Posts Tagged ‘Scott Brooks’

OKC’s Lamb waits through reduced role

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Demotions stink.

There’s no way around it, no matter the line of work. It’s impossible not to take it personally. But hey, that’s life, and a team player, a professional, is expected to bite the bullet and keep on keeping on. It’s particularly true in the delicate world of pro sports.

Welcome to Jeremy Lamb‘s world. For 60 games, the coming-of-age Oklahoma City Thunder wing had served in a 21-minute-a-game role as a reserve. Averaging 9.5 points a game on 43.7 percent shooting and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in those games, the 6-foot-5, long-limbed Lamb had received praise from most precincts as a valuable member of the Thunder’s strengthened bench.

Only Lamb’s mostly been tied to the bench since early March. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, signed as a free agent after being released by Milwaukee, immediately walked into 28 minutes a game. Butler, 34, can deliver rugged defense, rebounding and a reliable corner 3-pointer — he’s shooting 39.7 percent from deep, if only 36.8 percent overall.

Lamb before Butler Lamb post Butler Butler in OKC
Games 60 12 13
Minutes/game 21.7 14.1 28.0
Points/game 9.5 4.7 9.8
Rebounds/game 2.7 2.0 3.5
Assists/game 1.6 1.4 1.2
FG% 43.7 34.8 36.8
3FG% 35.1 33.3 39.7
FT% 83.9 33.3 85.7
FTA/g 0.9 0.5 0.5

Perhaps it’s just a case of bad timing for Lamb, who was mired in a shooting slump over the last two weeks of February, going 9-for-38 from the floor (23.7 percent) and 5-for-21 from 3-point range (23.8 percent) over a six-game stretch. In the 12 games he’s played since the rotation change, his minutes have plummeted, his overall shooting percentage is 34.8 (and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc) and he’s averaging just 4.7 points a game. An 83.9-percent free-throw shooter, Lamb’s missed four of the six he’s attempted since Butler’s first game on March 4.

“Of course it’s not easy, but it’s doable to try to stay ready because I don’t want to get in a game and let my teammates down and let my coaches down,” Lamb said last Tuesday before the Thunder played the Dallas Mavericks. Lamb didn’t get off the bench at all in that game, recording his only DNP-CD of the season. In fact, it is the only game this season he hasn’t appeared.

“I try to stay ready, try to stay on top of my game,” Lamb said. “Coach [Scott Brooks], he still gives me opportunities, he still trusts me, but Caron is on the team now and he’s been playing good. It’s all just a learning experience for me.”

That’s what Lamb, 21, thought last season was all about when he played in just 23 games after coming to Oklahoma City with Kevin Martin as part of the James Harden trade shortly before the start of the 2012-13 season.There’s also an added ego hit to this. Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the Rockets in 2012, has seen his reduced role come at a time when starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s top perimeter defender, is sidelined by injury. Defensive-minded rookie Andre Roberson, long and active at 6-foot-7, has started  the last nine games and averaged 17.6 minutes a game. He produces little offense, about only a third of Sefolosha’s 6.7 points a game, but in a starting lineup with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s larger need is at the other end.

“His minutes have been a little up and down but it’s not that he’s going to be a forgotten man,” Brooks said of Lamb. “He’s going to get opportunities. He just has to stay ready and stay confident, and that definitely is difficult for any player let alone a younger player. There’s areas he’s going to be able to continue to work on. He’s not on the bench permanently, he’s just going to have to be ready when his opportunities come.

“There’s times where in anybody’s career if you’re not playing you still have to improve and find ways to get better, and we’re going to continue to work with him and prepare him for opportunities to play. And he’s going to get them.”

In the last two games, blowout wins over Sacramento and Utah, Lamb played 33 minutes and 22 minutes respectively. Against the Jazz his minutes were split evenly between halves. Against the Kings he played 16 minutes in the first half.

But he’s also logged seven minutes or less five times in the Thunder’s last 13 games, including the DNP-CD at Dallas. Eight times he’s been limited to 14:20 or less. That happened just four times prior to Butler’s arrival.

