Posts Tagged ‘Serge Ibaka’

Morning Shootaround — March 21


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news | LeBron leads Cavaliers to playoff spot on rough night | Clippers making their move in the Western Conference playoff chase

No. 1: Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news — It’s truly Russell Westbrook‘s team now in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is out indefinitely with no reasonable expectation that he will return this season, whether the Thunder make the playoffs or not. Whatever the circumstance, Westbrook is bringing the energy and effort needed to lead the charge for Scott Brooks‘ team, just as he did Friday night in the Thunder’s takedown of the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks. Love him or hate him, right now the underdog is on top after collecting his ninth triple double and pushing the Thunder up the ladder in the chase for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman explains:

The Thunder’s already wavering title hopes took a potentially fatal blow on Friday morning with the latest Kevin Durant injury setback.

But by late Friday night, Russell Westbrook and a patched together lineup had already reminded the basketball world that — while a championship run is now hard to fathom — high-level hoops entertainment will remain for the next month-plus in Oklahoma City.

The East-leading Atlanta Hawks came to town, packing a potent offense to feast on the Thunder’s slumping defense. Void of Serge Ibaka to clean up mistakes, OKC struggled on that end again.

But as has been common of late, even without double-double machine Enes Kanter on this night, the Thunder went all mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and succeeded in outscoring a scoring machine. The final: Thunder 123, Hawks 115.

“It was like an ABA game out there,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks joked.

With the win, OKC became only the fourth NBA team to ever go from nine games under .500 to nine games over in the same season.

And Westbrook, again, was at the center of it all, finishing with 36 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for his ninth triple-double of the season.

Instead of an emotional letdown after the latest Durant news, the Thunder came out energized and angry, jumping on the Hawks in the opening minutes. Westbrook had seven of his 14 assists in the first quarter. OKC, at one point, held an early nine-point lead.

But after the Hawks weathered that early storm, OKC’s faulty defense sprung leaks and Atlanta started splashing jumpers from all over the floor. On this night, reserve big man Pero Antic played the role of random dude to roast the Thunder’s perimeter defense, going off for 18 points in 12 first half minutes.

The Hawks led 68-61 at halftime. With two minutes left in the third quarter, that lead had ballooned to 12. Shorthanded, it looked like the Thunder would come up short, fittingly capping an emotionally tough day for the franchise.

But then Anthony Morrow got hot and the tone of the game changed.

With 7:54 left in the fourth quarter, Morrow splashed in his third three of the night, cutting the Hawks lead to four. It was the sixth consecutive game Morrow has hit at least three 3s, one of the hotter stretches of his storied shooting career.

But he was just getting started. Over the next four minutes of game action, Morrow drilled three more 3s, the crowd noise rising and the Thunder’s momentum building with each splash.

“I’ve never experienced (a playoff atmosphere),” Morrow said. “But (Westbrook) said that was close to it.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook lifted the Thunder on the night they found out Kevin Durant’s season could be over 

*** (more…)

Report: Ibaka needs knee procedure

Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka is need of a surgical procedure to address knee soreness, according to ESPN.com. Ibaka would join a long list of Thunder regulars to miss time with injury, including All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Durant has missed 39 games (foot surgery and soreness) and Westbrook 15.

Ibaka has been sent to a specialist, according to ESPN.com:

The Thunder have not confirmed that Ibaka will undergo the surgery, saying in a statement Monday that they have sent him to a specialist.

“As we continue to monitor and evaluate the soreness in Serge’s knee, in consultation with his representation, we decided the next best step is to have him travel to New York to see a specialist,” a team spokesman said. “We will provide an update as appropriate.”

Morning shootaround — Jan. 24


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday’s NBA action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Amazing Klay | Hawks soaring | Here come the Cavs? | Teletovic out for the season

No. 1: Amazing Klay — Last night against the Sacramento Kings, Golden State’s Klay Thompson did something last night nobody in the history of the NBA had ever managed to do: He scored 37 points in one quarter. He was so hot that nothing slowed him down, not double-teams, not timeouts. Thompson didn’t miss a shot in the period and scored 37 of Golden State’s 41 in the third, effectively ending the Kings’ chances with each increasingly improbable three. Diamond Leung, the Warriors’ beat writer from the Bay Area Media Group, writes that after the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr even compared Thompson to another wing player who was known to get buckets

He delivered the most electrifying game of his career, going 16-for-25 from the field and 11-for-15 from 3-point range in 33 minutes to lift the Warriors to their 35th win of the season at the midway point and a franchise-record 18th straight victory at home.

