Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’

Westbrook eyes All-Defensive team

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Preparing for Heat-Spurs Finals clash

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook showed throughout the playoffs that when he puts his mind to it, with his quickness and size — 6-foot-3 and 200 rock-hard pounds — he can be an elite defender.

During the Oklahoma City Thunder’s exit interviews on Sunday, one day after being eliminated from the Western Conference finals, Westbrook said the impact of his defense during the playoffs showed him he can bring a more intense disposition to that end of the floor more consistently.

He said he’s eyeing an All-Defensive team selection next season, even if he’s a bit miffed as to the criteria to qualify for the honor.

“The way the defensive team is made now,” Westbrook said through a series of chuckles, “it’s based on, I guess if you steal the ball, or, I don’t know how it’s made up because, to me, you know, there should be guys on the defensive team that should be on there; there’s guys that should not be on it. If people watch the games, then they will know those things.”

Westbrook’s comment came the day before the NBA announced its All-Defensive first and second teams. He didn’t name names, and it’s not known if he might have gotten an early glimpse at the selections. A three-time All-Star (who would have made it four consecutive appearances if not for a right knee injury) and a three-time All-NBA second-team selection, Westbrook has never made an All-Defensive team in his six seasons in the league.

This year he received just five total votes — fourth on his own team — with one for the first team. The voting panel consisted of 123 writers and broadcasters from the United States and Canada. Teammate Serge Ibaka was named to the first team, Kevin Durant received 10 total votes with one for the first team and Thabo Sefolosha received eight votes, including one for the first team.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul secured his sixth All-Defensive team appointment and his fourth — and third in a row — on the first team. Paul, who received the most votes among guards, happened to be the league-leader in steals (2.5 per game). Westbrook finished tied for fourth (1.9), which also tied his career-high from 2010-11.

Golden State Warriors wing Andre Iguodala (148 total votes, 57 first team) made his second appearance on the All-Defensive team and first on the first team.

Westbrook’s 2.16 steals per game in the playoffs was second to Paul’s 2.85, but Westbrook’s strong two-way play against the Clippers in the second round helped to knockout Paul in the second round.

“Coming out of college, I take it personally, coming in and defending every night based on who I’m guarding,” Westbrook said. “And obviously through the playoffs you can see it a lot more through [each] series. You can see how much it can impact the game, and I’m definitely going to make more of an effort. That has to start next year to go throughout the season.”

The two second-team guards were Chicago’s Jimmy Butler (29 first-team votes) and Westbrook nemesis Patrick Beverley (44 first-team votes) of the Rockets. He made the team for the first time in his second season.

Beverley careened into Westbrook’s right knee during the first round of last year’s playoffs trying to make a steal as Westbrook slowed up near the Thunder bench to call timeout. Westbrook tore his meniscus on the controversial play and was out for the remainder of the playoffs. Two additional surgeries were needed in early October and then late December, limiting him to 46 games this season.

It was easily the most challenging season of Westbrook’s career. He had never missed a regular-season game until the 2013-14 opener. After a quick return early in the the season, he was playing some of the best basketball of his career just prior to undergoing a third surgery days after Christmas. He returned after the All-Star break in late February and was on a minutes restriction up until the end of the regular season.

Westbrook, 25, still finished the regular season averaging 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. He boosted each category during the playoffs, averaging 26.7, 8.1 and 7.3.

“Thinking positive thoughts take you a long way, I constantly say that,” Westbrook said. “You can easily be down on yourself when you have surgeries, injuries, have bad games, anything. You can easily think to yourself that you did something wrong or you can’t do it. And, you know, the whole time throughout the season — I’ve never been hurt — it was different for me, but I stayed positive.”

Now he plans to get defensive.