“I definitely talk to Jeremy. He’s a confident young guy,” Westbrook said. “You always got to be ready, that’s all I can tell him. Just be ready, work on your game everyday and you never know when your number’s going to be called. He’ll be ready. My job is to help him do that, to stay confident and think positive thoughts about himself and his game.”

The Thunder have nine games remaining in the regular season with a home date against San Antonio next on Thursday. There remains no certainty of Sefolosha’s return or how a rotation will shake out from there. For Lamb, there’s only one thing he can do.

“My teammates they always encourage me. I just try to work hard,” Lamb said. “Coach still communicates with me telling me to stay ready, keep going. That’s what I’m trying to do.”Stay ready.”

Turnovers trouble for contenders?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: James Harden and the Rockets commit a lot of turnovers but force many as well

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Turnovers. Can’t get rid of all of them. But how many can a contender live with?

“There are some you’re going to have and there’s a lot that we have that we work hard on not getting those type of turnovers,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, whose club coughs it up more per 100 possessions than only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers, and just barely. “The careless turnover, the no-look [pass] when there’s no reason, I mean, that’s silly turnovers.”

The Rockets turn it over 16.7 times per 100 possessions (16.5 times per game) and surrender 18.7 points per 100 possessions off of them, more than only the Bucks, Lakers and Sixers. The lazy pass up top, the poorly placed entry feed and the forced bounced pass through traffic, all Rockets mainstays, can be avoided, or at least reduced. Of the total points Houston has allowed (101.7 ppg), 18.1 percent can be chalked up to their own turnovers. In a playoff series, such miscues can be fatal.

“Aggressive turnovers — you’re running, you’re moving, you’re passing, you’re attacking the basket — yeah, you’re going to have a few of those turnovers,” McHale said. “Our live-ball turnovers are something that we really try to harp on.”

Among teams with lofty postseason aspirations, turnovers are not Houston’s problem alone. Oklahoma City (16.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, 27th in the league) continues to fight it as does Indiana (15.9, 26th) and Golden State (15.5, 18th). Houston and OKC rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in allowing the most points off turnovers per 100 possessions. Golden State is 13th and the Pacers are an impressive 26th considering their turnover rate. That’s where live-ball turnovers (when the ball remains in play) versus dead-ball turnovers (when the clock stops and the opponent inbounds the ball) comes into play.

The Rockets (53.0 percent of turnovers are live-ball), Warriors (52.0 percent) and Thunder (53.7) have a much higher percentage of live-ball turnovers than the Pacers (46.9 percent). Live-ball turnovers are typically far more devastating, with the likely result being a transition basket the other way. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle labels such giveaways as “catastrophic turnovers.” Dead-ball turnovers, while they waste an offensive possession, at least allow for the defense to get set.

Teams that play at a quicker pace, like the Rockets, Warriors and Thunder, are also natural candidates for more turnovers than more plodding teams like the Pacers, which should also greatly concern Indiana. Higher pace teams possess the ball more each game and playing a faster style lends itself to the potential for more mistakes, particularly of the live-ball variety.

The primary ball-handler for the Rockets (James Harden, 3.7 turnovers per game), Warriors (Steph Curry, 3.8) and the Thunder (Russell Westbrook, 4.0) all rank in the top four in the league for most turnovers per game (per 100 of their own possessions, Westbrook ranks 10th, Harden 15th and Curry 23rd among players averaging at least 30 mpg). Thunder superstar Kevin Durant (3.6 turnovers per game) is fifth. LeBron James (3.5) is eighth.

“It seems like all the top-10 turnover guys are the best players in the league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

Yet not seen in the top five or 10 or even 30 is Clippers point guard and league assist leader Chris Paul. As a team, the Clippers are one of the best at taking care of the ball. They rank sixth overall, turning it over 14.2 times per 100 possessions (13.9 times per game). All in all, the Clippers have turned it over 141 fewer times than the Rockets, 98 fewer than the Warriors and 94 fewer times than the Thunder, equating to more opportunities to score, about two more a game than the Rockets, a potentially critical stat in a seven-game playoff series.