Thompson was 9-for-9 from 3-point range in the third as the rest of the Warriors kept passing him the ball in a quarter when he scored 37 of their 41 points.

“As many spectacular things as Michael (Jordan) did, which he did nightly, I never saw him do that,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who won three NBA championships playing with Jordan.

“It was reminiscent of Michael because it’s sort of otherworldly.”

The Kings as a team scored 22 in the third, and their hopes for an upset were dashed after Thompson began flicking his wrist.

Thompson made a steal, stepped back and made a 3-pointer to put the Warriors ahead 63-60 before hitting another to make it 66-64.

Stephen Curry fed him on a one-handed alley-oop after which Thompson continued his barrage. He even got a shooter’s roll on one of the 3-pointers.

Thompson brought down the house going it alone against the Kings defense with a jumper that gave the Warriors an 89-70 lead. Another 3-pointer made it 95-71.

“I was taking a lot of bad shots out there, but I was taking one until I missed, and I just got lucky,” Thompson said.

With 4.9 seconds in the third, Thompson hit two free throws that gave him 50 points for the game to become the 12th player in franchise history to score at least that number. His previous career highs were 41 points against the Los Angeles Lakers in November and eight 3-pointers at Sacramento last season.

Thompson hit two free throws in the fourth before checking out of the game to an ovation with 9:28 left.

“He was typical Klay,” Draymond Green said of Thompson on the sideline. “Just sitting there. His favorite line: ‘It’s crazy.’ That’s all he said.”

His third quarter had set the NBA record for points, and falling with it was a significant franchise mark. Wilt Chamberlain in his 100-point game in 1962 held the previous record with 31 points in a quarter.

“It’s that number 37 in a quarter that’s unbelievable. I thought I’d never see that,” Curry said after using his phone to watch video of Thompson’s performance again.

Up until Thompson began hoisting shots into history, the Warriors were struggling to put away Sacramento, which entered the game having lost five in a row.

Kerr was angry at halftime, telling his players he wouldn’t be calling plays in order to let them figure things out themselves. The Warriors had led by 18 points in the first quarter, but the Kings grabbed the lead after halftime.

“Get the ball to Klay, and Klay get the ball,” Kerr said. “Those are the two plays they ran.”

Said Thompson: “They just kept wanting to see the show. That’s what they kept telling me. When your teammates have confidence in you like that, you can do extraordinary things.”

***

No. 2: Hawks Soaring — Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Atlanta Hawks just keep winning. They entered last night’s game against Oklahoma City with a gaudy 35-8 record, winners of 14 in a row and 27 or their last 29. But that streak got put to a serious test last night as they hosted a potent Oklahoma City Thunder team hungry for a win. And through one half, after a dozen turnovers, the Hawks looked like they didn’t mind if their win streak came to an end. But that turned around in the second half, and the Hawks won going away, 103-93, for a franchise-record 15th win in a row

The Atlanta Hawks romped to their 15th straight victory, the longest streak in franchise history.

Don’t expect them to savor it for long.

This team is focused firmly on what’s in front of them.

Paul Millsap scored 22 points, Jeff Teague added 17 and the Hawks broke the record with a 103-93 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

“It’s a good accomplishment,” Millsap said, sitting in a rather somber locker room. “But it’s just another win.”

The wins keep piling up for a team that no one expected to be a title contender at the beginning of the season. Before a raucous sellout crowd, the Hawks came out on top for the 29th time in 31 games to extend their Eastern-best record to 36-8.

As usual, pretty much everyone chipped in.

Four starters were in double figures and backup point guard Dennis Schröder led a spurt at the start of the fourth quarter that helped the Hawks pull away. He finished with 13 points and five assists, igniting the arena with a towering finger roll that dropped gently through the net.

“Give me five really good guys,” Millsap said, “and I’ll go out there and win with ’em.”

Russell Westbrook led the Thunder with 22 points, but it wasn’t enough to extend their four-game winning streak.

Kevin Durant added 21 points, while Serge Ibaka with 13 was the only other Thunder player in double figures.

The Hawks were much more balanced. Al Horford had 14 points and 12 rebounds, while DeMarre Carroll chipped in with 13 points. Kyle Korver was the only starter who didn’t reach double figures, but even he chipped in with a play that had everyone talking: another dunk in the waning seconds of the first half that sent the Hawks to the locker room with a 48-47 lead.

They never trailed again, strolling off the court at the end with the public-address announcer screaming “15 in a row!”

“It’s cool to get your name in the record book,” Carroll said. “At the same time, we’ve got bigger tasks at hand. That’s making it to the playoffs and bringing an NBA championship to Atlanta.”

