Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’

Morning Shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers find life at top tough | Butler delivers for OKC | Grizz shift into playoff mode | Dragic weighing national team decision | Charlotte hoping for All-Star Game bid

No. 1: Pacers finding life at the top hard — Expect to read more on this today from our Steve Aschburner, who was at last night’s Pacers-Bulls tilt from the United Center. But as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out this morning, the Indiana Pacers — who are just two games ahead of the Miami Heat for No. 1 in the East — have had a rough time since about February of maintaining their torrid early-season winning pace:

Somewhere along the path to a magical season the Indiana Pacers lost their innocence. Now they’re losing their way.Monday night the Chicago Bulls beat the Pacers with one of their signature defense-based wins 89-77, avenging a loss in Indianapolis last week. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games the Pacers have gone down. Previously, they’d lost seven times over a span of 28 games. They didn’t even have their seventh loss of the season until Jan. 8.

“We started off this season so great and we were excited for the end,” Pacers star Paul George said. “But we forgot about the middle and the middle is the toughest part.”

But the Pacers have so far been slow to readjust their comfort zones. Instead, they’ve been slowly getting frustrated with each other in the classic mode of a team that is underachieving.

Several Pacers players have pointed to February when things started turning for them, a month when Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded long-tenured Danny Granger for Evan Turner in an effort to bolster the roster heading into the playoffs. The Pacers’ players, however, were stunned by both moves. Granger’s departure was treated like a mini-funeral.

“Larry is the man is charge,” Hibbert said. “He made the decisions and we have to go out on the floor and figure it out.”

Then, two weeks ago, Bird lashed out publicly at his players and his coach. Vogel has built a reputation for being positive, sometimes coming off as downright cocky. He has an air of assurance about him that he’s passed to his players, the sort of vigor that had them talking about getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference back in the first days of the season.

Though its defense has been a little less consistent than desired in the second half of the season, what is causing the team the most angst is its offense. In losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls in the last few days, the Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in back-to-back games for the first time in seven years.

There are slumps abounding. Over the last 15 games, Hibbert is averaging just nine points and shooting just 44 percent. After he shot 56 percent in February, David West is shooting just 46 percent in March. George is shooting just 37 percent in March and averaging 19 points, well below his season average.

It’s also not hard to miss how annoyed some Pacers are with Lance Stephenson, the young sparkplug guard who was a huge key to their early season. Stephenson has four triple-doubles this season but at times he’s been too focused on getting those stats, robbing rebounds from teammates and generating some frustration.

Other times he flat-out hogs the ball. And while this happens with many players on every team, the tolerance for the younger and rougher Stephenson is much less than for the veterans elsewhere on the roster.

On Monday, Stephenson had no assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss. When he drops his head and ignores open teammates, heads shake and shoulders slump visibly. After averaging nearly six assists a game in the season’s first three months, Stephenson is averaging only three assists over the last two months.

“We have [guys trying to be heroes] at times and we choose the wrong moment at times,” George said.


VIDEO: Pacers players discuss the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

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No. 2: OKC’s bench delivers vs. Nuggets — With their All-Star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as solid contributions from Serge Ibaka — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup never seems to be lacking in scoring punch. But once the bench crew steps into the game, how well OKC’s offense fares can be a game-by-game roller coaster ride. That instability might be nearing its end, though, especially if new addition Caron Butler puts in performances like he had last night against the Denver Nuggets. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more on Butler’s play:

For the final month before the All-Star break, without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant captured headlines with his fantastic play and his team’s surprising success.

But the Thunder’s impressive late January run was about far more than Durant. He was the catalyst, but the consistent roster-wide contributions helped spur the 10-game win streak and the 15-2 close to the first half.

For the first 11 games after the break – an anemic 5-6 run – that was missing. But of late, it has returned, an impressive four-game win streak culminating in a 117-96 domination of the Nuggets on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant, predictably, was the leading scorer with 27. But on a night where he shot below 50 percent (10-of-21), his team shot above it.

Reggie Jackson had an efficient 16 points and 11 assists, needing only six shots. Steven Adams scored in double-figures for the first time since January. And even Nick Collison dropped in 10, including a corner 3-pointer that drew the loudest ovation of the night.

But Caron Butler shouldered the biggest non-Durant end of the scoring load. In 29 minutes, Butler had his best offensive performance since joining the Thunder, going for 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable every single game,” Durant said of the Thunder’s newest member.

But Butler’s most important offensive contribution on this night – and the most encouraging sign moving forward – was his ability to take advantage of mismatches in the low post.

With so much length and size at rare positions, the Thunder forced the Nuggets to throw smaller defenders at Butler. He exploited it on multiple occasions, dropping in easy short range jumpers.

“He had that post-up working tonight,” Durant said. “They have that smaller guy on him, and he takes advantage. That’s what we need him to do.”

On Monday, the Thunder played with the kind of confidence, effort and balance that allowed them to not only survive, but thrive without Westbrook before the All-Star break.


VIDEO:
Reggie Jackson and others discuss OKC’s blowout win against Denver

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No. 3: Grizz getting into playoff mode? — Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have rolled up a 13-5 mark that has included wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Bulls, Bobcats, Blazers and Pacers. After last night’s wire-to-wire drubbing of the faltering Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis has amassed 10 straight wins at FedEx Forum and is looking more and more like a powerful playoff team, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

Memphis’ 109-92 victory Monday night accounted for its 10th straight in FedExForum, and perhaps sent a message to the teams floating around them in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies look like a team that’s moved beyond simply trying to make the playoffs to one seeking to steal a higher seed that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

The Griz improved to 42-28, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for a fourth consecutive season. That, however, is something the Griz expect to make a footnote in this campaign. Memphis sits a half game ahead of Phoenix in the seventh spot and remains within striking distance of the fifth and sixth seeds. The Griz are just 2½ games back from fifth place.

The Griz improved to 31-3 when leading after three quarters while the Timberwolves fell to 3-24 when they trail at the start of the fourth. Minnesota entered the game averaging 106.5 points, fourth-most in the NBA. This was the 11th straight game that the Timberwolves allowed their opponent to score 100-plus points.

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No. 4: Dragic weighing decision on national team – The Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase thanks to the play of star point guard Goran Dragic. It’s been a banner year for the Slovenian standout and while he’s hoping Phoenix can complete its playoff push, he’s still weighing whether or not to suit up for his country’s national team in the World Cup in Spain this September, writes Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

With the Suns enjoying a 6-1 stretch, Dragic’s results are back to the norm of his outstanding season by no coincidence. He is shooting 53.8 percent overall and 46.2 percent on 3-pointers over the past seven games with averages of 18.1 points and 4.7 assists.

The team success makes him feel emotionally better but the physical wear and tear still exists and makes him consider not playing for his Slovenian national team this September at the World Cup in Spain.

