 10-5 during this Westbrook-less stretch. Wednesday’s win kicked off a tough seven-game stretch with six on the road. Just don’t expect Durant and Co. to easily crack.

“We just do our job every day,” Brooks said. “I tell our guys, the pressure is to play as hard as you can, play for your teammates. It’s not making shots, it’s not doing anything other; but if you play as hard as you can, play for your teammates, the pressure is that. We’ve always been a team that we just focus on doing our job every day.

“I think all the good teams do that in all sports. The great players do the same thing.”

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.

Durant Keeps The Faith As Game 5 Nears

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Asked about the mood of the Thunder these last 36 hours or so after the Game 4 overtime loss that put them in a 3-1 hole, Kevin Durant said everyone should know one thing.

“It wasn’t like we were going to a funeral,” Oklahoma City’s superstar said.

Durant is averaging 31.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 6.3 apg this postseason, yet he has struggled to score late in the last three games, all Memphis Grizzlies victories, all by six points. He was 2-for-13 in the fourth quarter and OT in Game 4.

“Everybody came through except for me and that’s the toughest thing about it, that’s a tough feeling,” Durant said. “Tonight we’ll try to get that taste out of mouths and try to get a W.”

Durant looked like a heavyweight fighter who had just gone the distance only to lose on a split decision. He was fatigued and seemingly out of answers. The Thunder returned to OKC in the early-morning hours Tuesday. Coach Scott Brooks didn’t put his team through a practice after they finally got some sleep, content to allow his players to get treatment and focus on tonight’s do-or-die Game 5 (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“We’re a team that’s always been resilient, always perseveres through things and always just fights it to the end,” Durant said. “We’re going to continue to keep fighting. We’ve got a great opportunity on our home floor and, you know, you either win or you go home.”

Durant said the team is drawing on other adverse times such as losing the first two games to the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s West finals, only to storm back to win four in a row. But, obviously, that team had All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook at the helm. That Westbrook’s new Brand Jordan/Champs Sports commercial was revealed Wednesday — one full of pre-knee-injury dunks — surely makes Thunder fans wistful.

Westbrook’s absence has allowed the Grizzlies to focus on Durant. They’ve given him doses of Tayshaun Prince and then Quincy Pondexter with sporadic looks at Tony Allen for the first three quarters. The fourth quarter has largely been all Allen with teammates swarming Durant from every angle.

Since his Game 1 heroics that had Durant being praised as the game’s most clutch player, his shots have mostly clanged in the final two minutes of these games, each one a two-point margin with two minutes to go.

“I just got to get it done either way,” Durant said. “I got to try to force my way into the lane and maybe that draws even more guys and I kick it out to my teammates, or sometimes I got to shoot over two or three guys. So there’s no excuses no matter how many people are guarding me. I’ve just got to get it done.”

Durant, better than a 90-percent free throw shooter during the season, will try to get there more in Game 5. Brooks was a bit miffed that Durant got to the free throw line just three times in 48 minutes of Game 4, and one of those came via a defensive 3-seconds call.

Don’t expect Durant to alter the way he plays. He’ll continue to try to create for himself and his teammates even though they’ve been cold. Among Serge IbakaKevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, Collison has the highest shooting percentage of that group in the series — 41.7 percent.

“I don’t have to say anything really, just pass them the ball and they know I got confidence in them,” Durant said. “I tell them all the time to shoot with confidence, don’t worry about it if they miss a shot, so what? Just keep getting back on defense and playing the great defense that we are. Don’t worry about the shots, just continue to keep shooting them if you have them.

“I’m going to trust in my teammates no matter what, no matter what people say or how many shots they miss or how many shots I miss, I’m going to continue to trust my teammates, myself and all the hard work we’ve put in.”

Struggling Ibaka Focused On Game 4

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Serge Ibaka on Sunday delivered a challenge, more to himself than to the tough Memphis Grizzlies’ defense.

“If they play the same defense they play on me like [Game 3],” Ibaka said, “I think next game, it will be a different story.”

The reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder’s survival is dependent on it. Their 6-foot-10 power forward transformed himself into a terrific mid-range shooter this season, a welcomed progression for a team that lost James Harden. But Ibaka has clanged a lot of rim this postseason. The Thunder could make up for it against Houston in the first round, but Memphis is a different animal, and with Kevin Martin also struggling, OKC’s offense, with Kevin Durant accounting for 37.4 percent of the scoring, is grinding its wheels.

Ibaka is missing easy inside looks such as the two dunks in Game 3. He’s missing contested jumpers and he’s missing wide open jumpers.

“I’m trying,” said Memphis forward Zach Randolph, the prime defender on Ibaka when asked if he feels he’s contesting the majority of Ibaka’s jumpers. “But he has missed open shots. He has.”

For the playoffs, Ibaka is 12-for-48 from the outside the paint. In this series alone he is shooting 30.8 percent overall. This from a player that shot a career-best 57.3 percent overall during the regular season and shot better than 50 percent from four of the seven areas recorded on shot charts from outside the key to the 3-point arc. In only one area, from the left wing, did he shoot below 46.9 percent.

After Memphis executed down the stretch to pull out the 87-81 win and take a 2-1 lead in this semifinal series, Durant suggested that Ibaka’s issues are mental.

“We can’t let him put too much pressure on himself. It’s all in his mind,” Durant said. “If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them. I have to pick him up and that is what I have been doing.”