Morning Shootaround — June 3


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses how the Heat and Spurs are preparing for The Finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks plan to talk to Fisher soon | Rondo:  No Celtics ‘pitch’ to Love | Report: Pistons nearing deal to make Bower GM | Report: Jazz to interview Griffin, Snyder again

No. 1: Report: Knicks to talk with Fisher soon; Lakers cooling on him as coach — After Oklahoma City lost in Game 6 of the West finals, Thunder backup point guard Derek Fisher didn’t sound like he was as ready to make the jump into NBA coaching as most thought he’d be. As such, the teams most associated with being interested in him — the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers — backed off a bit to allow him time to decompress after OKC’s loss. The Knicks, according to Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, remain interested in Fisher and plan to talk with him this week about their opening. Out in L.A., though, interest in the ex-Lakers fan favorite may be cooling, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

Here’s Stein & Shelburne on the Knicks’ pursuit of Fisher:

Phil Jackson‘s first substantive chat with Derek Fisher about the New York Knicks’ coaching job is scheduled to take place this week, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com Monday that Jackson is planning to connect with Fisher by week’s end, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder guard some time to decompress after his team was eliminated by San Antonio Saturday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

One source cautioned that the discussion shouldn’t be classified as a formal interview, given the long and close working relationship between Jackson and Fisher during their two stints together as coach and player with the Los Angeles Lakers. But another source close to the process told ESPN.com that he thinks Fisher will ultimately find the allure of coaching in New York under Jackson too difficult to pass up.

As ESPN.com reported May 19, Jackson essentially put his coaching search on hold to wait to speak to Fisher first after missing out on initial top target Steve Kerr, who spurned the Knicks to coach the Golden State Warriors.

Fisher said Sunday he remains undecided about retirement, but sources say Jackson continues to hold out hope he can persuade the 39-year-old to make the immediate jump to coaching — as Jason Kidd did last season with Brooklyn — after Fisher’s 18 seasons as a player.

“I’m still struggling with the results of [the series],” Fisher told local reporters Sunday. “I haven’t [had] a chance to talk to my wife and kind of step back emotionally from the end of the season. That’s important to do, so that whatever is next, there has to be a separation from the end of the season and what just happened and then I can go from there.”

And here’s Wojnarowski on the Lakers cooling a bit in their pursuit of Fisher:

As the Los Angeles Lakers remain cool on the pursuit of Derek Fisher as a coaching candidate, the New York Knicks continue to cement themselves as the strong frontrunner to hire him, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

So far, the Lakers have expressed an exclusive desire to explore experienced head coaches in their search, and there isn’t yet an indication that team officials plan to seriously consider Fisher for the job, league sources said.

Los Angeles has so far interviewed four coaches about replacing Mike D’AntoniMike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Lionel Hollins.

Knicks president Phil Jackson has been eager to sell Fisher, 39, on the possibility of Jackson mentoring him as part of a direct move from Fisher’s playing career into the Knicks head coaching job. Fisher is taking a few days to finalize his thoughts on the likely end of his 18-year playing career before fully engaging in talks to become a head coach.


VIDEO: Derek Fisher discusses his playing and coaching future during his OKC exit interview (more…)

Durant: Open, honest and still growing

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will be back.

Morning Shootaround — June 2


VIDEO: Relive the Spurs’ West finals series with the Thunder

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Parker hopeful for Game 1 | Westbrook, Durant back Brooks | Celts’ history appealing to Love?| Parsons opens up on Houston future | Jackson, Perkins likely to stay in OKC

No. 1: Report: Parker should be OK for Game 1 of Finals — The San Antonio Spurs are three days away from their first ever back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals and their hopes of winning the series may rest heavily on Tony Parker‘s gimpy left ankle. Parker missed the second half of the Spurs’ win against the Thunder in Game 6 of the West finals with the injury and his status for The Finals was unclear. But Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that Parker should be OK for Game 1:

Despite a sprained ankle, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker is hopeful to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Parker “should be ready” to play in Game 1, two sources with direct knowledge told Yahoo Sports.

Parker will work to rehabilitate the sprain over the next several days of preparation for the Finals rematch with the Miami Heat.

