HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When a couple small-market Western Conference teams battled for seven grueling games in the semifinals of the playoffs two years ago, who could have foreseen that they would meet again this postseason — after each was forced to deal with the inescapable repercussions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement?
Rudy Gay was injured and out of that postseason two years ago. But at only 24 and locked into a lucrative contract, the No. 8 pick of the 2006 NBA Draft was a central figure for the fast-rising Memphis Grizzlies. Yet on Jan. 30, 2013, Gay, the team’s leading scorer, was traded to Toronto.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder were coming off a loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals when, days before this season began, Thunder general manager Sam Presti dealt former No. 3 pick James Harden, just 23 and an integral part of the team’s success, to Houston.
In a postseason marked by a surprising domination of small-market teams — all four teams remaining in the playoffs are in the bottom half of the league in market size — the second-round showdown between the Grizzlies and Thunder (won by the Grizzlies in five games) demonstrated just what many teams have to do to thrive in the era of the still-new CBA.
“With the rules set up the way they are, there’s minimal room for error,” said Jason Levien, the first-year CEO of the Grizzlies under a new ownership group led by one of the world’s youngest tech billionaires, Robert Pera. “You’ve got to be very thoughtful in your approach to how you build your team, how you build a roster, and you’ve got to keep the cap and the tax in mind.”
Avoiding the taxes
Cap and tax are at the forefront of the strategy the Oklahoma City management team is using under the ownership of billionaire energy mogul Clay Bennett. Presti, who has managed to re-sign superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, plus emerging power forward Serge Ibaka, to long-term deals that fit within the team’s cap structure, chose to hold firm to a policy of not commenting on matters related to the CBA.
In Memphis, where the Grizzlies will look to start digging out of a 2-0 hole against the San Antonio Spurs in Saturday’s Game 3 of the West finals (9 p.m., ESPN), Levien has defended the trade of Gay (for veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince and youngsters Ed Davis and Austin Daye) as being made to improve the team.
While that might be true — Memphis won a franchise-best 56 games after a strong start with Gay — the Grizzlies also got out of the $37.2 million owed to Gay over the next two seasons. Memphis will pay Prince, Davis and Daye a combined $26 million over that span ($22 million if Daye is not retained beyond next season). With Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley owed a combined $40.9 million next season, keeping Gay and a payroll under the tax line (this season it was $70.3 million) would have been a near-impossibility. (more…)
The Bobcats are changing their names back to the Hornets. Good, bad, odd, something else?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Good. Bobcats is a bad nickname anyway, ill-conceived as a vanity thing for the original owner. Beyond that, teams that relocate never should be permitted to abscond with the nicknames – or the record books – of the franchises they used to be. Too late, of course, for the goofily named Utah Jazz or L.A. Lakers. But by all rights, the expansion team in Minneapolis should have revived the Lakers name there. When George Shinn moved his Charlotte club, it should have become the new Jazz. Same thing if Seattle gets back into the NBA – they’re the SuperSonics. At which point, why should Oklahoma City have any claim on Spencer Haywood, Gus Williams, Slick Watts or Gary Payton? Records, banners and history should stay put (or, retroactively, revert back). Fans in Charlotte surely care about Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning more than those cheering for Pelicans in New Orleans.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Gee, and here I thought Michael Jordan should have changed his own name so everyone might forget that he’s the one who built the Bobcats.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Something else: Yawn. My only prerequisite is that the new Charlotte Hornets retain the NOLA Mardi Gras uniforms.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I had some teal-and-purple Charlotte Hornets gear back in the early 1990s, and “Bobcats” already has a pretty dreadful history, so I’m in favor of the name change. With two different franchises being named the Hornets at one time or another, my historical spreadsheets might get a little confused, though.
Philipp Dornhegge, NBA.com/germany: What’s not to love? The Hornets’ name and logo need to stick in the NBA, and the home of the Hornets apparently wants the name back. I have a good friend from around Charlotte and he told me that most people were never and aren’t to this day able to connect with the Bobcats. The franchise just doesn’t appeal to them. They are in rebuilding mode now, and what better way to start afresh and excite more people than to bring back the Hornets?
Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/greece:Okayyyyyy…. right. So, we had the Charlotte Hornets. Then they moved to New Orleans. Then another team appeared in Charlotte and was named “the Bobcats.” And now they want to change again to “the Hornets.” And we are back in the 90′s. Are Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson coming back, too? Life goes in circles, after all. As bad as the “Bobcats” sounds like (a really bad choice I ‘m afraid), the real problem is the way the team plays and the fact that they have a 28-120 record over the last two years. “Bad”, whatever you call it, is still “bad.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Not that anyone needed another reason to root for Kevin Durant, but the Oklahoma City Thunder star has pledged $1 million to the American Red Cross, through his foundation, to the tornado disaster relief effort in Oklahoma City.
The American Red Cross announced the gift earlier today and made clear that the donation from the Durant Family Foundation is meant to match other donations while also serving as an incentive to others willing to donate either by texting “REDCROSS” to 90999 or through the American Red Cross Website.
A Washington D.C. native, Durant has embraced (and been embraced by) Oklahomans like no other athlete in the state. This donation at such a time of need for so many will only serve to strengthen that bond.
It’s also a reminder that some stars are worth more than every penny a franchise is willing to pay them. Kudos to Durant and the Thunder for stepping up when Oklahomans need it most.
The best part is Durant always does the right thing by his community and never courts the publicity that comes along with it. Good for him and our thoughts and prayers here at the hideout are with the folks affected by this tragedy.
Text “REDCROSS” to 90999 for $10 donation to help tornado victims in #OKC#okwx— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) May 21, 2013
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Zach Randolph has come a long way, baby.
From a 20-year-old, tantalizingly skilled and pudgy rookie reared by the infamous Portland “Jail” Blazers, to the now 31-year-old supremely skilled and pudgy leader of the first Memphis Grizzlies team to play for the Western Conference crown.
Randolph arrived in Memphis in 2009 still the bearer of a bad rap and possibly even a worse rep. Thirty-nine games into his stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, Randolph was moved out to move in, ironically, No. 1 pick and soon-to-become Randolph’s playoff nemesis, Blake Griffin.
Randolph’s third trade in two calendar years — from Portland to the New York Knicks in June 2007; from the Knicks to the Clips in November 2008; and finally from the Clips to the Grizz in July 2009 for Quentin Richardson — has been the tonic for peace and happiness and maturity and some darn good basketball.
Randolph can now boast being a two-time All-Star with Memphis. He’s also an emblematic figure of this blue-collar city and a fan favorite of its hard-nosed citizens, and a loyal teammate that his peers pull for and gush over.
“His career has had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s just evident when you think of being in this moment that not a lot of people get here, and Z is a perfect example of that,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “He’s been in the league so long and done so many great things, he hasn’t had the experience to go to the Western Conference finals or the Finals yet, and so it’s kind of the message that’s being sent around to everybody, and we’re feeding off what Z’s been through and the fact that this could be special.”
Before the low-post — and lower-center-of-gravity — scoring machine arrived in Memphis, his Portland teams had two one-and-done postseasons. The first, as a rookie, he logged one minute. The next season, in 2003, he averaged 13.9 ppg and 8.7 rebounds as those misfit Blazers almost became the first team to come back from a 3-0 hole against the Dallas Mavericks, but they were blown out in Game 7.
He then went six seasons sitting on the postseason sidelines. Now he’s seizing the moment heading to the biggest stage of his career. Randolph is averaging a team-high 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting 51.2 percent as he and low-post partner Marc Gasol get set to face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the West finals Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Along the way, Randolph dominated Griffin in the final four games to dispatch the Clippers in a rugged, emotion-filled, six-game series. He saved his best game so far to eliminate the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in Wednesday’s Game 5, a punishing performance from the jump that ended with 28 points, 14 rebounds and one wide grin.
