Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City’

Time enough for Thunder to rise in West? For Durant to repeat as MVP?


VIDEO: Does KD have an honest shot at the 2014-15 MVP?

With Christmas Eve and Christmas morning coming for the Oklahoma City Thunder both early and separated by 96 hours this year – getting Russell Westbrook back last Friday vs. New York and Kevin Durant in time to play at New Orleans Tuesday night – the best way to assess the Thunder’s situation is:

A) No worries.

B) In the nick of time.

C) Too late to matter.

The same set of answers can apply to two questions spinning off the Thunder stars’ comebacks: Is 65 games enough time for the OKC to position itself as a championship contender in the rugged Western Conference? And does Durant have a legitimate chance to repeat as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player?

Here at Hang Time HQ, the first question seems easier to answer than the first. The 5-12 Thunder woke up Tuesday in 12th place in the West standings. They were 4.5 games behind No. 8 Phoenix (10-8). For a team as playoff-savvy as Oklahoma City, just qualifying for the postseason would put them in position to push toward The Finals – they’d just have to do it without either homecourt advantage or a relatively easy first-round matchup (since this is the West, we stress relatively).

OKC also was eight games out of a Top 4 berth, where it would enjoy home court for at least one round. Realistic to think the Thunder could climb over that many rivals? Durant, Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks and the rest have won 72.1 percent of their games the past three seasons. If they were to win at that clip over their final 65 this season, they’d finish about 52-30.

Only once in the last eight years would that record be good enough to finish fourth or higher. And that worked out for Utah in 2006-07 because its 51-31 finish was good enough to win the Northwest Division, earning it a Top 4 berth even though No. 5 Houston went 52-30. The same sort of thing occurred in 2005-06 (Denver’s 44-38 earned homecourt over Memphis’ 49-33).

Also, the Lakers and the Grizzlies secured the Nos. 3 and 4 slots in the post-lockout 2011-12 season by finishing 41-25 (.621), the equivalent of 51-31 in an 82-game season.

So it’s not too late for the Thunder. How ’bout Durant?

If OKC does push toward a playoff spot or a top seed, odds are good that the NBA’s 2014 MVP will have something significant to do with it. He’ll already have on his side the unofficial criterion of how his team did/does without him: the Thunder are a 5-12 team in his absence. If they were to turn that around and go 45-20 or 47-18 with Durant after his return from foot surgery, that would be compelling apart from his individual stats.

The MVP field has no early runaway favorite: Marc Gasol has gotten attention for Memphis’ start, Stephen Curry is a possibility from Golden State and LeBron James always is a factor. Durant would face a particular hurdle in an injury-shortened season: Would MVP voters consider a player who missed so many games?

Only three previous Most Valuable Players, out of 59 in NBA history, appeared in fewer than 70 games in a full season. Boston’s Bob Cousy played 64 of a possible 72 in 1956-57, his teammate Bill Russell played 69 of 72 the next year and Portland’s Bill Walton played in just 58 of 82 in 1977-78 – with most of his absences coming at the end, missing the Blazers’ final 22 games. Portland went 48-10 with Walton, 10-14 without him.

As for other individual stats, Durant shouldn’t have much trouble grabbing voters’ attention. Since his rookie season, he has averaged 28.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 38.9 minutes, while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent on 3-pointers.

And actually, if someone were to begrudge Durant his raw numbers, consider this: A scoring average of 28.6 played out over 65 games would get him to 1,859 points – the equivalent of a 22.6 average over 82 games. Fourteen NBA MVPs averaged less than 22.6 in their hardware-winning seasons.

None of this, of course, addresses the likelihood of Westbrook splitting votes with his freshly healed Thunder teammate. Fresh off his hand surgery, Westbrook grabbed a 1-0 lead in OKC impact by scoring 32 points and sparking the Thunder past the Knicks last weekend.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 28


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Clips set to add Granger | Playoff run won’t affect ‘Melo’s decision | OKC’s Brooks shakes off latest stats talk | Bynum plays 3-on-3 at practice

No. 1: Clips reportedly set to add Granger; where do other players fit best? — Late last night, news broke that recently waived Sixers forward Danny Granger was set to sign with the L.A. Clippers for the stretch run of the season and the playoffs. Our Sekou Smith has more on that report and also chimes in with some possible destinations for other name free-agents like Jimmer Fredette, Caron Butler and Metta World Peace.

Phase 2 is the buyout market, when teams lock up veteran help at an area of need when teams start purging their rosters of players that were moved last week or veterans on lottery-bound teams in search of work with a contender. And that means we switch our focus from superstars who were rumored to be traded (yes, you Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol) to those players who were actually moved or probably should have been (guys like Danny Granger and Caron Butler, headliners in the buyout market).