“Russell does turn the ball over, KD does turn the ball over, but they have the ability to make plays and they create so many opportunities to get other guys easy shots,” Brooks said. “We’d like those to be a little lower and we’re working on ways to get those lower.”

But, Brooks cautioned, as much as he preaches decision-making, he’s not going to constrict the natural athletic abilities and instincts of his two stars in the name of reducing turnovers by one or two a game.

“I do not want Russell to play like I played. It would not look good,” joked Brooks, a fundamentally sound, 5-foot-11 point guard who carved out a 10-year career with six teams. “We want Russell to be aggressive. We’re a good team when he attacks, we’re a good team when Kevin attacks.”

All turnovers are not equal, and all surely cannot be avoided. But when push comes to shove starting next month, a game, a series could come down to the careful versus the careless.

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 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Jackson to decide on Knicks’ offer today | Report: Sixers’ Noel wants to play this season | Bynum ready for action, too | Durant could score more | A J-Smoove/Rondo reunion?

Update, 1:31 p.m. ET: From the looks of things (literally) per a report from ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, Phil Jackson seems headed for a front-office job with the New York Knicks:

All indications are that Phil Jackson will accept the New York Knicks’ offer to join the club’s front office, according to a league source.

“The Knicks have a sense of what’s going to happen,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And as of right now, it looks like Phil’s taking the job.

“There’s always the possibility of something falling apart at the last minute, but the Knicks’ sense is that he’s joining them.”

The two sides are still working out all the details, including what Jackson’s title will be, how much time he will spend in New York, and when in the next few months he will start his job.

Jackson’s answer is expected to become official within the next day or so. The Knicks have not yet scheduled an announcement.

Jackson will not be a mere consultant for the Knicks, as he was recently for the Detroit Pistons. Whatever his title, he will be an integral part of the club’s basketball operations. Jackson will definitely not coach the team.

And here’s our earlier entry from this morning about the Knicks and Jackson expected to reach a deal sometime today …

Report: Knicks expect decision from Jackson today – New York Knicks fans are nervously awaiting word from Phil Jackson today, wondering and many of them hoping that the legendary coach will join the organization in a front office position that will help lift their team out a season-long (and some would say decade’s old funk). It’s unclear whether or not Phil’s presence alone will change the fortunes of the franchise. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News details the countdown to the latest decision:

According to an NBA source familiar with the negotiations, the Knicks expect to have a decision on Monday, approximately two weeks after Jackson turned down an offer to coach the club. The 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach is considering a lucrative deal to join the Knicks’ front office and be placed in charge of the basketball operations.

The possibility of Jackson returning to the franchise that drafted him would give the Knicks instant credibility since Jackson has won 11 NBA titles as a coach and two as a player.

The downside, of course, is that Jackson has never been an executive and, at this stage of his life and career, on-the-job training could be a risky proposition for both sides. Jackson, though, believes he can make the same transition that Pat Riley made nearly 20 years ago when he left the Knicks to run the Miami Heat.

The Knicks have not commented on Jackson’s potential hiring and have not even acknowledged that an offer has been made. In recent interviews, Jackson has made it clear that he has no interest in coaching and instead prefers a consultant’s role similar to the one Jerry West has with the Golden State Warriors.

Whether Jackson wants to live full-time in New York or would be required to do so remains unclear. Jackson splits his time between his Montana ranch and his beach house in Playa Del Rey, Calif. Jackson is not enamored with traveling, which is crucial if he takes the job. In fact, with all the college basketball tournaments starting, it would be essential for Jackson to be on the road scouting. However, Jackson has no appetite for that aspect of the job and is not a big fan of college basketball. Friends say his true passion is following the NHL.

In that case, perhaps Dolan will give Jackson the same freedom he gives to Rangers president Glen Sather, who lives in both California and Canada. Whether that arrangement works with the Knicks, considering the club’s current state, is debatable.