The crowd of 19,203 marked the third sellout in Atlanta’s last four games. In a sign that the attendance-challenged city is really getting behind its team, most of the crowd came to cheer for the home team rather than to see an out-of-town star.

“They’ve jumped on the bandwagon now,” Durant said. “The crowd was great tonight and really helped them out.”

He’s also impressed with what Atlanta is putting on the court.

“They’re a really good team,” he said – over and over again.

***

No. 3: Here come the Cavs? — It’s been a rough start for the Cleveland Cavaliers, marked by losing streaks, coaching questions, trades and injuries. But last night, with all the principles healthy and on the court together, the Cavaliers swatted the Charlotte Hornets, 129-90. It was Cleveland’s fifth straight win, and exactly the kind of dominant performance LeBron James and the Cavs were looking for when they constructed this team, writes the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s Joe Vardon

That’s five wins in a row for the Cavs after losing six straight. They limited the Hornets to 40 percent shooting and caused 12 turnovers.

“Right now, I feel like this is the team that I envisioned,” James said.

In the middle of a long season, there really isn’t anything more important James could say than that.

It’s been a turbulent return campaign for James in Cleveland, and even with these last five victories the Cavs are only 24-20 and in fifth place in the East.

James admitted his team is just one losing streak from all the progress, all the good feeling, unraveling again. He sounded, and looks, like he plans to guard against that.

A three-minute, 20-second stretch in the second quarter said it all.

Cleveland was already up by 22 when James came charging into the lane before pulling up for a short floater. Thirty-seven seconds later, he drove in for a finger roll and was fouled.

Then, a steal. After that, another layup. Next possession, two free throws.

Oh, there’s more.

James stole the ball again, this time dribbling down for a left-handed windmill dunk that sounds easier than it looked. [Kyrie] Irving drained a three and then he stole the ball. Four seconds later, [J.R.] Smith tossed a half-court alley-oop to James that he might not have even tried to catch a few weeks ago.

Still not done. James stole the ball, again, and the Cavs scored on a lob, again. James passed (from halfcourt, no less) and Kevin Love caught it for a layup.

At the end of that sequence, it was 62-27 with 5:48 to play in the half.

“This is the style of basketball I envisioned,” James said. “Obviously the points we put up I don’t envision that every night, but how we share the ball, how we defend, that should be our staple.”

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford was asked before the game if James looked different on film recently than when the Hornets last played him on Dec. 15. The reason for the question – James’ obvious progress athletically since his two-week rest from nagging injury.

“He always looks pretty good,” Clifford said. “So yesterday when I started, he’s always fun to watch. And then as you get closer to the game time and making decisions about how you’re going to try to stop him, it’s not nearly as much fun.”

***

No. 4: Teletovic out for the season — It hasn’t been a great season for the Brooklyn Nets, who’ve had to deal with injuries to Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, trade rumors, and talk that their owner wants to sell the franchise. And now they’re out another player, as forward Mirza Teletovic has been diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs, ending his season as he seeks treatment, writes Andrew Keh of the New York Times

Teletovic, a 29-year-old forward from Bosnia and Herzegovina, left Thursday’s game in Los Angeles after experiencing a shortness of breath and was transported to the California Medical Center.

The Nets on Friday morning said Teletovic would remain hospitalized to undergo further examination and begin treatment with blood thinners.

“Our first thoughts are with Mirza and his family,” General Manager Billy King said in a statement, praising the team’s medical staff and the emergency room doctors for their work. “I have visited with Mirza this morning and he is in good spirits as he begins his treatment and recovery.”

Blood clots can form for a variety of reasons, with long travel and surgical procedures among the most common risk factors. Blood clots near the lungs carry an increased risk of sudden death, said Dr. Alexis C. Colvin, a sports medicine specialist at Mt. Sinai Hospital, who was speaking generally and not about Teletovic’s specific case.

Teletovic posted a message on Twitter late Thursday night that read, “I had a small problem, but now everything is ok… Thx all fans from Bosnia, Spain and USA for support.”