Now it’s just a matter of matching the right player with the right team …

The race for Butler’s services has turned into a battle between two teams that could very well end up battling for the ultimate prize this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, are the leaders for Butler. They both have a need for a quality veteran to help work on the perimeter. Butler’s career began in Miami and he has institutional knowledge of how to operate in the Heat’s system. He could slide right into the mix with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and crew and fit in well. But the chance for more meaningful minutes might actually come with the Thunder, where Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could use another wise vet with a championship ring (Butler won his with Dallas) to help with some of the heavy lifting.

The rumblings of a Fredette move to the Bulls started early Thursday, courtesy of a report from ESPN’s Marc Stein. It would be an odd marriage considering the Bulls’ defensive-minded focus and Fredette’s allergy to anything defensive during his time with the Sacramento Kings. But if Fredette wants to continue his playing career in the NBA and not abroad, proving himself as a contributor and key component for a rugged playoff outfit coached by Tom Thibodeau would do wonders for his cause.

The Bulls need the scoring help, particularly on the perimeter and from a shooter with Jimmer’s range. And he’ll get a chance to learn the fine art of true team defense playing for a coach and a team, led by All-Star center and defensive backbone Joakim Noah, that could very well save the No. 10 pick from the 2011 Draft.

World Peace has nine NBA lives. Who’d have thunk it a decade ago when his career was hanging in the balance? This is admittedly more of a guilty pleasure exercise for us than it is a necessity for the Spurs, but the potential World Peace and Gregg Popovich chemistry experiment is one that would keep social scientists up at night trying to figure out how it works. Metta proved during his run with the Lakers that he was capable of folding himself into the fabric of a championship outfit. He could do it again with the Spurs and Pop, who has made an art form of integrating veteran role players into the right spot in the rotation.

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No. 2: Making playoffs won’t be enough to sway Anthony’s decision — Give the New York Knicks some credit for their performance last night against the Miami Heat. Although they ultimately were routed by Miami 108-82, New York kept the game close through three quarters behind a 29-point night from Carmelo Anthony. But Knicks fans shouldn’t hold out hope that a miraculous run to the playoffs is going to affect Anthony’s decision to re-sign (or not) with the team this summer. Al Iannazzone of Newsday has more on ‘Melo and the Knick superstar’s thoughts on how the postseason will factor into his future:

Although Carmelo Anthony said he supports Raymond Felton, Felton’s arrest was just another low point in a season that could affect whether the superstar forward re-signs with the Knicks this summer.

“A lot of things are going to be thought about when that time comes,” Anthony said before the Knicks faced the Heat Thursday night. “Off the court, on the court, just a lot of things are going to have to be put all on the table.”

The Knicks’ blowout loss to the Heat dropped them to 21-37 and 51/2 games out of the last playoff spot in the East.

But just making the postseason — and the way the Knicks have been playing, that is a long shot — might not be enough to keep Anthony, who said, “Everything that can go wrong for us is going wrong.”

Anthony has said he wants to meet with Knicks officials after the season and see what their plan is about building a team that can consistently contend.

“I don’t think about it like that, that I want to make the playoffs before I make that decision,” Anthony said. “That decision is going to happen regardless. That time is going to come. Me making the playoffs is something that I want to do, something that I never experienced before, not making the playoffs. That’s a different motivation.

“Coming into this season, we felt like we could make the playoffs and we could do something. Unfortunately, we’re in this situation we’re in right now, fighting for our lives, fighting for a playoff spot. But us making the playoffs and then that decision don’t even have anything to do with it.”

After scoring 44 points Tuesday in a loss to the Mavericks, Anthony said, “You kind of ask yourself is it worth it?”

He was referring to how much he is scoring as the Knicks continue to find ways to lose. He had 42, 44, 35 and 44 in the four games before last night and the Knicks lost three of them.

“He’s been so solid this season for our ballclub and I don’t think that’s going to ever change, regardless who’s around him and where he plays,” Mike Woodson said. “I just wish our season would have been better.”


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James put on a scoring display in Miami

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No. 3: Brooks not worked up over OKC’s low shot-contesting rate — As our own John Schuhmann pointed out in a great post on this very blog the other day, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the worst team in the league when it comes to opposing foes’ jump shots. The post goes on to point out that despite that flaw, the Thunder are still a great defensive team and that shoring up that one aspect of things would make them even better. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks responded to the post in a sense and as Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman notes, Brooks isn’t too worried about how well — or poorly — his team contests shots:

According to the new SportVu data, OKC ranks dead last in the NBA at contesting opposing jumpshots.

A contested jumper, according to NBA.com, is defined by a shot taken at least 10 feet away from the hoop in which a defender is within at least four feet of the shooter.

Entering Wednesday, OKC only contested 23.8 percent of such shots. The league average is 30.9.

“We’ve been one of the better defensive teams the last three years,” Scott Brooks said, brushing off the number a bit. “… I do focus exclusively on defensive field goal percentage and last I checked a couple games ago, we were second in the league.”