“Sometimes, it is too many games,” Dragic said. “I still have to sit down with my national team and talk with them about making a decision if I’m going to play or not. I’m thinking more toward not playing and trying to get my body some rest to be fresher for the next season.

“That is hard because, back home, all the people judge you that you have so much money and you’re a star and now you don’t want to play for the national team. That bothers me a little bit but those people don’t know how the season goes, how many games it is and being in a different hotel every night. I’m more on the plane than in my car.”

Playing for Slovenia when it hosted last summer’s European Championship helped Dragic come into the season in a good rhythm but he is feeling the effects of nine consecutive months of basketball at times as the Suns’ playing time leader and primary point guard most of the season.

“I think I feel pretty good, especially my legs are not so heavy like 15 games ago,” Dragic said. “Even if you’re tired for the last 12 games, you have to go through that and try not to think about it so much.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic lead the Suns to a win in Atlanta

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No. 5: Charlotte needs arena upgrades before it can host All-Star Game — It’s been 23 years and counting since the city of Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game … and it might be a few more years before it gets to host it again. Commissioner Adam Silver was at last night’s Houston Rockets-Charlotte Bobcats game at Time Warner Cable Arena and said while he’s hopeful that a basketball-mad city like Charlotte will host a future All-Star Game, some upgrades to the arena must take place first. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more:

First, he said, the city must upgrade Time Warner Cable Arena, which needs $41.9 million of work, according to a list of needs compiled by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“I’d love to bring the All-Star Game back here,” Silver said before the Bobcats game with the Houston Rockets. “This is a wonderful community, a hotbed of basketball, not just pro but college as well.”

He added: “There are some upgrades to the building that are needed. I know those discussions are underway right now. It’s part of the understanding here that the building remain state-of-the-art. Nothing dramatic is needed. But certainly an upgrade to the scoreboard, some things with the suites and the lighting.”

The Bobcats’ 25-year arena lease calls for the city of Charlotte to keep Time Warner Cable Arena among the league’s most modern. After the first seven years, the lease requires the city to make improvements, so long as half of other NBA facilities have them.

The team has requested money to upgrade suites, overhaul restaurants, build a new play area for children and move the ticket office, among other improvements.

The city said it will scrutinize the list of requests to see what is required under the lease agreement.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said the prospect of hosting the league’s All-Star Game shouldn’t make the city spend more money than necessary.

“The city should only be guided by what it’s obligated to do by way of the agreement,” he said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city must study the “business case” for possibly making additional upgrades to the arena.

“What kind of opportunity will there be (for improving the arena)?” Carlee said.

Silver said awarding the 2017 event should come in about a year. Then he reiterated his link between Charlotte’s chances and those upgrades.

“The team has time,” Silver said. “The first order of priority is making sure the building issues are dealt with.”


VIDEO: Adam Silver discusses what it would take for Charlotte to host a future All-Star Game

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tim Duncan says he’s taking it “game-by-game” about whether or not he’d retire at the end of this season … Five minor investors have been added to the Hawks’ ownership group … The New Orleans Pelicans might have found a go-to combination in the duo of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans … Lakers guard Nick Young says close to $100,000 worth of clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage were stolen from his house during a home game … Good little chat with Steph Curry about his golf game, the Warriors-Clippers rivalry and more … What kind of chance does Mitch Richmond have at the Hall of Fame? Our Scott Howard-Cooper examines it … Former high-flying Raptors swingman Jamario Moon is thinking about an NBA comebackBrandon Jennings is hitting his stride at long last for the Pistons …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes a play can personify the style of play of a team. Such is the case with this defensive sequence by the Bulls and a hustle follow-up jam by Taj Gibson


VIDEO: Taj Gibson follows up the Jimmy Butler miss with a power jam

Examination reveals ‘no issues of concern’ with Westbrook’s right knee

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry bump knees in Toronto

For once Russell Westbrook received good news regarding his troublesome right knee. A comprehensive examination on Saturday that included an MRI revealed “no issues of concern,” according to an Oklahoma City Thunder team representative.

It certainly appeared as though the Oklahoma City point guard might expect the worst. During the third quarter of Friday’s game at Toronto, Westbrook knocked knees with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry as Lowry popped out to guard him at the 3-point arc. Westbrook immediately grimaced, grabbed his knee and slammed the basketball to the floor. He was helped off the court by backup center Hasheem Thabeet and head athletic trainer Joe Sharpe.

Westbrook did not return and suddenly his season and the Thunder’s championship aspirations were put on indefinite hold. Following the Thunder’sdramatic 119-118 double-overtime victory won in the final seconds on a 3-pointer by MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant, who finished with 51 points, Westbrook was more upbeat talking to the media. He said the initial pain made him nervous considering his recent history and that he was “pain free” and “feels good.”

According to the team representative, Westbrook woke up Saturday morning feeling “normal.”

For the Thunder, who sit 1 1/2 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the West entering Saturday’s games, the positive news came as a huge sigh of relief as they enter the final 13 games of the regular season.

Westbrook had just returned from his third operation on the knee on Feb. 20 after missing 27 games. Prior to that he was playing some of the best basketball of his career. Two days after recording a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 25, swelling forced a second arthroscopic surgery. He underwent the first days before the start of training camp due to a loose stitch inside the knee stemming from the major operation to repair the meniscus in late April.

In 37 games, Westbrook has averaged 21.2 ppg, 7.0 apg and 5.7 rpg. He will remain on a minutes restriction he’s adhered to since his return after the All-Star break, and the Thunder will likely continue to hold him out of one game of back-to-back sets.

The Thunder next play Monday at home against Denver and then Tuesday at Dallas.

Morning shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook bangs knee; Durant scores 51 | Gasol leaves in walking boot | Knicks make it eight straight | Nash dishes 11 dimes | Bynum out indefinitely


VIDEO: Closer look at Durant’s 51-point performance

No. 1: Westbrook gets scare, Durant scores 51 — In a wild game at Toronto, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook left in the third quarter after banging knees with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. It was Westbrook’s right knee, the one he’s had three surgeries on since initially tearing the meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs. He immediately reacted to the pain and slammed his palm on the floor. He was assisted off the floor as the Thunder held their breath. More will be known as Westbrook is re-evaluated in Oklahoma City today. The Thunder won the game in dramatic fashion, 119-118, in double overtime. Kevin Durant capped a remarkable night with his seventh 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds to go, giving him 51 points. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has the details:

The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden under his pants.

And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.

“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”

The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.

Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.

“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.

After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.

Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.

Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”

***


VIDEO: Gasol injured in Grizzlies’ loss in Miami

No. 2: Gasol sprains left ankle — Midway through the third quarter, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol hobbled off the floor with a sprained left ankle and left the American Airlines Arena floor in a walking boot. It was a double whammy for the Grizzlies, one of the hottest teams in the NBA since Jan. 1. Not only must they wait and wonder about the health of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, they lost a lead they had held for most of the game as the Heat pulled out the victory. More will be known on the severity of Gasol’s injury, but one thing is certain — Memphis needs its big man in the final month of the regular season to ensure it makes the playoffs, let alone have a chance to return to the Western Conference finals. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:

Memphis’ bigger issue seemed to be executing without Gasol.

The 7-footer left with 6:34 left in the third period. He was hurt earlier on a non-contact play. Gasol appeared to roll his ankle as he turned to run. Gasol left the arena wearing a walking boot and he’ll be re-evaluated Saturday before the Griz face the Indiana Pacers for the second game of a back-to-back.

“It made it tough, but we tried to play small and stretch them out,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “I thought we did a good job of getting it to Zach. He had a heck of a game.”

Gasol had been a force, too, and not just because of his 14 points and six rebounds.

“We were using him to make the second and third pass,” [Mike] Conley said. “He was playing point forward. The whole scheme went through him.”

The game was knotted at 68 entering the fourth quarter after both teams exchanged large scoring runs in the third. Memphis allowed a 12-point advantage to disappear in the final few minutes of the third.

***

No. 3: Knicks keep playoff push alive — The Knicks handed the Philadelphia 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, but the bigger news was that New York kept its playoff hopes alive despite already having 40 losses as the calendar turns to spring. But that’s the beauty of the Eastern Conference, folks. And with the Atlanta Hawks losing, the Knicks moved within three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. And guess what? New York’s upcoming schedule offers even more hope with games against the hobbled Cavaliers and Lakers followed by the Kings. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News has the story:

With new team president Phil Jackson returning to his California home following his triumphant Garden return two nights earlier, the bench nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in a game the Knicks had controlled with five minutes left. But [Mike] Woodson turned back to his first unit in the final 30 seconds, and the Knicks just barely did what they had to do to survive and advance Friday night against a team that now has dropped 23 straight games, holding on for their season-best eighth straight win, 93-92, over the dreadful Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

“We didn’t have no choice at that point. I felt like we had a very comfortable lead. It happened. Them guys never quit,” [Carmelo] Anthony said about having to return to the game after it looked like his night was finished. “You could just see the lead dwindling, possession by possession. You go from up (17) and you look up and we’re only up two with a couple of seconds on the clock, so hopefully we didn’t have to come up with a prayer.”

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No. 4: Nash shines in return — Maybe 40-year-old Steve Nash has something left after all. Fighting injuries all season, the two-time MVP made yet another return Friday night just a week after being declared done for the season. The Los Angeles Lakers still lost to the Washington Wizards, but the aging wizard for L.A. put on quite a show, dishing out a season-high 11 assists to go with five points, four rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes. He came off the bench for the first time since March 9, 2000 with Dallas, snapping a stretch of 975 consecutive starts, reports Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Just to feel good and feel like you can make a play for your teammates and put pressure on the other team and move freely,” Nash said. “It’s why I love this game and that’s why I’ve kept fighting and trying to work in case I got another opportunity.”

Nash said he came out of the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his back but remained hopeful he could play Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Lakers guard Xavier Henry also hurt his left wrist and said he would have an MRI exam on Saturday after X-rays were negative.

Nash made his first appearance since Feb. 11, when he suffered a recurrence of the nerve irritation in his back that has limited him to 11 games this season. There was concern in that Nash might never play another NBA game.

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters March 13 that Nash would not return this season because it didn’t make sense for him to push his 40-year-old body with so few games left.

Then Jordan Farmar strained his right groin in practice Monday, opening the door for Nash.
After entering the game to warm applause late in the first quarter, Nash quickly found Hill for a jump hook and made a couple of behind-the-back passes on the way to collecting five assists in his first six minutes.

D’Antoni said Nash probably would continue to come off the bench unless he “gets to a certain point and gets that good” because of limited practice time and the Lakers wanting to be cautious with his body.

Nash has one more season and $9.7 million left on his contract but could be waived by Sept. 1, allowing the Lakers to spread out his salary over three seasons.

He would prefer to prove over the next month that he’s ready to play one more.

***

No. 5:  Swelling puts Bynum on ice — If the Indiana Pacers truly signed big man Andrew Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, well the Heat’s training staff will probably be sending a thank-you card. Experiencing continued swelling and soreness in his right knee, Bynum will be out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. Bynum signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, but has played in just two games. On a strange note, although not so much when it comes to Bynum, he reportedly got his hair cut at halftime of Friday’s game against Chicago. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more on Bynum’s injury status:

Bynum has played in two games with the Pacers, averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in just under 18 minutes per game.

Though the Pacers expected to play Bynum in short spurts, last Saturday he reached 20 minutes against the Detroit Pistons. Since then, Bynum has been on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, Bynum, who did not participate in practice, said after the session that his swollen right knee needed to be drained.

“This one is a lot more concerning for me because it caused me a lot more fluid,” Bynum said.

Now days later, Pacers coach Frank Vogel answered “no” when asked if there had been any progress with Bynum’s knee since the return from Detroit.

“There’s still swelling,” Vogel said on Friday. “I really don’t have anything new. Other than it’s swollen right now, we’ll give you an update when we’re ready to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat present Mike Miller his 2013 championship ring as Grizzlies visit Miami … Tony Parker says he will play five or six more years with Spurs then play for French team he owns … Andre Miller says Nuggets made him out to be the bad guyKevin Garnett is unsure of return from back spasms … Bobcats ask Charlotte for $34.1 million to improve arena.

OKC’s Westbrook leaves game after knee knock during thriller in Toronto

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

VIDEO: OKC’s Westbrook leaves Raptors game with knee injury

Russell Westbrook‘s season and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship hopes are once again on indefinite hold, hinging on the prognosis of yet another setback to the point guard’s troublesome right knee.

During the third quarter of Friday’s game at Toronto, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently knocked knees with Westbrook  as he came out to guard him at the 3-point arc. Westbrook immediately winced in pain and slapped his palm on the floor. The team’s television broadcast termed it a sprain. Westbrook did not return. More will be known on the severity of the injury Saturday.

His immediate reaction was eerily similar to the initial injury during last season’s playoffs when Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley lunged into Westbrook’s knee as he pulled up to call a timeout near the Thunder’s bench.

That injury tore the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee, ending his season and sending him to the operating table. He underwent a second surgery prior to training camp, and swelling in the knee forced a third procedure two days after he recorded a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day.

Westbrook, who had not missed a regular-season game in his NBA career until this season, was playing in his 11th game back since the third operation. He’s played in 37 of the team’s 69 games, averaging 21.4 ppg, 7.2 apg and 5.8 rpg.