“This moment means a lot to me,” Randolph said. “I’m happy, but we still have work to do. I want to win a ring.”
Randolph can be the king of colloquialisms when talking about others, such as when he described the defense teammate Tony Allen was applying to Kevin Durant: “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.” The Grizzlies marketing department has crafted slogans and campaigns around Randolph’s colorful descriptors and phrases.
But he’s mostly bland when talking about himself. It’s a subject best left unto others, like Allen.
“I’ve [known] Zach ever since I got in the league, what his skill level was,” said Allen, who joined the Grizzlies a season later in the summer of 2010. “But he was … at first all about going out and getting his. And ever since I got alongside him, he’s done a good job of mixing it up, passing the ball when you don’t have a shot, being more of a vocal leader and just a teddy bear off the court. When I say teddy bear, just a nice guy. He’s the nicest guy in the world. I saw him grow a lot despite what I heard about him previously before I got here.”
“Just rough around the edges, that’s all,” Allen said, chuckling. “But me and him pretty much got the same characteristics. Growing up we overcame a lot. Right now, it’s a big time to do something big and I think that’s what his mindset is right now — trying to do something real big.”
Everything with the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph is big, especially his game. Nicknamed Z-Bo back in middle school growing up in gritty, small-town Marion, Indiana, the southpaw’s game is described as “old-school” or “old man.” That’s because his vertical won’t win him any dunk contests and because he relies more on guile and honed skill than athleticism. Randolph’s excellent footwork makes him quick, agile and unpredictable with his back to the basket. He has tremendous upper and lower body strength to gain position and a sublime touch to finish with short hooks and up-and-under bank shots. And he can always float in fall-away jumpers. His arsenal is a lethal combination of power and finesse that few power forwards today posses.
Just listen to Thunder coach Scott Brooks go on and on when asked to detail the difficulty in defending Randolph in the low post.
“He has relentless determination, he’s an aggressive offensive rebounder and he has so many different shots he can throw at you,” said Brooks, who watched Randolph work over Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Serge Ibaka for 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. “He can face-up and hit a shot; he can drive right with one dribble and the little pull-up off the glass; he goes to the left, to the middle very well, and he has so many different release points. He can score down low at the block. He doesn’t look like he can do it, he just doesn’t have that body that you think that can score, and he doesn’t jump very high, but he has that determination and he obviously has the ability to score.
“He’s a handful.”
Allen calls the whole package “backyard ball.”
“He’s the backyard bully. Welcome to the Z block,” Allen said. “He’s just a monster down there; he’s a load.”
He’s now the responsibility of Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, a tough job compounded by the fact that one of them will be preoccupied with Gasol, also having a brilliant postseason averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg.
The big stage has been a long time coming for Randolph, a player many assumed would have run himself out of the league by now. That’s not the case or even any longer an option. The 12-year veteran has found a home and fulfillment in Memphis.
“He just understands the big picture a little bit better. He understands winning better,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “I think there are lot of good players in this league that have statistics, that have talent, but never win, never understand that it takes more than their 20 points to win; that it takes moving the basketball, it takes playing defense, it takes being a decoy sometimes.
“We just try to challenge him and he accepts being challenged, and he’s risen to the occasion.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Kevin Durant is not getting a pass around here. No excuses, no pardon, exoneration or any other escape hatch for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s failures in these NBA playoffs.
There will be no handouts for Durant or any other superstar who falls down on the big stage. Durant should be held to the same standard all of his contemporaries, past and present, have been held to in the annals of this game. You either win it all or you go home with nothing. It’s a fair trade-off and one that all superstars sign off on when they play.
That said, the rush to judge Durant after he struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies without Russell Westbrook is overcooked dramatically. The Thunder’s 3-6 postseason mark without Westbrook, who saw a torn meniscus in his knee end his season in the first round against Houston, says more about Westbrook’s value to his team than it does about Durant’s inability to lift them up on his own.