Entering Wednesday, the Thunder was tied for second in the league in that category, allowing only 43 percent shooting. And in many other defensive metrics, the Thunder ranks near the top.

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No. 4: Bynum plays 3-on-3 in Pacers practice — With Indiana’s recent acquisition of Evan Turner at the trade deadline drawing the latest buzz, the notable player the Pacers acquired a few weeks earlier — ex-Cavs center Andrew Bynum — has had time to fly under the radar a bit. Bynum is still mending from various knee injuries and has been slowly becoming more and more active at team practices, notes David Woods of the Indianapolis Star:

Andrew Bynum practiced three-on-three Thursday, and coach Frank Vogel said he was optimistic the 7-foot center would be ready to play soon. Soon doesn’t mean a week from now, the coach said.

“The goal is to get him to the point where he’s able to play every night,” Vogel said. “We don’t want him to play one game and sit three games.”

Bynum signed with the Pacers as a free agent Feb. 1. Vogel has said a priority is improving the condition of Bynum, who missed the entire 2012-13 season with knee injuries and last played Dec. 26 for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We know what we can expect from him when he’s healthy and in shape. He’s one of the best centers in the NBA,” Vogel said. “We’ve seen flashes of that in practice that he’s shown here.”

Pacers.com writer Mark Montieth, in a recent mailbag offering on the website, has his view on when Bynum might hit the court:

Q. Does anybody know when Andrew Bynum is expected to play? – Matt

A. If they do, they aren’t saying. Bynum is practicing with the team, and has begun to participate in some of the “live” or contact portions of it. Coach Frank Vogel takes a conservative view, saying it might be a few more weeks before Bynum plays in a game, while Bynum talks as if it won’t be that long.

The training staff will do its best to get him healthy and in shape before then. He still would have at least a month of regular season games to get into a rhythm.

It’s interesting, though, that Ian Mahinmi is playing so well recently. Suddenly, the need for a backup center seems less pressing. But if the Pacers have three capable centers heading into the playoffs, they’ll be residing in the lap of luxury. It would be kind of like owning three models of a Bentley. The longest three.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Veteran Bobcats guard Ben Gordon is likely to be bought out soon, but there has been a snag in the process … The Nuggets’ locker room was apparently like a library after Denver was routed by Brooklyn at home last night … Speaking of the Nets-Nuggets game, ICYMI, Nets center Jason Collins scored his first bucket since his return and, after the game, met with the parents of Matthew Shepard and gave them his jersey … By beating the Raptors in triple-OT last night, the Wizards have already passed their win total from last season

ICYMI of The Night: Mask or no mask, LeBron James is a force to be reckoned with as he drives the lane


VIDEO: LeBron James drives hard down the lane for a power jam vs. the Knicks

Red Circle Night For James, Durant


VIDEO: LeBron James and Kevin Durant have had some epic battles

MIAMI – Fans have it easy. The schedule comes out and with it, the red pens or black markers or yellow highlighters. A few circles, underlines and exclamation points later, it’s posted on the wall, loaded into the phone, set up on the tablet with the proper alerts. The best of the best? Plain to see, week by week, games and matchups stretching out over six months.

But if you’re LeBron James, the big games and key clashes – the real highlights – are harder to come by. In an NBA sense, if anyone in recent memory had a right to go all Alexander the Great on us and weep because there were no more worlds to conquer, it’s been James. Two-time NBA champion, four-time Most Valuable Player, SI Sportsman of the Year, renewed likability, restored marketability and on and on.

While fans and even other NBA players make mental and physical note of their (and their favorites’) games against James and the Miami Heat, he has to look longer and harder to find the potential peaks in his regular season. Well, even the Heat’s star forward could circle in red the game he’ll play Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Oklahoma City at Miami. Possible 2014 Finals preview.

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Probable 2014 MVP showdown.

Yeah, James sounded as into the matchup with the Thunder’s ridiculously potent thin man as anyone who’ll be stuffed in a sofa, crammed into the stands or working hard on the hardwood alongside them.

“It’s not secondary, it’s first-dary,” James said, coining a word for reporters after practice Tuesday to stress the urgency of containing Durant’s offense in order to beat OKC. “Absolutely, he’s one of the toughest covers. Between him and Melo [Carmelo Anthony], it’s the toughest covers for me individually.

“So it’s a game within a game. You want to win but you also want to do your part against who you’re going against. I like going against the best. He’s definitely right up there.”

That stuff matters. Chamberlain had Russell, Magic had Larry – with rivals, the elite often can push themselves higher. Imagine if Michael Jordan, in all his greatness, had had that one undisputed challenger; instead, he had many, each diffused a bit and slightly off. Like Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Detroit Pistons’ defense and the New York Knicks. And of course everybody else he named at his HOF induction speech.

Tiger Woods, at the peak of his powers, had … who, David Duval? Something gets lost, that little extra gets left on the table, without a perfect rival.