The Thunder return to Oklahoma City Friday night and don’t play again until Monday against Denver.

POSTGAME UPDATE:

 

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?

Morning Shootaround — March 16


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jackson adds legitimacy to Knicks | Thunder plan to rest Westbrook | Sixers’ coach talks rebuild | Vogel inspires comeback

No. 1: Jackson adds legitimacy to Knicks – The New York Knicks have not given up hope that they can land LeBron James, as well as Kevin Love or Kevin Durant, over the next three years. It’s a lofty goal, but one they feel they are better positioned to achieve now with Phil Jackson in the front office. Frank Isola of The New York Daily News has more on the situation:

James Dolan never got over losing LeBron James to Pat Riley and the Miami Heat in 2010. And he swore that it would never happen again.

Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden, believes that to get the superstars you need a star as your closer. The Heat has Riley, and now Dolan has Jackson, the winner of 11 titles as a head coach and two as a player.

The fact that Jackson has never run a front office didn’t matter to Dolan. Nor did the outrageous price tag. It cost Dolan a king’s ransom to convince Jackson to leave his beach house for the shark-infested corporate waters at MSG. But it will be money well-spent if Jackson can land the King as well as Kevin Love or Kevin Durant over the next three years.

Jackson is not in this for the long haul. His plan is to get the Knicks back to an elite status quickly, and the only way to do that is via free agency.

The Knicks can have salary flexibility next summer, when Love and Rajon Rondo are available. Durant is free in 2016.

James can opt out this summer and unless he signs a one-year deal or waits until 2015 to opt out, the Knicks have little chance of landing him.

But Dolan and Jackson can dream big. Heat executives, according to a source, are not convinced that James will stay, though in their heart of hearts they believe he will re-sign. But Jackson’s arrival changes things.

“There’s no way LeBron would have gone to New York under the current climate,” said a James confidant. “He had a falling-out with CAA (agency) and that was a problem as well. But with Phil there I think he will look at it.”

***

No. 2: Thunder plan to rest Westbrook – The Oklahoma City Thunder need Russell Westbrook healthy to have a chance to win their first NBA Championship. The Thunder have already enacted a minutes limitation on Westbrook, and now they will rest him on the second end of back-to-back games for the rest of the season. Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com reports:

Of late, the Thunder has had a relatively cushy schedule, not playing a back-to-back since the start of February. But in the season’s final month, OKC will play six.

And according to Scott Brooks, Westbrook will rest in some, if not all, of those.

“There’s going to be some back-to-backs he’s not going to play,” Brooks said. “We definitely have a plan in place.”

However, Brooks refused to reveal specifics on which games Westbrook would rest.

When asked if he’d play against the Mavericks on Sunday and rest against the Bulls on Monday, Brooks said “we’ll let you know tomorrow”.

“His conditioning is great,” Brooks added. “We just want to get some time, while we still can, where he can rest in between games.”

***

No. 3: Sixers’ coach talks rebuild – It’s no secret the Philadelphia 76ers are rebuilding. The team is currently in the midst of a 20-game losing streak which doesn’t seem to be ending soon and the only glimmer of hope has been rookie Michael Carter-Williams. But this does not worry coach Brett Brown, as he expects the rebuild to take three to five years. Dei Lynam of CSN-Philly has the story:

“Any win that we have going forward would be considered an upset,” Brett Brown said before Saturday’s game. “That is just the way it has played out at this stage and that is true.

“We have no margin for error. A missed box out, playing in a crowd and not seeing a teammate, not managing the clock well — all those tiny things are going to influence whether we win or we lose.”

Brown has never experienced futility of this magnitude anywhere in his career. He doesn’t like losing, nor does he accept it, but he also does not let it define who he is or how he goes about his job.

“I work as hard as I can with my staff,” Brown said. “I love coaching my guys. This is basketball. Let’s put this in perspective: We do our job as hard and as best we can. Life moves on. We have bigger things that we are all here for.

“This is not slit-your-wrist time. This is not even close to that. This is about building a program and understanding the short-term pain for a lot of long-term gain.”

Brown is repeatedly asked if a losing atmosphere will adversely affect the likes of Michael Carter-Williams, Thaddeus Young or any of the other players the Sixers deem as keepers.

“That is the en vogue angle,” Brown said. “I think if you ask Kevin Durant about the 20-win season he had, he seems to be doing just fine. I think when you look at those teams that have had a chance to rebuild, losing is a long-gone memory.

“To truly rebuild and grow something is going to take three to five years. That is just the way it goes. It is too talented a league and too well-coached. The experiences we are going through now will be distant memories when these guys start getting older. They will find positives in this season and Michael Carter-Williams will be better for it.”

***

No. 4: Vogel inspires Pacers – The Indiana Pacers looked out-of-sync for most of last night’s game against the Detroit Pistons. They were down by as much as 25 points in the second quarter, but they fought back to beat the Pistons 112-104 in overtime. Pacers’ players credit their coach Frank Vogel for providing them with inspiration to complete the comeback. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star reports:

Though this was only a Saturday night in March and no team wins championships this soon, as the Pacers fell desperately deeper into a hole against the Detroit Pistons, in their minds, they felt that something special was loosening from their grip. Then, Frank Vogel did something out of character. The smiles and positivity faded into something the Pacers needed and after one of the most honest and scathing halftime speeches in a long time, Indiana responded defeating the Pistons 112-104 in overtime.

The Pacers overcame a deficit that once ballooned to 25 points in the second quarter — on the road — in the second night of a back-to-back.

The ending was just as astonishing, with the Pacers’ defense strangling the Pistons with seven stops in nine overtime possessions, as was the impetus which triggered the best comeback of the season.

There were no flipped tables or needless curse words echoing through the small locker room inside the Palace of Auburn Hills during halftime, but when the Pacers trailed 60-41, Vogel roused his sleepwalkers with the stern reminder of what’s at stake this season.

“Knowing Frank, it was all to light a fuel under us and for me, it worked,” said Paul George, who responded after halftime with 20 of his game-high 30 points, including a third quarter when he swished in jump shot after star-defining jump shot.

“He got into us more so than he has in the past,” recalled Roy Hibbert, who looked like the incredibly shrinking big man before stepping up to hit a tie-breaking free-throw line jumper in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and play stand-up defense in overtime.

For his part, Vogel refused to go into details of his halftime speech. But the players inside that locker room recalled the talk centering on how the Pacers were throwing away an opportunity. For so long they boldly proclaimed the goal in achieving the No. 1 seed, then backed away from talking about it so publicly, only to be reminded by Vogel on Saturday that that’s why this random night mattered.

“He came in fired up and I felt his energy and this whole locker room felt that energy and came out and made a change,” George said.