This notion that a lone superstar of any ilk will lead his team to a championship is a longstanding myth that needs to be debunked. It almost never happens. Not at the NBA level. Not in the past 40 years or so. The only exceptions to that statement might be the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets of 1993-94 and the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks of 2010.
Magic Johnson didn’t do it alone. Larry Bird didn’t do it alone. Isiah Thomas didn’t do it alone. Michael Jordan didn’t do it alone. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t do it alone. Tim Duncan didn’t do it alone. And the list goes on.
Kobe Bryant had help (in the form of Pau Gasol and others) after serving as Shaq’s superstar partner and LeBron James tried to break the mold in Cleveland, only to find out that he needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to seal the deal.
Contrary to Twitter wisdom, there is no shame in recognizing and realizing that reality. This need for someone to blame when things go wrong isn’t a new phenomenon. But it’s taken on epic proportions in the social media age. That’s why it’s fine to point out Durant’s breakdowns against the Grizzlies without absolving him of all responsibility.
He struggled mightily against a complete team that might not have a superstar of his caliber on its roster but is stronger collectively — something especially true when Durant’s superstar partner is out of commission. Jordan knows that better than anyone, having failed repeatedly against the Bad Boys Pistons before he and Scottie Pippen were able to finally stare down that demon.
Trials and tribulation are generally a prerequisite for NBA championship contention. The Grizzlies served that up aplenty in their conference semifinal conquest. Durant was met with defender after defender. He was the focal point of a Grizzlies defensive attack for which he and the Thunder had no counter-punch.
But that doesn’t mean you write Durant off now, not after all that he’s accomplished before his 25th birthday.
It’s not like he laid down for the Grizzlies anyway. He played 46 minutes a night in the series, averaged 29 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.2 blocks, all done — save for Kevin Martin‘s Game 1 outburst — without any consistent supporting cast assistance. And basically every game went down to the wire. Durant, Westbrook and James Harden barely survived a seven-game series with these Grizzlies a couple of years ago, so there is no shame in falling to them under these circumstances.
To his credit, Durant stood up and accepted all of the blame. He didn’t shirk his responsibility as the Thunder’s leader. And with his track record and work ethic, you know his rigorous offseason routine will be fueled by this most recent failure.
His sudden crowd of detractors will, of course, label him and suggest that he just doesn’t have the fire or mean streak to be a champion because he chose to view this latest setback like the adult that he is. No, it’s not the end of his world. He doesn’t view the entire season as a complete waste of time, like Kobe claims he does when his season ends without confetti and a championship parade.
Save the drama, folks. You don’t have to give Durant a pass … he doesn’t want one and doesn’t deserve one.
Just give him the time to right whatever went wrong.
If he’s half the superstar you thought he was before this postseason, you won’t be disappointed.
OKLAHOMA CITY – One moment, Tony Allen‘s on the bench, ambitiously waving his towel above his head like he’s back at Oklahoma State in the Final Four or something. The next moment, he’s slinking into his chair as Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins glared at him and barked something at him as though Allen had just asked out the coach’s daughter.
“[I said the] same thing I said to him when he didn’t block out [Kevin] Durant on a shot,” Hollins said. “What the hell are you doing?!”
What in the world happened as the third quarter of Wednesday’s Game 5 wound down to five minutes to play, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher shooting a corner 3-pointer in front of the Grizz bench and, out of nowhere, Allen’s blue warmup jersey fluttering five feet into the air and landing five feet out on the court?
“That never happened in my career. It was just a fluke incident,” Allen said, shaking his head. “It (the jersey) was tied up in the towel, and I knew it, but it just slipped. I saw it on the floor. I think I’m the only one that saw it because everybody else had their eyes …”
Allen, who had just subbed out of the game seconds earlier, stopped to sort through the surreal sequence.
“I don’t know, it was just a fluke play man,” Allen said. “I just thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”
Had they not, and they almost did not, there’s no telling what Hollins might have done to his defensive bulldog who had defended Durant so well in helping lead the Grizzlies to a five-game, semifinal playoff victory over the top-seeded Thunder.