Parker had been bothered by the ankle since Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and tried to play on it in Game 6 before missing the second half of the clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

*** (more…)

Brooks and the power of continuity


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks with the media on Sunday afternoon

OKLAHOMA CITY – The fickle and volatile nature of the NBA coaching business swept aside four 50-game winners the last two seasons. Memphis’ Dave Joerger nearly became the fifth last month, and the second in a row with that franchise.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks‘ job security always seems to be a topic fluttering in the breeze. He’s overseen three Western Conference finals appearances in the last four seasons, yet his critics continue to howl. Saturday’s Game 6 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs ended a second season of falling short of a return to the Finals.

However, it didn’t stop the franchise’s superstar, the league’s MVP from endorsing his coach.

“That’s our guy,” Durant said of Brooks during Sunday’s exit interviews, “and I’m riding with him.”

It would seem owner Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti would, too, but then Lionel Hollins, George Karl, Vinny Del Negro and Mark Jackson – fired 50-win club members — are still tidying up their resumes.

That’s typically not the case for a coach who has won better than 70 percent of his games in each of the last three seasons. Brooks has two years left on his contract at what is believed to be between $8 million and $9 million. The Thunder are not a franchise that takes a cavalier approach to paying one man not to work while paying another to fill his position.

Yet, Mike Brown is out in Cleveland with $16 million owed to him.

Is it possible the Thunder believe Brooks has taken this team as far as he can?

“It’s something that I don’t even consider. I do my job every day,” Brooks said. “I’ve had a lot of valuable lessons in my life from my mother and she’s always told me this: You do your job every day and you live with the results. ‘They say,’ you can’t worry about what ‘they say’; you never ever meet those people. I have many stories that I can tell you about my mom and that’s one of them — don’t worry about ‘them.’ Those are the people that told me I wasn’t going to make it as a 4-11 freshman in high school. My dream was to be an NBA player. If I would have listened to ‘they’ I would never have been able to make it.”

Presti won’t listen to ‘they.’ He’ll make up his own mind, if there’s even a decision to make. He spent Sunday conducting exit interviews with players and he will soon talk with Brooks, who Presti hired as an assistant onto P.J. Carlesimo‘s staff in Seattle and then promoted when he fired Carlesimo after a 1-12 start in Oklahoma City.

Soon after, Brooks elevated No. 4 pick Russell Westbrook to starting point guard. If Brooks and Westbrook have anything in common, it’s that criticism never strays far.

“Ever since I’ve been here and Scotty became the head coach, he’s done a great job of having confidence in me personally,” Westbrook said. “There’s times where things have gone south and he’s the only one that always, always, regardless of what happened, always had my back; regardless of people saying I was doing this, I was doing that, I was being selfish, being that, he always was the first person to step up and have my back and support me regardless of what’s going on. He does a great job of always staying positive and trusting in our guys and trusting in each and every person we have and in the organization.”

Brooks said the Thunder’s No. 7 -rated offense must continue to evolve around his two superstars, to become a better passing team with higher assist totals and fewer turnovers and periods of stagnation.
“I know I have to get better and I know our team has to get better,” Brooks said. “And we’re excited about moving forward together as a group as the summer unfolds, and coming back in October with a better team.”

If scheme isn’t Brooks’ forte, as his critics will claim, forging relationships is a strong suit. He’s helped develop a team of talented youngsters at the ages of 20 into perennial contenders now at 25. Before the All-Star break, Durant called Brooks the coach of the year for steering the team through Westbrook’s multiple knee injuries.

The Thunder remain as well-positioned as any club to challenge for Western Conference supremacy for at least the next two seasons, and beyond that if Durant re-signs when he can become a free agent in the summer of 2016. Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka have three years left. Reggie Jackson is eligible for an extension this summer.

The 2013-14 season was a struggle from the start of training camp when Westbrook was told he needed a second surgery on his right knee. He tore the meniscus in the second game of the first round last season and missed the remainder of the postseason. Westbrook had to undergo a third surgery in December just as he and the team were rolling. He was out through the All-Star Game.

Then OKC lost defensive-specialist, and now unrestricted free agent, Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins each for six weeks with injuries.