“(Vogel) motivated us and long story short, he just talked about what’s at stake and us controlling our destiny,” George continued. “Every game counts and this game, at that point, was getting away from us. So we had to just look within ourselves and figure this out.”

And they did.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah will receive a $500,000 bonus if he makes first-team All-NBA. … Andre Drummond left last night’s game against the Pacers with a head injury. … Paul Pierce mocks Trevor Booker. … Jimmy Butler is still recovering from being run in to by LeBron.

ICYMI of the Night: Paul George is rarely on the receiving end of a put-back dunk. But last night Jonas Jerebko of the Detroit Pistons showed George what it’s like with this monster jam.


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Jonas Jerebko

Butler talks Thunder, titles and KD


VIDEO: Caron Butler talks about joining the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – Birthdays present the perfect time to reflect on the past and look toward the future. It’s especially true for Caron Butler, who celebrates his 34th birthday today as a happy new member of the Oklahoma City Thunder following an unpredictable upheaval of a summer in which he was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Phoenix Suns and then to his hometown Milwaukee Bucks.

In his 12th season, Butler’s career has certainly taken a winding path since the Washington Wizards traded him to the Dallas Mavericks at the 2010 deadline. He won a ring with the Mavs in 2011 although he watched it all behind the scenes while he relentlessly rehabbed — but could never make it back — from a gruesome knee injury earlier in the season.

The quest to make another championship run was at the root of Butler’s request for a buyout from the foundering Bucks. Then, in another unexpected turn, Butler chose to head west to join Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City when so many seemed to believe he would go east with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2002.

Butler sat down with NBA.com following Tuesday’s Thunder victory against the Houston Rockets in which he contributed salty defense, 11 points (including three 3-pointers) and five rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. In four games with the Thunder, Butler has helped fill the void left by injured starting shooting guard and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha.

In short time, Caron Butler is impressed by teammate Kevin Durant. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

In short time, Caron Butler has been impressed by new teammate Kevin Durant. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

NBA.com: First off, you’ve only played in 38 games between Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. How is your health?

CB: I had a bad ankle sprain earlier in the season so that bothered me a little bit. But coming here and getting in a routine really helped.

NBA.com: A lot of people seemed to think you would go to Miami. Why did you choose OKC?

CB: I’m playing. I looked at it as an opportunity to play and play for a great organization. I looked at the pieces and I knew that I fit in with this group.

NBA.com: Thunder head athletic trainer Joe Sharpe held a similar position at UConn when you played there. Was that a factor in your decision?

CB: It had a lot to do with it. He took care of me a lot at the University of Connecticut, so to link back up with him, I knew I was in good hands from a physical standpoint.

NBA.com: You moved your family to L.A. and then Phoenix to Milwaukee. Will they come with you to Oklahoma City?

CB: It was an easy move to Milwaukee because I already had a house there, about 10 minutes away from the practice facility. They’re staying there. The kids are in school and everything. They never got in school in Phoenix.

NBA.com: What does it means to be on a team considered a favorite to get to the NBA Finals, and this time, knock on wood, be able to compete?

CB: It means a lot. Looking back at so many opportunities in my career and great organizations I played for, to be healthy and to be going into this run means a whole lot. I’m going to give whatever I have physically, mentally, to put us over the hump and just keep us moving forward. I love the position we’re in and I’m excited about the future.

NBA.com: How do you view the 2011 title? You got the ring, but didn’t play that season after the Jan. 1 knee injury.

CB: It felt good, but at the same time that was one that I got obviously when I wasn’t healthy. You know I got the No. 2 on my [Thunder] jersey — I’m chasing No. 2. It would mean a lot to be a part of this team and this young group. That’s what it’s about, winning. Obviously we don’t talk about championship and everything, but it would mean a lot to me just to be on that stage.

NBA.com: You’ve come in and averaged 26.8 mpg. Any surprise that you’ve garnered that playing time so quickly?

CB: Unfortunately Thabo went down. When I signed, he went down the next day so it was just a situation where coach put me in the rotation coming off the bench and there was a need for a little experience out there.

NBA.com: Was your production in the win against the Rockets Tuesday indicative of what you think you can deliver: defensive intensity, 3-point shooting, a little rebounding?

CB: I’m just going to be aggressive on the defensive end, space the floor; obviously they’ve got a great thing and a great chemistry and I’m just finding my way and trying to do the little things that matter.

NBA.com: It’s only been four games, but what’s it like to play with Kevin Durant?

CB: Him and Russell [Westbrook], man, they’re amazing. I played with some great players and he’s one of the best scorers I’ve ever played with. And you know he’s a willing passer, too. That says a lot about him at this point of his career, a young guy who’s a superstar that is willing to pass the ball and make other people better. Now, at this point in his career, that’s amazing.

Blogtable: Contenders’ concerns

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Contenders’ concerns | What can Phil do? | Which team is better?



VIDEO: The GameTime crew examines the Thunder’s defensive problems

> Rank by level of concern for their recent play (most to least): Heat, Pacers, Thunder. Why?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Ranking those three, I go Pacers, Thunder, then Heat. Miami figured to fiddle around with the regular season regardless, relatively speaking, and might have been wishing Indiana hadn’t even come back to within striking distance, just so they wouldn’t have to bother chasing. The Heat have what’s left of the regular season and then the first round to ramp up toward another title defense. Oklahoma City has a good excuse for its churning – it is working back in an All-Star and one of the best athletes in the game. Russell Westbrook is an asset, not a liability, but he does require a period of adjustment for that team. The Pacers, meanwhile, put themselves in a potential psychological box by turning the No. 1 seed into the Grail – woe is them if it eludes them. As it is, they’ve got to find another mental and physical gear, with a couple of parts (Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum) entirely new to their attack and their chemistry. Seems like a lot.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Oh boy, a 3-for-1 hit on the panic button! First, let’s stop and consider that when we get to the conference finals in a few months, these are three of the four teams that will be there.  So please, Blog Master, breathe into a paper bag and stop hyperventilating.  OK, now we’ll play the game: No. 1 on the list of worries is the Pacers.  I have always had a question about whether they can score enough points to win a championship, and the addition of Evan Turner to the rotation has so far not helped one bit.  If they can’t get back to being the tough, hard-nosed defensive team they were in the first half of the season, quite simply, no rings. No. 2 is the Thunder, but you have to factor into their recent slump the absence of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins to injuries. We’ll assume they’ll be fit for the playoffs, so no worries. No. 3 are the Heat.  Because they are the Heat. Because LeBron is LeBron. Because the constant rush to push them over the edge is downright silly.