The struggling Nets will miss Teletovic, who was averaging a career-high 22.3 minutes per game this season. They lost by 39 points to the Clippers, and their record dropped to 18-25. They had already been missing point guard Deron Williams, who fractured a left rib earlier this month.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Lakers and Kobe Bryant should get some clarity regarding the options for his injured shoulder after a meeting with doctors on Monday … Dallas’s Rajon Rondo sat down the stretch last night against Chicago, but Rondo and coach Rick Carlisle say it’s no big dealMark Cuban says the All-Star voting process is “absolutely, positively broken” … The Brandon Jennings/Brandon Knight trade is one of those rare deals that worked out well for both teams … Could the Clippers be free agent Nate Robinson‘s destination? …

Blogtable: International next up

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


BLOGTABLE: Next great international player | Kawhi and the Spurs | Pick a champ



VIDEO: Inside Stuff rides along with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (April 2014)

> Not counting Andrew Wiggins (too easy), who’s the next foreign-born player you see making an important impact on the league?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to be the sponge for this game and league that he has been so far, the Bucks’ “Greek Freak” could do for the No. 15 spot in the draft what Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have done for Nos. 28 and 57 spots, respectively. I’m not sure that indulging or dinking around too long with Antetokounmpo as a “point guard” is the quickest way for him to have his impact, however. Jason Kidd and his staff need to focus on getting him to max out his All-Star potential as a pure wing.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Don’t know how you’re qualifying “making an impact.” Serge Ibaka certainly hasn’t maxed out his game and will probably have to step up big in Kevin Durant’s absence to keep the Thunder around top of the West. If you’re looking for a very young player, I’ll put my chips on Joel Embiid.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comThis season: Nikola Mirotic with the Bulls. Nik Stauskas would be a consideration as well, but Mirotic gets the edge because he can become part of the rotation for a title contender. Next season, and with a bigger impact than either of the 2014-15 choices: Joel Embiid and Dante Exum. Both were in the 2014 draft and both are a season away, Embiid because of injury and Exum because he needs the experience of 2014-15 in Utah.

Joel Embiid (Brian Babineau /NBAE)

Joel Embiid (Brian Babineau /NBAE)

Shaun Powell, NBA.comDante Exum might not even be the best young foreign-born player on his own team at the moment; Rudy Gobert could put up decent numbers this year for the Jazz. But, really now: Exum is very young, gifted and intriguing. In time, this Aussie import could grow in leaps and bounds, like a kanga … wait, I can’t believe I was going to write that.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: In a few years, the combination of Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Dario Saric (Croatia) will have Sixers fans forgetting these two abysmal seasons and have everyone else realizing that the Sam Hinkie‘s plan and patience has paid off. Hinkie didn’t go into the 2014 Draft looking to take two guys that wouldn’t play this season, but Embiid’s injury and Saric’s contract in Turkey allowed the Sixers GM to get two really talented players at picks where they wouldn’t have been available if they were going to be ready for the start of the season. A healthy Embiid will be an anchor on both ends of the floor, and Saric is a big forward with guard skills.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comGiannis Antetokounmpo is my pick. I know he’s a bit under the radar in Milwaukee and I know the Bucks are still working to figure out where he fits best. But there is so much talent and potential to work with where the “Greek Freak” is concerned, the options are limitless. He’s a game changer waiting to happen, provided the Bucks find the right niche for him as he continues to mature physically and in his understanding of how he can be effective in the NBA. Playing alongside another potential young star like Jabari Parker gives the Bucks an opportunity to take their player development to another level.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Joel Embiid would have gone No. 1 last spring if not for his injury. So long as he stays healthy – a capital IF, when you look at the recent histories of Embiid and other potential stars of his size – he’ll have a chance to be not only the best international star, but to also rank among the NBA’s top 10 overall based on his size, athleticism, skills and fiery disposition.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: One guy I was excited to see in the preseason was Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic. He’s certainly arrived in the States with the requisite accolades — he was the Spanish League MVP and Spanish Cup MVP, and was twice named Euroleague Rising Star. When we saw him play during the Hang Time Road Trip, he was bigger than I anticipated, and he also seemed a bit hesitant. The hesitancy will abate with time, and being able to play behind Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah is a dream for a young post player, not only from a learning standpoint but also because it gives Mirotic the luxury of playing against second-team rotations players. Best of all? Mirotic is still just 23 years old. He hasn’t come close to prime yet. I’m looking forward to seeing it happen.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com Italy: What about Joel Embiid? Yes, he’s probably going to sit out the entire 2014-15 season, but I think he has the talent to become the next big thing. This big man has been playing basketball only for 4 years, and he has turned from a Mr. None to a 3rd overall pick. His potential is huge, could turn him into a dominant center. I’m looking forward to see him playing

Guillermo Garcia, NBA.com Mexico: I believe that Nikola Mirotic for the Chicago Bulls, because that is a very complete player who adds many options to the offensive end.

Five questions for OKC after Durant’s surgery


VIDEO: Coach Scott Brooks describes how the loss of Durant impacts the Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kevin Durant had surgery on his fractured right foot on Thursday, the team announced. He will be evaluated in six weeks. By then, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be 16 games into a most unusual season.