That little extra was what everyone was excited about heading toward Wednesday. Including James, who only gets to face Durant twice each season due to their opposite-conference endeavors.

As the hype swelled Tuesday, driven by Durant’s breathtaking string of scoring outbursts, James said: “Don’t get it twisted thinking that he hasn’t been a great all-around player. As you play more and more games, you get more and more comfortable in this league. You start to expand your game. It’s the same if you ask ‘How is Paul George now better?’ He’s just more comfortable. … And when you have talent and you work at that talent, things become second nature for you to go out and play.

“So KD rebounding and making plays for his teammates is something he’s always been able to do. He’s just getting more comfortable at doing it.”

As effusive in his praise as James was of Durant’s pyrotechnics at one end of the court, he got intriguingly tight-lipped about any progress or impact the Thunder forward has defensively.

“Uh, he’s more comfortable playing on that side of the floor,” he said. “That side of the floor is why I really take a lot of responsibility in. I don’t like to do too much comparing when it comes to defense.”

What, he’s supposed to give up everything to Durant? Flip him the access code to the house, the keys to the Ferrari and the TV remote, all at once, just like that?

Anyone reading between the lines of James’ response might expect lockdown mode in some form, at some point, from the proud Miami player. Something akin, maybe, to the way he helped hold George scoreless in the first half of their Dec. 10 game in Indianapolis.

The top two consensus MVP candidates don’t lock horns like this very often. Anyone snoozing on Durant as a deserving alternative to James hasn’t been paying attention.

“All you’ve got to do is turn on the TV and there he is,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He’s on a great tear right now, one of the greatest tears of all time.”

Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: “Obviously you see the video game numbers he’s putting up, but at the heart of it, he’s a fierce, fierce competitor. So what he’s doing right now is notable because they could have come up with a lot of excuses why they couldn’t compete in that Western Conference at the level they are. He’s raised his game and it’s pulled their team right along with him.”

All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook‘s latest knee injury left Durant with a choice: Endure and survive till he returns and push toward the postseason. Or hit the shift paddles and dive over to the far-left lane, blinker be damned.

All this MVP chatter comes from the latter.

“I’ve got to go with KD at this point,” Minnesota’s Kevin Love told NBA.com this week. “He’s been absolutely unbelievable – and that’s not taking anything away from LeBron. But KD has been absolutely out of his mind since Russ went down.”

It’s not about overlooking the swell seasons being offered up by Love, George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul until he got hurt or anyone else. It’s about acknowledging that Durant, already formidable, has turned lethal.

“Right now, most definitely it’s got to be one of those two guys,” veteran Charlotte big man Al Jefferson said. “LeBron James, he’s gonna be at the top of the conversation every year just because of the things he does for his team. I just haven’t seen no one put a show on in the last month like Kevin Durant. Without his sidekick, and they’re still consistent winning, and he’s averaging 30-plus points the last 10, 11 games. So I mean right now, I think he’s got the edge.”

Kevin Durant and LeBron James (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kevin Durant and LeBron James (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

In his last 13 games, Durant has averaged 37.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting. He had a triple-double against the Sixers and hung 54 points on the Warriors. He scored 40 or more four times and at least 30 in 11 consecutive games. His current 31.3 scoring average, if maintained, would be the highest since Kobe Bryant averaged 31.6 seven years ago. And if his stats line holds up, he’ll join just six others in NBA history to average at least 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The others: Chamberlain, Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and James.

“He’s 6-11, he can get his shot off the majority of the time,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “And he has a very easy shot to shoot for him, at a very high percentage. I don’t think going into the game scoring is his concern. He was born to score.

“For a defense, you have to be concerned about what his teammates are doing.

KD is going to get an opportunity to score 30 a night. That’s the talent he has, the position he’s been put in. You’ve just got to try to make those 30 a little tougher and at the same time be aware of everyone else.”

Durant’s range extends from under the rim to the VIP parking lot, so a defense like Miami’s that normally seems six- or seven-players thick gets thinned. “He extends your defense out four or five steps further out than it is normally used to,” Spoelstra said. “At times that court is going to look big.”

But wait, there’s more!

“He’s added more to his tool kit,” the Heat coach said. “He can make any shot in the book right now. From deep, from inside. He’s got the midrange. He has the floaters. He works you in the post. And he’s an improved passer. He’s at a career-high clip right now setting up his teammates and that makes their team even more dangerous.”

Defensively? “He’s a multi-positional defender now,” Spoelstra called him. “Impacting the game on both sides of the court. But somebody of his length and knowledge and experience, it was a matter of time.”

A matter of time before Durant crowded into the MVP conversation for real, after finishing second to James by a respectable margin in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

The criteria for that award can get tricky, weighted with tangibles, intangibles, advanced analytics and personal biases of the voters. But team records appear to be a big factor – only once in the past five seasons has the MVP gone to the guy whose team won fewer games than the runner-up’s team (James in 2012). That was one of the reasons Derrick Rose wrested the Podoloff trophy from James in 2011.