The Thunder still finished with 59 wins and Durant won the MVP. They beat Memphis in the first round and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers in the second round before falling to the Spurs. Both Westbrook and Perkins said the key area of improvement for next season isn’t personnel, but sharpening their mental approach to the game, specifically limiting careless turnovers that can turn a game or even a series against a team like San Antonio.

Changes will be made on the periphery of the roster, but the core is set for another run at a first title. It would seem the coach is, too, for a general manager and a franchise that place high value on continuity.

“You can easily say we lost the season because we didn’t win a championship,” Durant said. “But I don’t look at it that way because we learned so much throughout these years, throughout these last few months, especially, and it’s going to help us towards the future. When you look at it that way it stings not playing, but you also know that you’re just building the journey up, and hopefully one day you’ll look back at it and just enjoy what we went through.”


VIDEO: Scott Brooks talks about his future in OKC and more

Thunder exit, but not going anywhere

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew discusses future of the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – The new guard came ripping through in 2012 like a whipsaw, razor sharp and bristling with youthful exuberance, striking size and superstar talent.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, unbridled and unstoppable, tapped out the last-gasp San Antonio Spurs, and set to unleash an era of mouthwatering East-West Finals fury with the Miami Heat not seen in 30 years since Magic Johnson‘s L.A. Lakers and Larry Bird‘s Boston Celtics.

Two years later and LeBron James — holding his end of the bargain with not one, not two, not three, but a fourth straight Finals berth after navigating the least competitive road to a conference title in recent memory — is still waiting for his Thunder contemporaries to join him.

Instead James will again see the San Antonio Spurs and their immortal Big Three, a group who raised their first of three Larry O’Brien trophies the year James was showing his percolating potential as a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

Durant chased down LeBron as this season’s league MVP, but the championship remains on hold. He had a chance to give the Thunder a four-point lead in overtime, but his straightaway 3 — contested by Kawhi Leonard but still a good look — caromed off the back rim with 1:45 to go in overtime. Then down by three, the game’s most lethal closer got off a clean 3 off the inbounds, but it, too, wouldn’t go down.

The killer, though, was a no-show third quarter. Tony Parker never returned from halftime because of a sore ankle and San Antonio answered with perhaps its finest period of the season, a 37-20 whipping that erased the Thunder’s seven-point lead and set the stage for their NBA Finals-clinching 112-107 Game 6 victory.

It was perhaps Durant’s worst period of the season — five points, five turnovers and one awful foul of Danny Green on a made 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds on the clock. The four-point play culminated a 7-0 run and put the Spurs up 79-69.

“They’re a great team, they made a run, but that shows the character we have on this team to force that overtime and not give up,” said Durant, who ended his seventh season with 31 points, 14 rebounds and seven costly turnovers. “It’s easy to give up, but you can say that about any run throughout our game. They could have put us away to start the fourth quarter, but they didn’t.” (more…)

Time for K.D. to sink his teeth into Game 6

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Spurs-Thunder Game 6 preview

OKLAHOMA CITY – The MVP was asked if he’s put his imprint on the Western Conference finals.

“You know, it [is] a different series compared to the first two, whereas you’ve got to beat this team with a group of guys,” Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant said. “Against the Clippers, me and Russell [Westbrook], we came out and scored 40 points a piece and [were] able to win, but this team makes you play with everybody. We knew that.

“You’ve got to do it on both ends of the floor. I feel like I put my imprint on the series. It may not be in the usual way that people expect me to go out and score 40 a game, but I think I put my imprint on the series.”

As Durant and the Thunder head into Saturday’s do-or-die Game 6 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Durant is correct in that he doesn’t have to score 40 and he shouldn’t feel burdened to carry the team by dominating the ball. Against the precision and depth of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City needs a focused team effort to survive.

But if the Thunder wants to see June, they must have their leader thrust himself to the forefront of the effort. He must attack with an unrivaled determination and desire to win the game, to put forth a LeBron James foot-on-the-throat performance a la Friday night’s elimination of the Pacers. Afterward, budding Indiana star Paul George said of James: “He really just sunk his teeth all over this game.”

He needs to heed the catch-phrase of one of his two favorite players, Dirk Nowitzki, and “let it rip.” Nowitzki is the last player to win a Game 7 in San Antonio.