It is also unclear if Jackson is sincere about joining the Knicks or perhaps leveraging James Dolan’s offer to return to the Los Angeles Lakers in some capacity. Jackson’s girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, is a club executive and the daughter of the onetime Lakers owner, the late Jerry Buss.


VIDEO: Isiah Thomas talks about the challenges of fixing the Knicks

***

No. 2: Report: Noel wants to play on April 4 – Nerlens Noel has every intention of making his rookie debut with the Philadelphia 76ers before this NBA seasons ends. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that  Noel has been preparing himself for a action all season and believe he’ll be ready to make his first appearance in a Sixers uniform in his hometown of Boston:

The sources said this is just a wish that he had not disclosed to the Sixers as of Sunday afternoon.

Noel has been sidelined this season due to the anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered in his left knee in February, 2013 during his lone season at Kentucky.

The 6-foot-11, 228-pounder is slowly increasing his activity on the court and has yet to participate in five-on-five scrimmages. Minor back spasms held him out of Sunday’s open practice for Sixers Camps participants and their families at Haverford College.

There’s a thought that the franchise doesn’t want him on the court and would be content if he missed the entire season. In October, Sixers coach Brett Brown said Noel was not likely to play this season, something the team has stood by ever since.

***

No. 3: Bynum ready for work next week – The Indiana Pacers are mired in a slump right now, losers of four straight even though they are still sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this morning. Could there be a remedy for their woes in the form of Andrew Bynum, the former All-Star center who has yet to suit up in a game with the Pacers? Could be. But he has to get on the court first. And Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star explains the Pacers’ plans regarding Bynum:

On Sunday, Bynum said that he hopes to be “cleared to play next week,” believing that he could be on the floor by Friday, March 14 when the Pacers play in Philadelphia. Pacers coach Frank Vogel said the team planned to re-evaluate Bynum after the road trip.

“We’ll see after (Sunday’s) game goes and then we’ll probably meet about it (Monday),” Vogel said, “and try to come up with a firmer plan.”

Through his career, Bynum, a 7-0 center, has shown flashes of dominance but has also been limited with knee problems. Bynum, 26, began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and started alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol when the team won its second consecutive NBA championship in 2010.

Last season, Bynum was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers then signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Cavaliers over the summer. In 24 games this season with the Cavaliers, Bynum averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. Through Bynum said that he was “probably at 90 (percent)” at the end of his time in Cleveland, the team traded him to the Chicago Bulls.

After being waived by the Bulls on Jan. 7, Bynum took several weeks off before deciding to sign with the Pacers as a backup to Roy Hibbert.

Bynum has worked with the team’s training and medical staff to build up his knee strength. Over the past weeks, Bynum has slowly picked up more work on the basketball court and on Saturday he participated in a full practice that included 5-on-5 action.

“He looked good,” Vogel said about the Saturday practice, “and he looked like he can give us some short bursts.

***

No. 4: Durant could score more if needed – The Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent woes don’t include any individual struggles from Kevin Durant, who continues to light it up, win or lose. He could score more, according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, if he wasn’t so focused on the team. Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the details:

“Let’s face it: If he wanted to score a bunch of points or more than he’s scoring now, he really could do that,” Brooks said before the Thunder played the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. “His assist level has gone up, he impacts the game. Defensively, he impacts the game. He can guard 1 through 5. So a lot of things that he does (are) all about the team.”

Durant entered Sunday’s game averaging a career-high 31.8 points per game, but his 5.5 assists per game are also a career-best mark for the seven-year veteran.

On Sunday he had a triple-double through three quarters and finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the Thunder’s 114-110 loss to the Lakers.

While Durant leads the league with 10 games of 40 or more points this season, Brooks said the rangy forward really stood out with his all-around game while Russell Westbrook was sidelined with a knee injury for two months.