Then there are head-to-head clashes like the one Wednesday. They tend to stick in voters’ craws. The teams meet again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City.

Beyond the differences in their games, Durant and James offer MVP voters almost a blue-state, red-state gap in public personas and personal styles. One plays in one of the NBA’s flashiest, more alluring destinations, the other in the middle of flyover country, eh, somewhere out there. People save for years hoping to afford a dream vacation to south Florida. Most might take a minute to even spell OKC much less travel there.

James and his people staged that worldwide telecast in July 2010 so he could announce which job offer he was going to accept. Durant … does he even have “people?”

He quietly re-upped with the Thunder that same month – players’ second contracts (rookie extensions) typically are more quiet than their third ones, when true free agency looms – but at $56.9 million from this season through 2015-16, Durant will be paid within a few Bentleys of James’ $61.7 million (if the Miami star were to let his deal run full term).

So one can earn in Oklahoma. It appears, save for the rings yet, that one also can win. The issue at hand is whether one can win MVPs there, too.

Seriously, with all the obsession with market size – the fan base, the media rankings, the traffic jams, the inflated property values and tax rates, and so on – could Durant be that much “bigger,” in terms of famous, than he already is playing in OKC?

Some great players don’t get the full-blown famous treatment until they go to the bright lights, like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Bosh. But Dwight Howard didn’t really need to leave Orlando, if only he’d committed to sticking and ushering the Magic back to The Finals a couple more times. It wasn’t James leaving Cleveland that shot him up the celebrity scale – winning titles did that. Ditto, most likely, for Durant in OKC.

Durant also has never heard the sort of criticism, borne of expectations and hype dating back to grade school, that was heaped on James. Torch a No. 35 Thunder jersey? You get the sense that if Durant ever did leave as a free agent, fans in Oklahoma City would line up to shake his hand and thank him for the thrills. The 6-foot-11 shooter might lead the league in fewest lusty boos rained down on an opponent, almost generally considered one of the league’s “nicest” guys.

Just don’t assume that means a deficiency of ruthlessness.

“It’s funny,” said Love, a good friend of Durant. “I laugh when KD talks to the media, ‘Aw, what I’m doing, you guys really shouldn’t gawk at or think that it’s a big deal.’ I do believe that he thinks that way – in a way – but he wants to be the best player in the game. He has a fire inside him. I see it when I work out with him the whole summer. He’s a big-time player but also, he wants to be the best.

“He’s very humble. The ego is harder to find. But at the same time, he exudes that extreme confidence. He’s unbelievable.”

Love smiled as he spoke, amused at what Durant gets away with, cloaking his competitive fire at times.

Heat fans won’t be letting him off the hook, of course, in his only regular season trip to Miami. This game, this night is different. For them and for their resident – but temporary? – reigning MVP.

Love Gets Call This Time, But Same Result


VIDEO: Durant takes over in the fourth to lead Oklahoma City

There is no truth whatsoever to the rumor that the NBA’s league office issued the following statement following the late foul call near the end of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 115-111 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday night at the Target Center:

NEW YORK, Jan. 5, 2014 — Through postgame video review, we have determined that Minnesota’s Kevin Love was, in fact, not fouled on his 3-point attempt with 2.2 seconds left and his team trailing 113-111. After all, when Love missed the first two free throws and even intentionally missed the third, the result was no different than if his 3-pointer had bounced off and been grabbed by Oklahoma City.

Oh, and that review-and-reversal from Monday night? We take that back too.

If Timberwolves fans want to find a sliver of silver lining in the Thunder loss Saturday, they might reconsider how badly – or not – their favorite team got jobbed when Shawn Marion‘s swipe at Love’s 2-pointer in the closing seconds Dec. 30 against Dallas. Yes, the NBA admitted, Marion did foul Love on his right arm and Love should have shot two free throws with one second left, giving him a chance to tie at 100-98.

But who’s to say the Wolves’ power forward would have made both, or even one? The surreal moment Saturday when Love shot and missed three times with a chance to tie or win against OKC suggests he might have come up short – or flat, as his attempts Saturday looked – against the Mavericks as well. There’s at least a little more doubt now that Love and Minnesota automatically would have forced overtime.

Then again, even if Love had bricked one or both against Dallas Monday, the officiating crew getting the call right would have provided him with recent familiarity for what he wound up facing Saturday. And to a man, the Minnesota club seemed quite comfortable with him getting yet another chance. “I’ll take K-Love in that situation no matter what,” Corey Brewer said. “he missed them tonight. Next time he’ll make them.”