Ibaka didn’t disagree with Durant’s assessment, suggesting that it is normal to have a dip in confidence when the shots aren’t falling. But he said that mechanically he feels fine and that he’s getting shots from spots on the floor that he normally would with Russell Westbrook pushing the tempo and running the halfcourt offense.

“Right now, for me, my focus is on this game,” Ibaka said. “Like people say, if you think about the past you cannot get better in the next one. So I am trying to do the best I can to forget about the last game and be aggressive.”

His shooting slump has not dulled his defensive effort as he takes on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randolph, one of the league’s toughest low-post covers. Ibaka held Randolph to eight points on 4-for-12 shooting, and one offensive rebound in Game 3. He has 20 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.

After Randolph blew up the Clippers for 20.8 ppg on 56.8 percent shooting, he’s averaging just 13.8 ppg on 42.5 percent shooting against Ibaka, Nick Collison and at times Kendrick Perkins, who has his hands full mostly with Marc Gasol.

“Serge has missed some easy shots, a couple of layups, a couple of dunks,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There’s nothing you can do about it but step up to the plate and be ready to do it again. Whether it’s in his head or not, I don’t know. I think if we can get those same shots for him, I believe in the work that he puts in, that he can make his next shot.”

Going Small Key For OKC & Golden State?

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.

The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.

We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.

So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…

The drop-off in Indiana
The most-used lineup of the playoffs should be no surprise. The Pacers’ starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert have been getting it done on both ends of the floor and were a terrific lineup in the regular season as well. Though Indy ranked 19th defensively overall, this lineup scored at a rate that would have ranked fourth, playing the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league.

It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.

Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.

Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.

If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).

With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.

That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).

*The best defensive lineup with a minimum of 35 minutes played was actually the Thunder’s original starting lineup, which allowed the Rockets to score just 73.1 points per 100 possessions in the first two games of the first round. But Russell Westbrook‘s injury puts that lineup out of commission.

Small works in the other West series too
Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.

It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.

Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.

A change of fortune in Miami
The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.

Offensive struggles in New York
The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.

Mature Conley Coolly Leads Grizz, Ties Series


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OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Conley might still have that smile of a schoolboy, but the Memphis Grizzlies point guard now has the courage of a warrior.

In years past, Conley might mot have taken the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:58 to go. He might have passed on the jumper over 6-foot-7 defender Thabo Sefolosha with 1:04 left that hit nothing but net. But this is Conley now: calm and cool when his team must have it.

“That’s how he’s grown as a player,” teammate Zach Randolph said following Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that tied the Western Conference semifinal at 1-1 with three days off before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis.

Only moments earlier during a fantastic fourth quarter that boasted five ties and five lead changes in a game that had 27 in all, Kevin Durant looked to be composing yet another masterpiece. He was closing in on his first career playoff triple-double and OKC was nearing a 2-0 series lead, a mere two nights after he sank the game-winner with 11.1 seconds to go.

Neither would come to pass.

Durant missed his final three shots and lost the ball with less than a minute to play, with Memphis leading 94-90. Bulldog defender Tony Allen, who said he finally got paired up on Durant in Game 2 out of desperation, stepped back instead of putting his body on Durant as he turned his back to the basket to gain leverage on the smaller Allen. Durant lost his balance, fell to the floor and lost the ball.

“That was just a last-minute thought in my head,” Allen said. “I just thought it would work and I was fortunate enough for it to work.”

Durant finished with 36 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, Durant’s fingerprints are everywhere as he brings the ball up the floor and sets the attack or calls for the ball almost as quickly as point guard Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court.

ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out a telling stat after the game: Durant has averaged 264 dribbles per game since Westbrook’s injury. His season average was 134. Thunder forward-center Nick Collison was asked if Durant has to do too much in crunch time: “I mean, what are we going to do?” Collison said.

Durant certainly was in control until it slipped away late. He started the fourth quarter 4-for-4, but ended it 0-for-3. Meanwhile, the quiet Conley drained five of six shots for 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting, nine assists and 10 rebounds.

Allen, perhaps Conley’s biggest fan, took responsibility for the missed triple-double with his errant attempt from under the bucket after Conley had secured an offensive rebound with 1:23 to go.

“I’ve been saying it for a long time, he’s up-and-coming,” Allen said. “Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league whether anybody likes it or not. I know a lot of people got their favorites and who they think should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now. He’s able to do these things on the court night-in and night-out.”

On this night his performance was huge. A 2-0 deficit is not the end of the series — the Grizzlies proved that last round when Conley and Co. took down Chris Paul and the Clippers in four straight after falling into the 0-2 hole — but it’s not the way anybody wants to go about a series with the West finals at stake.

Conley’s 26 points tied his regular-season high. So did his 11 field goals. His season-best rebounding game was seven. Conley got that number in the fourth quarter alone.

He’s scored at least 20 points in these playoffs four times, has dished out at least nine assists four times and has put up three double-doubles. And it’s the second time now he’s rebounded from an otherwise dull night with a big effort.

On Tuesday, Conley, just 25 and in his sixth season with Memphis, was aggressive, streaking into the lane and finding teammates. And with the Thunder sagging down heavily to defend Marc Gasol and Randolph, Conley took the jumpers afforded him.

Having already dispatched Paul in the first round, and with the injured Westbrook watching from high above in a suite, Conley is taking control.

“I didn’t come in looking at it like that. I came in looking at if that what I need to do for our team to win, I’ll do it,” Conley said. “If I have to score, I’ll score. I have to be a facilitator, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win.”