Memphis led 60-49 and was in seizing control of the game when Allen’s towel went haywire and spit out his warmup. Fisher’s 3-pointer missed, but the whistle blew the play dead with the foreign object resting on the floor. The ruling: OKC was awarded three points and a technical foul was assessed to Allen for interference. Durant made the free throw for a four-point play without an actual field goal being made.
Now it’s 60-53 and what was a subdued sellout crowd at Chesapeake Arena roared as the Thunder found sudden life.
End of the third quarter.
“Man, I thought when they made that run,” Allen said, “I was saying this is all my fault.”
He probably doesn’t want to know what Hollins was really thinking. When Hollins told reporters what he screamed at Allen, the room chuckled, seeing as all had ended well for the Grizz. But Hollins still didn’t smile and he offered a curt retort.
“That was huge. They counted the three points and then they got a free throw,” Hollins said. “That was a four-point play and from that point on we scored four more points in the quarter.”
Said Allen: “He was pretty upset and I can understand why. I shouldn’t do that as a veteran. It was just a bad play considering what was at stake. That could have come back and haunted us, but for the most part we’re a group that’s together and thank God that he didn’t scold me. But he did tell me to get my head out of my butt and get out there and keep playing.”
Memphis again gained control, going ahead 80-68 with 4:13 to go and the franchise’s first trip to the West finals nearing reality. Then the Thunder charged again.
“I just felt like if I get a chance to go back into this game I want to do something to help the team,” Allen said. “I don’t care what it is.”
And so with 3.3 seconds left in Game 5 and the Grizzlies up two, Allen, a career 74.1-percent career free throw shooter, went to the line for two. Either he ices it or he does the Thunder a second big favor and leaves them one last chance.
Bang and bang.
“Luckily, well not luckily,” Allen said, “thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”
OKLAHOMA CITY – This wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Not this game. Not this series. Not this postseason. Kevin Durant’s historic offensive regular season came to a cringing, clanging conclusion Wednesday night, smothered for a fourth consecutive game by a focused Memphis Grizzlies defense.
Only the sixth player in NBA history to finish a season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from 3-point range and 90 from the free-throw line, Durant went down like this: 5-for-21, 0-for-4 and 11-for-15. Even his auto-dial free throws betrayed him in this series, 13 alone failing to go down in the final three games, likely flattened by fatigue as he played all 48 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 and 229 of 245 in all, and swarmed by defenders to the bitter end.
His first six shots failed to drop in the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder’s 88-84 defeat, just like his last one with 4.9 seconds left. It was a good look from 16 feet away, the kind he makes in his sleep, but this one caught a chunk of rim and had no prayer of rolling through like the mesmerizing, high-bouncing 3 that beat the Rockets in Game 3, the first game OKC played without Russell Westbrook.
And so there will be no Finals return. No revenge matchup against the Miami Heat. And for Durant, at least, there is no remorse, no regret.
“I gave all I have for my team. I left it all out there on the floor,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, kept being aggressive, and that’s all I could ask for. It is what it is. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time. It’s something we’ve got to embrace and get better from. It’s tough to lose your last game in the playoffs so you’ve just got to move on.”
On the other side, Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph came up large in the biggest game of his career. He went to work in the low post early and finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. He missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds to go to leave the door cracked for the Thunder’s late surge that closed an 80-70 deficit to 86-84 and a fifth consecutive game that came down to the wire. (more…)
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 Ibaka, Kevin 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.”