Love’s confidence hasn’t been rattled, that’s for sure, as noted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“Just missed them,” said Love, who missed four consecutive free throws in the final 27 seconds. “I’ll put me on the free-throw line every single time. First time in my career in a situation like that where I’ve missed four straight. I’m an 80-85 percent free-throw shooter. Tonight it didn’t fall.

“I’m sure people will say what they have to say. That’s fine. In this league, you come back. You try to fight the next day.”

Said Wolves coach Rick Adelman: “It’s just one of those things. It happens to the best of players.”

The finish obscured the overall quality of the contest, particularly Kevin Durant‘s monster scoring performance: 48 points on 16-of-32 shooting with 23 points in the final quarter of a game in which he logged 42:51 minutes. Love scored 30 with 14 rebounds and Nikola Pekovic had 31 and 11, and OKC rookie Steven Adams had 10 and 9 off the bench in 15:32.

Oh, and lest anyone objects by saying Love’s final miss Saturday was intentional, know this: Yeah, it was intentional. But missing the rim entirely was not intentional. If the idea is to put the ball on the rim so that it rolls or bounces off to set up a tip-in or buzzer-beater, then banging the ball off the glass without touching the rim qualifies as a miss in our books here at HTB headquarters.

Frankly, if the analytics smart set wants to track something new, I’d love to see the numbers when NBA players are actually trying to miss their free throws intentionally. This is purely anecdotal, but a high percentage sure seem to miss the rim entirely via airball or glass-only – or inadvertently put them in. It’s such a contrary act compared to all their training and practice.

A final irony of Love’s late misses was how they contributed to a telling deficit at the foul line. Minnesota had been outscoring opponents by 8.7 points per game on free throws, the biggest gap since at least 1970-71. The Wolves were running a bigger surplus than the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets (7.8) or the 1985-86 Philadelphia 76ers (7.1).

So what does OKC do? Outscores Minnesota 27-18 from the line Saturday, including 10-3 in the fourth quarter. When a foe takes away one of your greatest strengths – Durant shot 12-of-13 and the rest of the Thunder who toed the line were perfect – you’re in for a long night.

Love’s free-throw adventure at the end just made it feel a little longer.

Durant Pledges $1M To Tornado Relief





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Not that anyone needed another reason to root for Kevin Durant, but the Oklahoma City Thunder star has pledged $1 million to the American Red Cross, through his foundation, to the tornado disaster relief effort in Oklahoma City.

The American Red Cross announced the gift earlier today and made clear that the donation from the Durant Family Foundation is meant to match other donations while also serving as an incentive to others willing to donate either by texting “REDCROSS” to 90999 or through the American Red Cross Website.

A Washington D.C. native, Durant has embraced (and been embraced by) Oklahomans like no other athlete in the state. This donation at such a time of need for so many will only serve to strengthen that bond.

It’s also a reminder that some stars are worth more than every penny a franchise is willing to pay them. Kudos to Durant and the Thunder for stepping up when Oklahomans need it most.

The best part is Durant always does the right thing by his community and never courts the publicity that comes along with it. Good for him and our thoughts and prayers here at the hideout are with the folks affected by this tragedy.

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Durant Wins It, But Not Without Help


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OKLAHOMA CITY – News that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the entire playoffs rippled across the NBA like an earthquake tremor. The epicenter was Oklahoma City where the shock was sudden and the aftermath is fueling new opportunities for a team that still aspires to win it all.

“It was kind of a gut-punch initially that day at practice, and the whole day you could tell guys were disappointed and down,” reserve forward-center Nick Collison said. “Of course we’re at a deep disadvantage without him, but I don’t think we work that way really. We do a good job of seeing what’s right in front of us.”

As the Memphis Grizzlies frustratingly discovered on Sunday afternoon, count out the Thunder at your own peril. Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on its own home floor, rallying from 12 down late in the third quarter to take a 93-91 decision on a go-ahead, pull-up jumper by Mr. Clutch, Kevin Durant, with 11.1 seconds to go.

“My teammates did a great job of setting me up all game,” Durant said. “I missed some easy ones, some chippies, and I was able to hit that one.”

Let the box score show Durant with a game-high 35 points on 13-for-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, six assists, a couple blocked shots and a steal in 44 exhaustive, mandatory minutes. Yet the opportunity for OKC’s Big One to put his team ahead for good was supplied, as much of the Thunder’s gusto on this day was, from role players coming up big in Westbrook’s absence.

As OKC continues to adjust and tweak on the fly, it is discovering what lies beneath.

They’re finding a resilient Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points, 15 in a critical second-quarter stand when OKC scored 33 points without Durant attempting a shot. Martin’s game, which also included a season-high seven rebounds and a late fourth-quarter swat of Quincy Pondexter in the lane, came on the heels of scoring 26 in the clincher at Houston after being left for dead and his OKC future being questioned, following his Game 5 stinker.