“When he was out, (Durant) definitely had to continue to lead us,” Brooks said. “Not only on the court, but off the court. Just from the emotional standpoint of losing Russell, he had to wrap that type of stress around his game and continue to work our way as a team through that. It’s not easy losing players, (especially) a dynamic player like Russell is. But Kevin came in and led us.

“He improved his defense and his playmaking, the ball was in his hands and the decisions were more so in his hands and he did a good job with that. With adding Russell now, it gives us two dynamic players, and that’s better. That’s better for us because you can’t load up on one. The thing about KD, he knows that he has the ability to impact the game on both ends and he does it every night. The consistency level that he has, it’s remarkable that he’s so consistent every night.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant records a triple-double in OKC’s loss to the L.A. Lakers

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No. 5: J-Smoove is dreaming of a reunion with Rondo – As seniors at Oak Hill Academy, Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo formed one of the most dynamic duos in the history of the boarding school/basketball factory. A reunion at the NBA level is not in the offing, but it’s also not impossible. Smith admitted to fantasizing about it, never mind that he plays for the Detroit Pistons and Rondo is under contract for at least one more season after this one in Boston. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.com connects the dots for you:

They watched film together. They walked to the gym together for extra workouts together. They played games together.

Could they team up again in the NBA?

“The conversation comes up,” Smith said. “We always tell each other how surreal a moment that would be, for us to be able to reconnect again in that realm. With the different free agencies that we both have, it could be far-fetched, but it could be possible, too.

“I’m always optimistic. I’m always thinking different scenarios. It could happen, but who knows?”

Smith said he and Rondo talk frequently and vacation together, but he adds, he’s happy with the Pistons and Rondo is still making his mark with the Celtics.

But if it were to happen, what would work?

The Pistons have previously shown interest in Rondoand there also has been Smith-to-Boston buzz. So, either player could swap teams.

If they were to join forces in Boston, how about Smith for Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace this summer? Then, the Pistons should have the cap room to make that deal, accepting Wallace’s toxic contract as a tax for upgrading – in age, fit and contract status – from Smith to Green.


VIDEO: Rajon Rondo and the Celtics dispatch Josh Smith and the Pistons

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony has not been consulted on the Phil Jackson business and has been kept in the dark about the Knicks’ future plans … Eric Bledsoe is ready to come back to the Suns … The Nets are down to just two (of their six) All-Stars and somehow, someway they keep winning … Are the Rockets the best team in the league right now? Our Fran Blinebury tackles that one

ICYMI of the Night: Move over Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Make room for in the annals of the Los Angeles Lakers for Jodie Meeks …. that’s right, Jodie Meeks, who showed up and showed out with 42 points in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder …


VIDEO: Jodie Meeks shreds the Thunder for 42 points

KD Keeps Streaking As Russ Blasts Off


VIDEO: Durant pours in 42 points in Thunder’s rout of Sixers

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST –LeBron James scored a career-high 61 points on Monday night. How would Kevin Durant answer a night later in what’s becoming a must-see, game-by-game, blow-by-blow MVP race?

Durant totaled 42 points on 14-for-20 shooting, nine rebounds and three assists in a mere 32 minutes in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 125-92 dismantling of the moribund Philadelphia 76ers. It was an individual performance that stacked up more to a Sixer of another era, The Answer, as in Allen Iverson, than to LeBron.

For the 26th consecutive game, Durant scored at least 25 points, the third-longest such streak in the last 25 years. The two players who’ve gone longer? Durant did it for 29 consecutive games during the 2009-10 season. And Mr. Iverson, the man who watched his No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers jersey raised to the rafters Monday, got it done in 27 consecutive games during the 2000-01 season. That’s it. Those two. No LeBron to be found.

In fact, after Tuesday’s 106-103 loss at Houston, James has sandwiched his 61 — his second game of the season of 40 points or more — with games of 20 and now 22. Durant, meanwhile, notched his 10th game of 40 points or more and his fourth in the last nine games. He made his first seven shots and was 8-for-11 with 21 points by halftime. Then came 21 in the third quarter on 6-for-9 shooting and his night was done.