Paul George (Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

Paul George (Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comThe Pacers most concern me. Why? They can’t score. Their offense is painful at times. They play slow and spend a lot of time pounding the rock and often don’t get anything decent until late in the shot clock. And hey, I like Paul George, but he’s not LeBron or KD, two guys that can torch anybody, anytime at anywhere on the court with the ball in their hands. If Indiana’s defense is not locked in, which it has not been during this skid, they are susceptible to going down hard against high-octane, efficient offenses. Next, the Thunder. Their defensive issues are concerning, but they’re also missing their perimeter stopper, Thabo Sefolosaha, and their brutish center, the Rodney Dangerfield of the league, Kendrick Perkins. Even without those guys, OKC needs to take a hard look at its fourth-quarter defense. It’s been a joke and continues to cost them games. The Heat concern me least. My opinion is LeBron’s been flat-out exhausted coming off a long road trip interrupted by the business of the All-Star break followed by more road games. I don’t really worry about the Heat. They know what’s up.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comThunder, Pacers, Heat, with Indiana/Miami essentially a tie. And it doesn’t matter one bit. A month from now? Yes. Early March? Not so much. The only thing being proven now is that there is no perfect team, and that was already clear. The Thunder aren’t healthy, so this really isn’t the right time for snap judgements. And while the turnover problems are a concern, that has been an issue for years.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com1. Indiana.  2. Oklahoma City 3. Miami. Even with Paul George playing as well he was early in the season, the Pacers weren’t a very good offensive team. Now both George and Roy Hibbert are struggling, their defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was early on, and they’ve lost their grip on the top seed in the East. The Thunder should be concerned about their defense, especially since there’s no guarantee that Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins will return in a timely manner or at 100 percent. The Heat haven’t been consistent enough defensively either, but they’re the champs, they’ve been better on that end of the floor when Dwyane Wade has played, and they already have four wins against winning teams since the All-Star break, twice as many as the Thunder (two) and Pacers (zero) combined.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comFirst is the Pacers. They are the group with the most glaring wild cards (still developing superstars and stars, transition time for newcomers Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum and the most fragile championship construct). They are finding out the hard way just how difficult it is to be a championship-level team from start to finish, something very few teams can handle. The Heat didn’t even finish the deal the first time around. Second is the Thunder. With the Russell Westbrook factor and injuries to Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, there is reason for pause, even if it’s just temporary. Third is the Heat. They’ve shown us the past two seasons that they are capable of rebounding from whatever adversity there is and handling it in their own way.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogI’ll go Pacers, then Thunder, then Heat. To work in reverse, as I’ve said before, the Heat strike me as the type of team that understands their limitations and are focused only on June and the NBA Finals. They may lose a game here and there, but as long as they’re ready this summer, that’s all that matters. To me the Thunder struggling of late isn’t as much about Westbrook assimilating but the loss of Perkins and Sefolosha. They already work with such a thin bench, to be without two starters is really tough. As for Indy, that’s the team I’m most concerned with. I know they’re trying to work in their own new guys (Turner, Bynum), and perhaps we’re just seeing a bit of boredom/insolence work its way out of their systems, but as a group that hasn’t been to The Finals, to me they’re the one team of these three with something to prove. They can’t afford to coast.

Iñako Díaz-Guerra, NBA EspañaIndiana, Oklahoma City, Miami. We all know that Miami in the regular season is like a clever but lazy student: he’s going to be fine when final exams arrive. And OKC, well, they have key injuries and Westbrook is still shaking off the rust, but he’s better every day. But the Pacers, well, that’s another story because taking the first seed in the East is crucial for them and, perhaps, we underestimated the importance of Danny Granger as a leader of such a young team. They need to wake up soon.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Pacers, Heat, Thunder. They all got back to their winning ways, but it’s Indiana that still seems to struggle. The Pacers’ offense looks shaky and they seem to can’t wait for the playoffs. The Heat have holes and I’ve stated numerous times that reaching four Finals in a row is a tough task. I’m not sure if LeBron will be able to save them this year. OKC has been my Finals pick all year and I’m sticking with them. The win against Houston was impressive and I see no reason to believe that they’re not the favorite to win the West.

Morning Shootaround — March 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks, Jackson have agreement in place | Report: Kobe done for 2013-14? | Westbrook, OKC stymie Beverley, Rockets | Noel unlikely to suit up this season | Bynum impresses in Pacers debut

No. 1: Report: Knicks, Jackson have agreement in place — In the case of Phil Jackson returning to the NBA in a front-office role with the New York Knicks, it looks like all that needs to happen next is a news conference date and time. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Jackson and Knicks officials have agreed to a deal in principle and all that’s left is to have loose ends tied up by each sides respective legal teams. The news that Jackson and the Knicks had a deal was reported yesterday by ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, but Berman provides additional details on the move:

Phil Jackson has reached an agreement in principle to oversee the Knicks basketball operations and “president’’ will be in his title, according to a league source.

All that’s left is the lawyers finalizing the last contract details by week’s end before Jackson officially returns to the organization that drafted him and where he won two titles as a player.

The Post has learned Jackson gave the Knicks a verbal commitment on Saturday. The Garden still will not comment on Jackson’s status.

Knicks president/general manager Steve Mills will remain on board in a revised role and work with Jackson. Knicks owner James Dolan hired Mills because of his vast network of contacts with NBA agents and GMs. That isn’t the strong suit of Jackson, winner of 11 titles as coach of the Bulls and Lakers.

Some issues during the last couple of days revolved around his living arrangements. Jackson lives in Marina Del Rey, Calif., with his fiancée, Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Jackson is expected to live in New York during the season, but do some commuting. Buss visits New York on business periodically.

Jackson has spoken fondly about his mentor, former Knicks coach Red Holzman, who Jackson said was the reason he wanted to get into coaching.

“There’s no doubt Red took special affection toward our relationship,” Jackson told The Post in 2004, when he was about to break Red Auerbach’s coaching-title record. “He always called me after a winning season. When it was Bulls-Knicks in the conference finals, he always made a point of seeking me out, right up until the end. I’m sure he’s somewhere up there smiling down.”

Now it appears Jackson will attempt to help resuscitate a Knicks franchise that has collapsed this season. The Knicks began to rebuild in 2008 to get under the salary cap in an attempt to sign LeBron James.

Apart from last season’s No. 2 seed, the results didn’t materialize, with the Knicks a long shot to make the playoffs and looking to rebuild again with Carmelo Anthony as their centerpiece. Anthony is a free agent this summer and doesn’t know Jackson well, but Jackson has 11 championship rings with which to woo Anthony.