Derek Fisher proved he can still bring it in the clutch at age 38, hitting both of his 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first to start the period with OKC down nine. Then he’s making the defensive play of the game with 20 seconds to go, stripping driving Memphis guard Mike Conley from behind just before he can ascend to the rim and triggering a rush the other way for Durant’s big bucket.

The moment once again didn’t swallow second-year guard Reggie Jackson, who starts in place of Westbrook but watched from the bench while Fisher played down the stretch until the final possession when Memphis had to foul with 3.5 seconds to go — a sequence set up by Thabo Sefolosha’s deflection of an errant Marc Gasol pass. Jackson calmly sank both free throws, as he did against Houston, to make it 93-90 with 1.6 seconds left.

Fisher and Jackson totaled 20 points with a couple of assists and just one turnover. Conley, coming off a big series going toe-to-toe with All-Star Chris Paul, finished with 13 points, three assists and two turnovers. The final one cost Memphis the game.

“We got a nice little flow going right now,” Martin said. “I think we settled in, realizing that we’re not going to have Russell, and guys are stepping up.”

How about Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who absorbs criticism at times for stubbornly sticking to lineups? When he deployed a small unit for the first time in the game as he sensed it getting away at 70-58 with 1:57 left in the third quarter, the momentum shifted drastically in OKC’s favor. A 15-5 run — with three of the Grizzlies’ points coming on Pondexter’s halfcourt heave at the end of the third — cut Memphis’ lead to 75-73 with 10:10 to play.

And his trust in Durant to take the turnover created by Fisher’s poke of Conley uninterrupted by a timeout proved masterful. The ball came to Durant who pushed it up at his coach’s insistence. With Memphis trying to get back, Durant pulled up from 19 and banged it home.

It was a game the resolute Thunder could have lost and one the Grizzlies believe they should have won.

“I feel like we gave it away, honestly,” said Zach Randolph, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds.

But that’s not giving the Thunder enough credit. OKC’s big men, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, were atrocious offensively, going 2-for-16 from the floor, and Perkins nearly blew OKC’s chance altogether when Durant’s routine inbounds pass slipped through his hands, leaving Durant rolling his eyes and Memphis with the ball up 90-87 and 1:07 to go.

But the Thunder’s inside duo made Memphis’ Randolph and Gasol pay a physical price in the paint. Perkins played 34 minutes, the most of OKC’s starters other than Durant, and played big in holding the inside-oriented Grizzlies to just 32 points in the paint and four second-chance points on eight total offensive rebounds.

It wasn’t always pretty — OKC missed its first 10 shots and scored 31 points in the first and third quarters combined — and it won’t be the rest of the way. But in taking Game 1, the Thunder, down a star, are coming up with alternatives.

“We know what Russell brings to our team,” Brooks said. “He’s an amazing player and an incredible leader that has been missed, there’s no doubt. But we’ve changed in different ways. We’re different, but we’re still a good team and on both ends of the floor we present problems.”

D’Antoni Must Step Into The Void … Now!





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – As much as the rest of this season for the Los Angeles Lakers is about Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, the responsibility for how the Lakers finish sits squarely on the shoulders of one Mike D’Antoni.

The Lakers’ coach lost the cloak of Kobe Bryant, who is recovering from Saturday surgery to repair his torn Achilles and will be out for at least the next six months. D’Antoni no longer has the option of allowing Bryant to answer for the Lakers basketball sins this season. He can’t ease into the background as Bryant explains away one of the great botched chemistry experiments in pro sports history.

All of that internal security from doubters, both near and far, evaporated with just over three minutes to play Friday night at Staples Center, when Bryant’s season came to an abrupt end.

This season’s defining moment will come without Bryant in uniform, it could come as early as tonight’s showdown with the San Antonio Spurs (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), with D’Antoni clearly at the controls of a team he had no says so in building after taking over for Mike Brown in November.

The style disconnect that has existed all season can no longer be used as an excuse, not with both Howard and Gasol playing their old selves in recent weeks. Nash is a non-factor and has been for much of the season, due to injuries, and World Peace is going to bring the same frenetic energy he always does, regardless of who is and is not in uniform.

D’Atnoni is now the wild card. Can he cajole this team into the playoffs, making good on Bryant’s guarantee, and ensure that they make the noise Bryant swore they would once they got in? D’Antoni’s future with the Lakers depends on it. D’Antoni has a chance to reintroduce himself to this team in ways that he simply could not when Bryant was at the center of all things.

Unlike some, I don’t blame D’Antoni for pushing Bryant too hard, playing him a merciless amount of minutes as the Lakers clawed their way back into playoff contention after the All-Star break. There’s enough of Southland bashing of D’Antoni, Lakers’ owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak to fill every minutes of every day until Bryant returns, and you know he’s coming back from this.

Bryant was in the midst of a seven-game stretch where he was averaging 46 physically taxing minutes a night trying to rescue a team that plenty of us feel has been mismanaged since Bernie Bickerstaff‘s brief tenure at the helm, he bridged the gap between Brown and D’Antoni. Even a freak injury like the one Bryant suffered looks a bit curious to those of us who don’t buy into the conspiracy theories.