Durant seemingly hasn’t simply let it rip throughout this postseason. He’s left us to ponder at times if he’s even having fun. When momentum has turned against OKC, he’s become visibly frustrated. His body language has become unusually slumped, and after losses his postgame demeanor at the podium has shown shades of immaturity, a trait that seems to have replaced unbridled optimism from a player who just three weeks ago delivered one of the most impassioned MVP speeches of all time.

He’s even established a mantra to soften the blow of losing.

“I’ve learned not to let basketball take over my life,” Durant says.

But if he wants another shot at the championship, if he wants to knock the old-guard Spurs out of the way as he did in 2012, Durant must take over Game 6 with a steel-clad will to win.

“I’ve seen the best of the best not perform well statistically in the biggest games of the year, but their passion, their effort, just their desire to win was higher than everybody else’s,” said five-time champion Derek Fisher, his jersey No. 6 emblematic of his chase of a sixth ring. “And so Kevin doesn’t have to show up and score 40 points and have MVP numbers against them, but we need everybody to show up just with the desire to win that is stronger than our opponents’.

“We won’t necessarily have to ask for anything else but that.”

Durant has answered the call in back-against-the-wall moments in these playoffs. He scored 36 and 33 points in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis in the first round. In a must-win Game 6 on the road, Durant went to the free-throw line 15 times, a barometer of his determination to be the aggressor.

He hit huge baskets down the stretch of Game 5 against the Clippers when the Thunder flipped defeat into a pivotal victory with a dominant final three minutes. And he was excellent in the final three quarters of the Game 6 clincher in Los Angeles.

In this series, Durant’s offensive production — 24.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting (36.0 percent from 3-point range), 3.4 assists and 6.0 free-throw attempts — appears low, but those numbers are somewhat diluted by the blowout nature of all five games. There hasn’t been a fourth quarter that’s mattered and Durant has averaged just 6.7 minutes in the final period.

His true imprint on this series has come on the defensive end in the Thunder’s two wins. OKC is at its best when he’s crisp and alert, using his length and quickness to seal off entry passes into the paint yet still able to close out on 3-point shooters like Danny Green.

So now here he is at Saturday’s crossroads, the Thunder’s leader and the league’s MVP, one win away from forcing a Game 7 and a potential rematch against LeBron and the Heat; one loss away from going home unfulfilled.

“I’ve always been the guy that’s going to bring it, and that’s going to play to win,” Durant said. “So it’s a must‑win, and I can’t sit home and think about it every single minute of the day, but I’ve got to know how important it is.”

Game 6 is all about leaving his imprint, sinking his teeth into it and letting it rip.

The points will follow.

Emotions exposed in high-stakes series

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters: Thunder-Spurs Game 5

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the points mount in sudden flurries and push the fervor of the home crowd to maddening levels for the teeth-gnashing visitors, scenes of frustration have grown tenser and more emotional as this high-stakes Western Conference finals charges along.

Both arenas, the AT&T Center in San Antonio and Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City — the locals dubbed it Loud City years ago — have each become caldrons of frayed nerves and blown tempers in one of the more peculiar series in recent memory in which the home team has won all five games in a rout.

“This is the craziest series I’ve ever been involved in,” said Spurs star Tim Duncan, a veteran of 16 postseasons.

The two teams, though, are thought of as emotional polar opposites: The button-down Spurs exuding poise and professionalism; the hair-trigger Thunder being young, wild and always living on the edge. Yet neither team has escaped the other’s hostile arena with their emotions intact.

It’s easy to understand why. The Spurs, with the Big Three’s clock always ticking down on their championship window, are so close to a return to The Finals and a chance to seize the championship they let slip through their fingers a year ago that the pain of failing now would cut even deeper than the loss to the Heat. The Thunder, its stars both 25 years old, and Kevin Durant breaking through to win his first MVP, believe they would have been the team returning to The Finals for another showdown with LeBron James if not for Russell Westbrook‘s knee injury in the first round of the 2013 Playoffs. What was supposed to be a dynasty in the making is instead trying to stave off elimination.