Had he not unnaturally struggled at the free throw line, going 12-for-18, Durant probably would have hit 50 for a second time this season.

“It’s his fault,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks kidded. “I would’ve ran one more play for him to get 50 if he would’ve made his six free throws.”

But get this: Kevin wasn’t the story of the night. Because Russ ended up being Russ.

Russell Westbrook, in his sixth game back from a third right knee surgery since last April, ripped the 76ers for a triple-double — 13 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — in a land speed record of 20 minutes, 17 seconds. At least it’s the fastest anyone’s accumulated a triple-double in nearly 60 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“He’s just physically so gifted and he is so competitive,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “You know, there is a — and I say this respectfully — there is an angry competitor that wills his way into doing stuff, and I say that with the utmost respect, and so you saw those physical abilities along with just such a strong mind. It’s a powerful combination.”

Westbrook racked up eight assists in his first stint of six minutes, 34 seconds.

“Fourteen assists in 20 minutes,” Brooks marveled. “I mean, potentially if he had played more minutes, he probably could have had 20 assists tonight.”

That’s now 40 assists for Westbrook in his last five games, and perhaps the best sign that his knee is feeling fine is the 10 rebounds. He had 12 in the previous four games. The triple-double was his second of the season. The first came on Christmas Day at New York, his unsuspecting final game before being summoned back to the operating table.

“It is crazy,” Westbrook said of his rapid-fire filling of the box score. “I’m just trying to get my groove back. It is crazy to be able to do that in such a short amount of time, but it was fun.”

“I’m super proud of him,” Durant said of his buddy during a TV interview after the game.

It’s a great sign for the Thunder (46-15), who have now won three in a row since losing their first three games of Westbrook’s return out of the All-Star break. They are without injured starters Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but they did welcome newcomer Caron Butler into the rotation for the first time.

Bought out by the Bucks last week and signed by the opportunistic Thunder, the veteran small forward logged 26 minutes off the bench and contributed two points, an assist and five rebounds. He received a warm welcome from the home sellout crowd.

“I was just excited to be in that environment,” Butler said. “It felt like being at UConn again.”


VIDEO: Westbrook tallies triple-double in just over 20 minutes

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.

***

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

***

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.

***

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

SportVU: Uncontested Jumpers vs. OKC

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In our Q and A at All-Star weekend, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said that when his team is on defense, he’s “concerned about making sure that every shot is contested.”

Contesting every shot is impossible, but Brooks’ team certainly can do a better job. According to SportVU, no team has contested a lower percentage of its opponents’ jump shots than the Thunder . They’ve contested just 24 percent of opponent jumpers, a mark well below the league average of 31 percent.

Perc. of opponent jump shots contested
Rank Team Cont%
1. San Antonio 38.2%
2. L.A. Clippers 36.9%
3. Indiana 35.6%
4. Denver 34.7%
5. Memphis 34.4%
6. Atlanta 34.3%
7. Portland 34.2%
8. Charlotte 34.1%
9. Chicago 33.8%
10. L.A. Lakers 33.7%
11. Golden State 33.1%
12. Orlando 32.2%
13. Toronto 31.8%
14. Boston 31.3%
15. Miami 30.8%
16. Phoenix 30.7%
17. Detroit 30.2%
18. Dallas 29.8%
19. Minnesota 29.6%
20. Washington 29.3%
21. Brooklyn 29.3%
22. Sacramento 28.6%
23. Milwaukee 28.2%
24. New Orleans 27.9%
25. Houston 27.9%
26. Utah 27.1%
27. Cleveland 26.4%
28. Philadelphia 24.9%
29. New York 24.5%
30. Oklahoma City 23.8%
League avg. 30.9%

SportVU defines a jump shot as any shot out outside of 10 feet. It’s contested if a defender is within four feet of the shooter.

There’s a much stronger correlation between defensive efficiency and opponent effective field-goal percentage (EFG%) than between defensive efficiency and any of the other “four factors” (rebounding, forcing turnovers, keeping opponents off the free-throw line).