Considering the Thunder’s performance lately, has your opinion changed of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or the Thunder? How?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com:No change in my opinion of Durant: If he is, in fact, the second-best player in the NBA, he’s No. 2 more than 1A. The step down from LeBron James to the Thunder’s quiet leader is considerable and plain to see with Durant thrust into LeBron-in-Cleveland mode. No change in my opinion of Westbrook, an irrepressible talent whose unbridled game is a nice complement to Durant. But slight change in my opinion of the Thunder. With the premature James Harden trade, they had as big a hand in this iffy postseason as fate (Westbrook’s injury) or Memphis. New CBA or not, front offices should worry about the financial feasibility of keeping a championship team together, not getting out front to shed parts from a contender before its time.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com:Not at all. They’re a team missing a vital piece. Nobody ever thought Kevin Durant could carry the Thunder to a championship all by himself. I have been a defender of Russell Westbrook for years and always thought those who believed OKC should trade him couldn’t tell the difference between a basketball and a watermelon. Yes, he exercises poor judgment at times. Yes, he takes wild shots and ignores Durant at times. Yes, he’s a fearless, spectacular talent and KD could crawl across broken glass on a bed of hot coals to have all those “problems” in the lineup with him right now.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: No change here. Kevin Durant has shouldered the weight of the franchise admirably. Since Game 1 he’s struggled in crunch time, but he’s had All-Defensive First-Team member Tony Allen all over him and one of the best defensive teams as a whole doing a great job on him late in games. He’s just missed shots, and some free throws, too, which is surprising, but likely a result of fatigue after going so hard all game. I’ve always been Russell Westbrook-backer. To me the guy’s a bullet train and OKC dearly misses his ballhandling and how he runs that offense. Not to mention, he would take Allen off Durant’s case. The Thunder will be back.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com:It has probably made everyone appreciate Russell Westbrook more. After all the talk in previous years, especially in the playoffs, of being the guy getting in Kevin Durant’s way, now there is proof of what happens when Westbrook really gets out of the way. But the opinion has not changed on Durant. He deserves every positive comment, still.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com:Nope. Durant’s a great player, but nobody can carry a team against a great defense by himself. Westbrook, though he makes some questionable decisions at times, is a huge part of what the Thunder do offensively. And though he’s not the best defender in the world, he’s disruptive (and a lot better than Reggie Jackson) on that end. Durant played 84 percent of his minutes with Westbrook in the regular season, so this is uncharted territory. And it obviously should be no surprise that they’re struggling to score against the Grizzlies, the best defensive team in the Western Conference.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com:There is nothing to change. All we have is confirmation of Thunder’s fans greatest fear, that if one of their superstars goes down the season comes to an end sooner than expected. Durant is still a spectacular player. But the responsibilities without Westbrook around to help do the heavy lifting increase dramatically. Like roughly 28 other teams in the league, the Thunder cannot afford to lose one of their two best players and maintain the same level of play. If anything, I think Westbrook ends up being the beneficiary (strange as it sounds) of his own misfortune with the knee injury. The Thunder are a really good team without him, but not a team capable of finding its way to the championship round. That speaks volumes about his importance to the franchise.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com:The loss of Westbrook hasn’t affected my opinion of him or KD — I always felt the two needed each other and were each others best chance to win a title. If anything I think Westbrook being out has sort of exposed Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin, the two guys who seemed most likely to pick up the scoring slack while Westbrook was gone. Instead, each player’s scoring numbers have stayed flat, which has been disappointing.
Philipp Dornhegge, NBA.com/germany:Not really, no. To me the Thunder always were a two-trick pony, with a bunch of solid-but-not-great role players. Durant and Westbrook both are vital parts of what OKC does and an injury to either one of them was bound to be back-breaking. Westbrook can be a headcase, but that doesn’t take anything away from his talent. And they simply have nobody to replace him. Not after James Harden left. If anything, I was surprised by how great Durant has been as a playmaker rather than the pure scorer that he usually is. He has expanded his game on the fly. Let’s hope he maintains that standard beyond these playoffs. [Philipp Dornhegge is an editor for NBA Deutschland (nba.com/germany)]
Adriano Albuquerque, NBA.com/brasil:Not really. I left the “Russell Westbrook is bad for the Thunder” bandwagon long ago, during the lockout-shortened season. My opinion remains that Westbrook and Durant make a powerful combo, and that the Thunder, when all healthy, are one of the top three teams in the West (if not the entire league). What’s been made even more clear since Westbrook’s injury, though, is they still need more offense from Ibaka and from the bench. Durant is good enough to beat most teams by himself, but even he needs some help against the league’s top defenses. [Adriano Albuquerque is a blogger for NBA Brasil (nba.com/brasil)]
OKLAHOMA CITY – Long before Tony Allen became a fixture on NBA All-Defensive Teams and back when the Oklahoma City Thunder still belonged to Seattle, some Oklahoma basketball fans cheered a hard-scrabble Chicago kid who serendipitously landed in rural Stillwater and has never stopped surviving.