This roiling undercurrent is setting off even the most composed.

In Game 4 at OKC, with the Thunder blasting the game open, Duncan screamed at his legendary coach, Gregg Popovich, Duncan animatedly gesturing with his arms before fixating his glare elsewhere and turning up the verbal heat on teammate Danny Green.

In Game 5 Thursday night back at San Antonio, Durant screamed at the clock operator when he wasn’t allowed to check in during a second-quarter stop in play. According to USA Today, Durant also engaged a Spurs fan after she yelled at him to sit down. The always volatile Westbrook got on Serge Ibaka over a missed assignment as the chance to back the Spurs into a corner evaporated along with the Thunder’s composure.

“Well, it’s the playoffs, it’s going to decide who goes to The Finals and who wins the Western Conference,” Durant said. “It’s going to be emotional, there’s going to be words, there’s going to be physicality. It’s been a crazy series, yes it has, as far as momentum and teams playing well at home. But in our case, we’ve got another 48 minutes to try to take this thing to a Game 7, and who knows what happens after that.”

During Game 2 in San Antonio, with the Spurs running and the crowd raising the decibel levels to mind-splitting, Westbrook glared at Durant after giving up an easy basket and jabbed his index fingers at each side of his head, a gesture meant to tell Durant to wake up.

Brooks said he doesn’t worry about his team becoming its own worst enemy during the course of a heated game. He said he takes it as proof his team is engaged.

“I know this is probably strange to say this, we’re always at our best when we’re on edge with one another because we are raising the bar high,” Brooks said. “We are competitive. We don’t want to let each other down. Just like when San Antonio had Duncan and Green, it happens everywhere. I know when we’re locked in defensively and our competitive spirit is at a high, our guys are ready to fight for one another and sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to get each other to do that.”

Spurs hope to avoid a Game 7


VIDEO: Inside Trax: Gregg Popovich

OKLAHOMA CITY — It took digging Matt Bonner out of mothballs and maybe a not-so-subtle couple of days of pounding a message of ferocity into their heads to wake them up, but the Spurs have regained their spirit.

Coach Gregg Popovich has done his part. Now it’s up to the Spurs to remember who they are and close the deal on the Western Conference finals in Game 6.

“Yeah, absolutely we believe we can,” said Tim Duncan on the heels of another turn-back-the-clock night of 22 points and 12 rebounds in Game 5. “It’s a tough place to play and we’ve lost however many in a row there and they’re going to be fighting for their lives.

“All those factors altogether are not going to make it an easy game for us. But we feel we play the right way. We take care of the ball. We do the things that we’ve been talking about all series long. There’s no reason why we can’t win it.”

The Spurs have lost nine consecutive games at Chesapeake Arena, including five in a row in the playoffs. The last time Duncan and his teammates won in OKC was back on March 12, 2012 when DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal and James Anderson were still wearing silver and black.

But the core of the roster remains the same along with the way the Spurs want to play the game. They have to beat the Thunder with guile and not athleticism, with patience and poise rather than trying to go outside their character.

“This is the way we’ve been playing all season long and how we need to play to win,” Duncan said, referring to the Spurs’ 117-89 win on Thursday night. “We shared the ball real well. We moved the ball real well. We moved our bodies. We took something away from them and we made them react.”

While much had been made of the Thunder trying to re-live the 2012 Western Conference finals when they came back from an 0-2 hole to sweep four straight games, actually this series full of blowouts is almost an entirely different page out of Spurs history. After winning the first two games of the 2005 NBA Finals at home, the Spurs went to Detroit and were blown out by 20 in back-to-back games. Robert Horry saved them with a dramatic shot in Game 5, but they had to return home to pull out their second championship with Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as teammates by going a full seven games.

“I never want to go to seven games with anybody,” Ginobili said. “I wish we could win 4-0 every time. But we are playing against one of the best teams in the league with the MVP, a very talented, athletic group of players.