Jackson does have experience building an NBA roster. Before his coaching exploits with the Bulls and Lakers, he worked for five seasons in the defunct CBA in Albany, where he constructed fluctuating rosters in a chaotic environment.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the pending union between Phil Jackson and the Knicks

***

No. 2: Report: Kobe done for the season? — Perhaps the one thing Los Angeles Lakers fans had to hold on to in this abysmal season for them was seeing Kobe Bryant suit up for the last handful of games. Apparently, not even that is going to happen, writes Kevin Ding of BleacherReport.com. Our own Sekou Smith breaks down the news that Bryant is likely to be officially shut down for all of 2013-14 by the end of the week:

Kobe Bryant‘s 2013-14 season is soon to be declared officially over after just six games. All that’s left is the word from either Kobe or the Los Angeles Lakers, according to a report from Bleacher Report columnist Kevin Ding.

It’s yet another blow in a season full of them for Lakers fans, who have been reeling since last summer when Dwight Howard bolted from the scene via free agency for Houston. Bryant missing the remainder of the Lakers’ season, though, is just the latest dagger

Some of us have been calling for Bryant, as well as Steve Nash, to punt the remainder of this injury-plagued season for a while now. There’s nothing that can be salvaged from the wreckage of the tire fire that has gone on since last summer. Not even a few late-season appearances from one of the most beloved Lakers of all time.

When the trade deadline came and went last month and Pau Gasol was still a part of the team, it was clear that the Lakers were waving the white flag on this season and preparing for the future with a healthy Bryant as the centerpiece.

The timing of this pending announcement comes during the same week former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who joined forces with Bryant for five of his 11 titles as a coach, is set to be announced as the basketball operations chief (the title is reportedly still being negotiated) of the New York Knicks.

The Lakers chose Mike D’Antoni as their coach last season over a third round of Jackson, who has chosen not to return in that capacity this time around.

Bryant apparently won’t come back in any capacity this season, either. All that’s left is the official announcement, which could come before the end of the week.

***

No. 3: Westbrook, OKC get better of Beverley and Rockets — Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley has made a name for himself on the court this season for his defensive grit and all-out energy ways. He’s made one off the court, too, both this season — and in the past. Just yesterday, we pointed out how Beverley had taken some verbal shots at Portland Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard by saying that he ‘whines’. Perhaps what Beverley is best known for — other than his play this season and some of his chatter — is that he was the player who tried to steal the ball from Russell Westbrook as Westbrook was calling a timeout during last season’s OKC-Houston playoff series. That move played a part in Westbrook suffering a string of right knee injures that has had him in and out of OKC’s lineup all season. A similar incident took place last night, as our Jeff Caplan reports, but in the end, Westbrook and OKC prevailed:

Loud City vented on the Rockets’ alley cat of a point guard Patrick Beverley, who returned to the scene of the crime for the first time Tuesday night bearing no remorse, no regrets and certainly no apologies.

He did come looking to scrap and claw and needle his nemesis Russell Westbrook, and it took only 44 seconds into it for the lid to pop off with the first of three intense entanglements between the two before this wild and woolly game throughout, won by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 106-98, was barely seven minutes old.

With six minutes to go in the opening quarter, Beverley solidified his role as No. 1 villain in these parts with a bold, deja vu move, running up on Westbrook as the Thunder point guard dribbled toward the OKC bench to call a timeout, just as he had done in that fateful Game 2 of the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Instead of Beverley going low as he did last April, a move that tore the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and landed him on the operating table — and then back there twice more — and OKC’s championship dreams on life support, Beverley went high, practically body bumping Westbrook and planting both his palms on Westbrook’s chest.

Westbrook bowed up, Beverley didn’t back down and tempers revved on both sides. The officials huddled and emerged with a technical foul on Beverley.

Was the ballsy play a message from Beverley?

“No, no messages,” the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder said. “That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles out there today, just try to go out there and fight and do what I do to try to help my team win a basketball game today.”

It was Westbrook’s night, facing Beverley again, staying cool when the Houston guard tried to stir it up and producing a mostly composed effort that included no turnovers in 15:31 of action in the second half. Before and after the game, Westbrook was short on words, saying he held no grudges, that he’s only out to win. His coach, Scott Brooks, had more to say.

“You guys know I love Russell, and this is why I really love him — he doesn’t like the 58 point guards that he plays against,” Brooks said. “He’s not out there to make friends, he’s not out there to be anybody’s buddy and he competes with everything he has in his body. He’s about playing the right way, about playing a game that we as a coaching staff, as fans, as an organization can be proud of. And that’s what he does every single night. I will never ever think anything else that he does, he just plays the way it’s supposed to be played.”

What did Brooks think about Beverley lunging at Westbrook near the sideline again?

“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said. “There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game and I’ll just leave it at that. I’m not worried about what they do and don’t do. I’m worried about what we do.”

It made this third consecutive win over the Rockets this season all the more impressive. Dwight Howard, up against rookie Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, had just nine points and 10 boards. Ibaka had 12 points and 16 rebounds. Newly signed Caron Butler, who has quickly supplanted youngster Jeremy Lamb, brought spurts of tenacious defense plus 11 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.

There was no doubt Beverley came in bearing fangs, but Westbrook ultimately provided the much bigger bite.


VIDEO: Westbrook, Beverley get physical in first half during a timeout call

***

No. 4: Despite tweet, Noel unlikely to play this season — Just two days ago in this very space, we informed you of a tweet by injured Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel that simply read “4-14-14″ and led some to believe that he would make his NBA debut on that date. However, that may not be the case, reports Marc Narducci of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as team officials reportedly are not counting on Noel suiting up at all this season. Despite that news, Noel continues to practice with the team and took part in four-on-four drills yesterday, too:

Rookie center Nerlens Noel continues to impress observers in the closed-door sessions during 76ers practices.

Though a source with knowledge of the situation doesn’t expect Noel to play this season as he recovers from last year’s knee surgery, all who see him are encouraged about what he will bring to the future.

On the one-year anniversary of knee surgery, Noel remains a mystery, at least to the public.

The team sees him every day and considers him and rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams the foundation of what is hoped will be a promising youth movement.

The Sixers say that Noel isn’t obligated to talk to the media until he goes through five-on-five full-court workouts.

Others are more than willing to act as a mouthpiece.

“He is one of the quickest guys I have seen off his feet,” forward Thaddeus Young said after Tuesday’s practice.

As for Noel’s recent tweet of “4-4-14″ that supposedly means he would like to play on April 4 at Boston, coach Brett Brown said he hasn’t brought it up to his rookie and he won’t.

“I have purposely ignored it,” Brown said.

***

No. 5: Bynum impresses in Indiana debut — One of the best ways to endear oneself to a new basketball team is with rebounding, defense and some occasional offense … and that’s exactly what Andrew Bynum provided in his Pacers debut last night against the Celtics. The former Cavs, Lakers and Sixers center finished with 10 rebounds, clogged up the paint on defense and had nine points to boot while showing flashes of his All-Star form at times. While he’s still rusty and getting acclimated to his new NBA home, he made a solid impression on his teammates, writes Phil Richards of The Indianapolis Star:

Just for starters, and this was one, Andrew Bynum and Indiana appeared to be a good match. The Pacers are 1-0 with him in uniform, a convenient 94-83 whipping of the Boston Celtics that broke a four-game losing streak.