Those Oklahoma faithful might now wish the most influential father figure in Allen’s life, a career college basketball assistant coach named Glynn Cyprien, had never left Oklahoma State to later wind up at the University of Memphis. Because the man who delivered the little-known junior-college guard with a knack for finding trouble to Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2003 also greased Allen’s free-agent signing seven years later, leaving the championship-caliber Boston Celtics for the then-middling Memphis Grizzlies.
“We never would have gotten him without Glynn,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who also has longtime ties to Cyprien. “Tony helped put us over the top.”
Named to a third consecutive All-Defensive Team on Monday and a second consecutive First Team selection, Allen is tormenting overtaxed Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and breaking the hearts of Thunder fans in this semifinal series the Grizzlies lead, 3-1.
Allen and the Grizzlies return tonight to Oklahoma City (9:30 ET, TNT), about an hour drive southwest of Stillwater, to try and close out the reigning-but-wounded Western Conference champs in Game 5.
Memphis had never won a playoff series before Allen signed in 2010. It hadn’t made the postseason since 2006. But this blue-collar bunch, epitomized by Allen’s tireless and genuine grit, is one win away from the team’s first conference final in its 18-year existence.
Allen’s story is all about timing, trust, belief and resiliency. Start with beating back life’s hard knocks — a father in prison, an adolescence set up to be knocked down like bowling pins — with an unbreakable spirit. He’s scraped away at a nine-year NBA career that’s finally in full bloom, having persevered through season after season of seemingly two steps forward, one step back. His is an evolutionary journey of constant self-improvement and forever proving his worth — through six seasons in Boston and, even initially in Memphis under coach Lionel Hollins — just to play.
In his second season at Oklahoma State, Allen carried the Cowboys to the 2004 Final Four as the Big 12 Player of the Year just two years after getting kicked out of his first of two junior-college stops. But that misfortune landed him at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill. That’s where Cyprien was dispatched by Sutton, not to recruit Allen, but to bring back a stud named Antwain Barbour, who would eventually sign with Kentucky and never play a minute in the NBA. It was Allen who kept catching Cyprien’s eye.
“Tony’s statistics weren’t great, but he had an overall good game, he played defense, he ran well and bottom line he was just real tough,” said Cyprien, now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. “When the game got late, he made tough plays.”
It’s his NBA calling card. And Durant and the Thunder are witnesses. Allen tilted the razor-thin margin in this series when Hollins finally called upon the 6-foot-4, self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” to sic the three-time scoring champ in the final three minutes of a nip-and-tuck Game 2. The call could have come in Game 1, when Durant scored 12 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter including the game-winner with 11 seconds to play. But Hollins was sticking to his original declaration that Allen would be no match for the impossibly long Durant.
Allen shrugged and suggested Hollins got desperate as the Grizz were in jeopardy of falling into a 2-0 hole against a team playing without its All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook.
Yet maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be for Allen, nothing ever coming without outside doubt, nothing ever certain, always having to prove himself over again. Even to his coach of three seasons, unless, as Allen was asked after the Game 2 win when he held Durant scoreless in those decisive final minutes, maybe Hollins was trying to inspire him.
“I don’t play mind games. I just go out there and do my job,” Allen said. “My confidence is always sky-high. If you try to limit me, then you limit me. But I will continue to show you that I work and I continue to get better each and every day. Whatever your limitations are on me, I am always ready to prove you wrong.” (more…)