I blame D’Antoni for dropping the ball and not being able to reign in Bryant’s wicked competitive streak at a time when it was clear the seemingly ageless wonder was laboring. I blame him for being too stubborn to adjust his own philosophy to fit the talent on the roster he inherited. Game after game Bryant was forced to carry the Lakers in ways that were really unnecessary, given the fact that remain the only team in the league with two elite 7-footers at their disposal.

Lucky for D’Antoni, he has a chance to make it all right. If can guide the Lakers past the Spurs tonight, he could set up a weekend date with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs. Or maybe it’s Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

There is room for redemption if D’Antoni can claw his way out of this weekend’s and this season’s mess. But it has to include the Lakers finishing this playoff fight with the Utah Jazz right and following it with a playoff run as spirited as anything Bryant did during his one-man rescue of the Lakers before Friday night.

We can all agree that D’Antoni is an offensive genius and visionary in a league filled with followers. But if he can’t engineer the Lakers’ rise from this latest fall, if he can’t go back to the drawing board and pull out the motivational tactics to inspire this team, then he might very well be devoured by the Lakers’ season on the brink.

But if he wants out of Phil Jackson‘s shadow and wants to write his own chapter in Lakers’ lore, he has to step into the void now and run with it for as long as humanly possible.

Thunder On Top, NBA Well Represented In ESPN The Mag’s Franchise Rankings

 

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their Oklahoma City Thunder teammates spent their entire summer with a nagging pain eating away at them, knowing that they didn’t finish last season the way they wanted to.

Losing to the Miami Heat in The Finals is a stain on their record that won’t be shoved aside until they get back to The Finals and break through. But in the absence of a championship won on the court, the Thunder can revel in the fact that they’ve finished on top in another race.

The Thunder rank first overall in ESPN The Magazine’s 10th annual ranking of pro sports franchises, a list that includes 122 franchises from all the major sports. Fourteen NBA franchises — the Thunder, Spurs, Pacers, Grizzlies, Celtics, Sixers, Bulls, Mavericks, Heat, Jazz, Nuggets, Hornets, Cavs and Rockets — made the top 51. The most notable omission from that group, the Los Angeles Lakers, came in at No. 89.

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Blogtable: Who Has Most Wins?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes 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.

Who leads the league in wins? How many? How do they do it?

Steve Aschburner: From my vantage point in Chicago, it’s only natural that I’m bullish on … Miami. Not that I’m suddenly a fan of the “super team” approach – I’m not – but in this case, after such a long, challenging season in 2010-11 to learn what works and what doesn’t work for that crew, the Heat are poised to make good on, well, let’s just start with one NBA championship. They have stars, they have continuity, they have three players who can carry the load on any given night – or on back-to-back-to-back nights – and they have something to prove. I see 56-10 as the setup for 16 more victories in the postseason.

Fran Blinebury: In the second year in coach Tom Thibodeau‘s system, with Derrick Rose reaffirming his MVP selection and with Rip Hamilton fitting into the lineup perfectly, the Bulls will reach a nifty 50.

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Grit and grind one more time?

MEMPHIS – The Thunder beat up the Grizzlies and then the Grizzlies beat up themselves.

“We got embarrassed,” said Mike Conley.

“We didn’t have it,” said Shane Battier. “The ubiquitous ‘it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, we didn’t have it.”

So it’s been a fun ride, but now the Grizzlies are at the edge of the cliff.

That’s how everyone sees it.

Everyone, that is, except the Grizzlies.

“The series is not over,” said Memphis coach Lionel Hollins. “I’m sure a lot of you guys are writing about it being over. I still believe in my team. I’m sure we’ll come back and regroup … and be ready.”

“He says this is where we find out who we are,” said Conley. “Find out the kind of people we are. What kind of players we are. Because you don’t know until your back is against the wall, and everything is up for grabs. This will be a good test for us.”

The Grizzlies, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven, will have to be ready for Game 6 on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) with much more enthusiasm and energy than they could summon for Game 5. Whether it was the product of a physical and emotional hangover from the triple-overtime Game 4 or a surge in confidence by the Thunder, for the first time in the series there was a clear difference between the two teams.

The Grizzlies insist that it’s not the Thunder defense that’s been the difference, but their own lack of aggressiveness at going to the basket and finishing. They missed 18 layups in Game 5

“We missed shots. I don’t think it’s nothing special they’re doing,” said Zach Randolph, who has shot just 22-for-69 in the last four games.

Through the first four games, the Grizzlies had actually outscored the Thunder by two cumulative points and dominated OKC on the offensive glass. But Game 5 was a complete collapse. Now the Grizzlies face the challenge of proving that they belong for the first time since the playoffs began a month ago.

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