“I felt great. Couldn’t do anything wrong today,” the 7-foot, 285-pound strongman said after working the Celtics for eight points, 10 rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “All the rebounds came my way and I just grabbed them.

“Looking forward to the next game.”

He had impressed in recent practices but his teammates were eager for a real look. So was the sellout crowd of 18,165. It welcomed him warmly.

Bynum didn’t disappoint. He pushed around the Celtics not-so-big big men, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger. Mostly, he rebounded. And rebounded. And rebounded.

“He did well, not forcing anything, playing a dominant, smash-mouth type of play,” Pacers guard George Hill said.

“There’s not much on the court he didn’t do for us tonight,” Pacers wing Paul George said. “He really did a great job of controlling the paint, on the boards, and offensively, he was huge.”

Bynum, 26 is a seven-year veteran who earned a reputation for being immature at times, even indifferent. After sitting out the entire 2012-13 season because of his aggrieved knees, he signed as a free agent with Cleveland during the offseason.

He played only 26 games before the Cavaliers suspended him, then traded him to the Chicago Bulls, who released him Jan. 7.

When the Pacers signed him it prompted concerns not shared by management that he might adversely impact team chemistry.

So far, so good.

“He’s really bought into the whole locker room,” George said. “He’s been a great teammate.”


VIDEO: Andrew Bynum talks after his debut with the Indiana Pacers

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Durant plays coy about the whole beef between him and rapper Lil B … Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs can see that Tony Parker‘s break during the season is starting to pay off now … Golden State recalled Nemanja Nedovic from the NBA D-League yesterday … Detroit showed some rare defensive chops in toppling Sacramento last night … Great look from the always solid Jason Quick of The Oregonian on LaMarcus Aldridge’s impact on Portland’s playoff hopes

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Whether they like it or not this week, a bunch of notable players (we’re looking at you Corey Brewer, Taj Gibson and Dwight Howard) will probably find themselves on Shaqtin’ A Fool after spectacular on-court fails like these …


VIDEO: Corey Brewer blows a breakaway dunk


VIDEO: Taj Gibson gets rejected by the rim on a power jam


VIDEO: Dwight Howard throws a perfect pass … to an out-of-bounds Omer Asik

Blogtable: How Do You Pick This MVP?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Deciding factor, KD vs. LBJ | Next step after preps | Remembering Nash



VIDEO: Greg Anthony, Chris Webber and Ernie Johnson break down the MVP race

What will be your deciding factor in picking between Kevin Durant and LeBron James for MVP? Are there any other contenders?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: It’s a two-man race. And ultimately, it’s going to come down to their team’s regular-season records and playoff seeding. The rest of the criteria might cancel itself out: James has his reputation as the NBA’s best player working for him, while Durant gets handicapping points for Russell Westbrook‘s long absence. Durant might win another scoring title, while James draws raves for his shooting percentage. One of them might slip below 30.0 on the PER scale, which could swing votes of the numbers crunchers. One still might (knock on wood) get laid up by an injury. But when the smoke clears, the Thunder or the Heat will have the better record and berth, and that team’s guy will be the MVP.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: In a beauty contest that might be like choosing between Charlize Theron and Halle Berry — there are definitely no losers — overall team performance will likely tip the scales. The fact that Russell Westbrook has missed exactly half of the schedule and yet Kevin Durant has the Thunder positioned to win the No. 1 seed in the West, and maybe overall in the NBA, means K.D. has done more heavy lifting. Those two are separate from the pack of contenders.

Durant, James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

Durant, James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The deciding factor will be which player, KD or LeBron, shines the brightest down the stretch. What we see last sticks, and that’s the way it will be with the voters. Blake Griffin should be in the running. The Clippers were without Chris Paul for six weeks, J.J. Redick‘s been hurt for two extended stretches and they have some real deficiencies on the wing. But right now it’s KD’s and LeBron’s universe.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: This will probably be business as usual — player performance (meaning both avoiding a collapse) plus team success (ditto) plus big individual moments (see: LeBron James, Monday, Miami). Injuries to teammates are the potential X-Factor. Durant obviously got a bump when he carried the Thunder in Russell Westbrook’s absence. Those stretches, taking on adversity, can matter. People notice MVP play more in the challenging situations. And, no, no one else is in the running.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Once you figure out who the top candidates are via the standings and overall production, then the impact each guy has on his team numbers should be considered. Durant currently has the edge there, mostly because the Heat defense has been much better with James off the floor. And no, there is no other candidate. Kevin Love’s team (and defense) isn’t good enough, Chris Paul’s team played well with him out, and Paul George has Roy Hibbert anchoring that No. 1 defense.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The efficiency of both players this season makes it extremely difficult to separate them. In fact, I don’t know that there is way to separate them statistically. They’ll both have individual numbers that are unparalleled by anyone else in the league. Their teams will finish at or near the top of the standings in their respective conferences. And their impact on games on a nightly basis is undeniable. Like any good race, this one comes down to who finishes stronger. There is enough time left in the regular season for one of these guys to create enough space to win the MVP on finish alone. And there will still be a vigorous debate about whether the right man walked away with the hardware. And if they both shut it down today, I’m not sure anyone else could lay legitimate claim to the MVP.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: In my mind it’s down to to two, LBJ and KD. What makes the MVP voting so interesting is that the criteria is so undefined. For me, I try to look at the totality of the player’s value to his team. So that means offense, defense, leadership — the total package. At this point I have no idea who I’ll be voting for, just that it’ll be either a guy known for two initials or one initial.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: It will be in the crunch of the numbers. Whoever gets a small but decisive edge on any of the major stats, maybe on the modern “analytical” categories, will take it. Right now, I’m leaning on consistency, record, PIE and PER — and all of those still favor, by a slim margin, KD.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: It’s “unfortunate” for the rest of the league that these two players are so extraordinarily good. Guys like Paul George, Steph Curry or Blake Griffin probably won’t get a single vote when it’s time to determine the MVP. Between the two megastars, I think it will ultimately come down to their respective team’s playoff positioning. OKC is primed for the top spot in the West, while Miami is in a battle with Indy. That’s why KD is my favorite right now.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: Every race must have its underdog. Sure thing: LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the favorites to win it, and to be honest nobody thinks that there is another player that can steal their thunder. But – here comes the but – it is not fair to Paul George and the Pacers to take him out of the picture. His team is leading the NBA standings! So, despite how slim his chances are, you cannot leave him out.