“Of course, we’re going to go there and try to play our best game and try to finish the series. But if it gets back [to San Antonio] and we have to play a Game 7, we’ll do it. And we know to beat a team like them, we’re going to have to work very hard. If there’s a seven, there’s a seven.”

Spurs neutralize Ibaka, put Thunder on the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Inside crew discusses Serge Ibaka’s lackluster Game 5

SAN ANTONIO – Judging by how this Western Conference finals continues to unfold – bouncing from homecourt blowout to homecourt blowout — the Oklahoma City Thunder still may get a final shot to win a game here.

If they get that chance, though, they’ll have to pray for a miracle of the sort that brought the hobbled Serge Ibaka back in Game 3. But then, even the Ibaka magic faded Thursday night in San Antonio’s convincing 117-89 Game 5 win that gave the Spurs a 3-2 series lead.

For the first time in eight games with Ibaka on the floor — and for just the third time in the last 15 games dating to the 2012 West finals, when the Thunder stormed out of a 2-0 hole and blitzed San Antonio four in a row — the Spurs figured out how to beat Oklahoma City.

San Antonio’s AT&T Center, first without and now with Ibaka, has become a house of horrors for the Thunder. They’ve been crushed here by 17, 35 and 28 points in this series. Back home in OKC, the Thunder won Games 3 and 4 by a total of 22 points — though it could have been easily twice that much if not for some deficit-munching garbage-time.

“You really think I can explain that?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quipped.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks was at a loss, too, to explain the home-court blowouts. Brooks was first to make a lineup change in Game 3, getting Ibaka back from his calf injury and sliding guard Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup. It worked like a charm to get the series even.

Popovich countered in Game 5, removing the big-bodied Tiago Splitter, who had allowed Ibaka to camp in the paint and keep Tony Parker out. Matt Bonner started, but it was Boris Diaw, with 13 points and three assists in 28 minutes, who was trouble all night, stringing Ibaka out and finally opening the operating space the Spurs enjoyed in their first two home routs.

Tim Duncan benefited with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, and Manu Ginobili was magnificent again with 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting. San Antonio’s 3-point shooters had a field day, going 13-for-26.

The Thunder returned to San Antonio expecting a change, yet oddly Ibaka said he didn’t find out the 3-point shooting Bonner was starting until Kevin Durant told him five minutes before the game, likely long after most of the silver-and-black clad fans in the arena had already gotten the message.

“It just changed their offense a little bit,” said Ibaka, who has noticed little change in the condition of his ailing left calf after playing his third game in five days. “For us it was kind of a surprise. But I’m not going to make an excuse to say ‘surprised.’ When you’re a basketball player, you have to be ready to play no matter what. Now our focus needs to be on the next game, and now we know how they will play and who will start now. So I’m sure we’ll be ready.”

Ibaka missed his looks early and finished 3-for-10 for six points. He was pulled out of his comfort zone in the paint, where the Spurs made good on 20 of their 28 shots. He had only two defensive rebounds in more than 27 minutes.

“It’s tough, it’s a tough loss for us and you need to give them a lot of credit,” Ibaka said. “They played their best basketball. They were better than us. They were more aggressive, but this happens sometimes.”

Nothing’s come easy in this second season for the Thunder, and nothing was harder than Game 5 back in the raucous River City.

“We just didn’t play well across the board on defense,” said Durant, who had 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting, but was again limited at the free-throw line on the road, taking just four making only one. “They spread us out, hit 3s and we were late. We were just a step slow.”

If there is a theme to Thunder’s postseason, it’s been bouncing back. Memphis had them against the wall, 3-2, and the Thunder won the next two. Against the Clippers, Oklahoma City rallied from seven points down with 49 seconds to play in Game 5 and won the series in six.

The good news for the Thunder is that Game 6 of this series is Saturday night back in OKC, where the Spurs have been as lost as the Thunder have been here.  A win then for the Thunder sets up Game 7 on Monday, back in San Antonio, where the Spurs have now won seven straight by at least 15 points.

“Now we have to choose what we are going to give them,” Ibaka said. “… Are we going to give them the paint or … ? But I am sure we are going to do a better job in the next game.”

The season depends on it.