Here’s the thing, though. The Thunder rank fourth in opponent EFG% and fourth in defensive efficiency. They’ve been a great defensive team — even though they haven’t contested jump shots very well. There is a correlation between the percentage of jumpers a team contests and its opponents’ EFG% (and in turn, their defensive efficiency). The Thunder are an outlier.

They have defended the rim well. They rank fifth in opponent field-goal percentage in the restricted area, with Serge Ibaka ranking among the top individual rim protectors. That’s obviously important.

But, by itself, it doesn’t account for how high the Thunder rank in opponent EFG%. Not only do they not contest jumpers very well, but they don’t really force bad shots. About 61 percent of their opponents’ shots have come from the restricted area or 3-point range, the seventh highest rate in the league.

So how have they been so good defensively? They do rank in the top 10 in defensive rebounding percentage and are slightly above average at forcing turnovers. But you have to wonder if there’s a little luck involved. Take the following numbers into account…

  • Thunder opponents have shot 38.7 percent on uncontested jumpers, the sixth lowest rate in the league.
  • Thunder opponents have shot 30.5 percent on contested jumpers, the second lowest rate in the league.
  • Thunder opponents have shot 72.2 percent from the free-throw line, the second lowest rate in the league. (What goes around comes around; they ranked 28th in free-throw defense last season.)
  • Only one other defense (the Lakers) ranks in the top 10 in each of those three categories. Five other teams rank in the top 10 in two of the three.

Now, the definition of what’s contested (see above) allows for some leeway. It could mean that the defender is six inches from the shooter with his hand in his face, and it could mean that he’s 48 inches away with his hands down. Maybe the Thunder contest to a different degree than other teams. But they don’t contest a lot.

Eliminating the possible “luck” factor, the Thunder are still a good defensive team. If OKC opponents had shot the league average on contested jumpers, uncontested jumpers and free throws, the Thunder would have allowed 86 more points this season (about 1.5 more per 100 possessions) and would rank seventh in defensive efficiency (in part because there’s a dropoff after the top seven).

But they have had trouble slowing down Golden State, one of the league’s best jump-shooting teams, the team that has been the most efficient against the Thunder this season, and a possible first-round playoff opponent. In his three games against the Thunder, only 21 of Stephen Curry‘s 66 field goal attempts have been contested (just three of 22 on Nov. 14).

Some other good jump-shooting teams — Atlanta, Miami and Portland — also have had decent success against the Thunder. Others — Dallas and Phoenix — have not.

In this first full season of player tracking, there are still some things to figure out. And maybe things will be different defensively for the Thunder with a healthy Russell Westbrook. But if Brooks’ goal is to contest every shot, his team has some work to do.

FYI (because some readers have asked): While you can find contested and uncontested shots in the Player Tracking tab of our NBA.com/stats boxscores, we don’t yet have them on the season level. That’s in the works.

Will Thunder Miss Perkins Or Not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hang Time One-On-One … with Reggie Jackson

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Reggie Jackson knew it wasn’t his job to hold on to forever. He knew Russell Westbrook would be back and that his role would change, yet again. Any young point guard in Oklahoma City has to know his role.

But not every young point guard would excel the way Jackson has this season in Westbrook’s absence. The Thunder didn’t miss a beat this season with Jackson at the controls (they went 22-8 without Westbrook in action), and in fact, they were just as good or better in nearly every category with Jackson in the starting five. For his part, Jackson averaged 14.4 points, 4.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 30 starting assignments.

With Westbrook back, though, Jackson shifts back to his role off the bench and becomes a key cog in the Thunder machine led by Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, that will square off against the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, ABC). 

Thunder coach Scott Brooks has a quality insurance policy in Jackson, who joined us during All-Star Weekend for the  latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series to talk about his game, his role, learning how to work the right way in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder are headed and much more:


VIDEO: Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson personifies the “next man up” mantra in OKC

Talking Defense With Scott Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder defense, last four seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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