Durant’s injury obviously will have wide-ranging effects, from whom coach Scott Brooks will start at small forward, which could determine who then starts at the vacant shooting guard spot, to which players with previously limited roles are in line for significantly more playing time.

Durant last season averaged 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists and led the Thunder in 3-point shooting percentage. He won the MVP. So there’s plenty of making-up to do.

Here’s five questions the Thunder face with their regular-season opener 13 days away:

1. Who will replace Durant in the starting lineup?

Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are the two main candidates. Lamb, the 6-foot-5 wing, is also a candidate to start at shooting guard, although Brooks seems feel most comfortable with the second-year, defensive-minded shooting guard Andre Roberson. Roberson has started all three preseason games, and if he maintains the starting spot — which he manned last season when Russell Westbrook was out and Reggie Jackson took over point guard — that would allow Lamb to start at small forward. Jones is a 6-11 forward and a rare Thunder first-round pick who has yet to earn much beyond spot work in his first two seasons. His shooting range is improving and he’s athletic, but he’d have to prove he can guard NBA wings. The bigger issue with Jones here is he’s not much of an offensive threat, or at least we can’t claim that he is or could be because we just haven’t seen much of him. Without Durant and with Roberson at shooting guard, the Thunder will desperately need scoring threats around Westbrook. That would seem to give the edge to Lamb, an inconsistent shooter to be sure, but a player the Thunder hopes can become a valued slasher and 3-point shooter. His long, lanky frame can also be beneficial on the defensive end.

2. Since OKC needs scoring threats in the starting lineup, what does that mean at center?

Brooks is an extremely loyal coach and he loves to stick with his guys through thick and thin. That is obviously the case with center Kendrick Perkins. For everything you might think Kendrick can’t do — or no longer does well — Brooks will give you two things he loves about him. But Perkins’ starting days should be coming to an end. Even before Durant’s injury, Brooks claimed the starting position was up for grabs. Well, second-year center Steven Adams is grabbing it. He’s been excellent through three preseason games, averaging 18.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.7 minutes. Those are numbers Perkins couldn’t touch even during his heyday in Boston. Not that Stevens could sustain such lofty production, but he continues to show he has great hands to catch-and-finish, he’s developed a nice rapport with Westbrook and he’s not afraid of physical play. Perkins has been out since the start of training camp with a quad injury, which makes only more sense for him to come off the bench as he rounds back into shape. Get ready Thunder fans who’ve been clamoring for Perkins to sit, Adams is making it possible for you to get your wish.

3. How will this affect Russell Westbrook?

Twitter is full of smarty-pants suggesting that Durant’s absence is the point guard’s green light to jack up 40 shot a night. Maybe in his dreams, Westbrook sees himself running circles through defenses like stationary pylons, dunking at the rim, slapping his imaginary guns into his imaginary holster after splashing endless 3s and draining his trademark high-rising free-throw jumper at will as teammates stand and golf-clap his virtuosity. Back in reality, Westbrook just might surprise the masses who doubt he can be a team player. But that’s been the goal even before Durant’s injury. The Thunder, like most teams, want to move the ball, get more players involved, be more, well, Spurs-like. At the start of training camp, Westbrook addressed the topic and even said: “There should be something that you see new from us.” Maybe it was just talk, but Westbrook seems sincere when he talks about getting everybody involved. Maybe Tuesday’s preseason win against Memphis, the first game without Durant, was a preview. Westbrook played 26 minutes and scored 14 points with 12 assists. He took just 10 shots and OKC scored 117 points in a 10-point win. If this is the model for how Westbrook will approach the season, the Thunder could well be a better team when Durant returns.

4. What about Reggie Jackson? He says he badly wants to start. What does this do for that cause?

Not much. Brooks has already declared Westbrook as the best point guard in the NBA, so he’s probably not going to then move Westbrook to shooting guard to allow Jackson to start at the point. As for Jackson starting at shooting guard, it makes OKC small in the backcourt and Jackson’s playmaking and scoring punch is too valuable off the bench. But surely Jackson sees the bigger picture. He’s eligible for an extension at the end of the month, which might not happen (and it’s probably beneficial for his value not to sign an extension), and would make him a restricted free agent next summer. Even coming off the bench, Jackson is going to play starters minutes and finish games. Without Durant he instantly becomes a top scoring option, so he could set himself up for a big scoring season, which will only inflate his value next summer. If Jackson decides to mope about not starting over a less accomplished player such as Roberson or Jones, or even Lamb, the Thunder will have trouble. But Jackson has never shown to be that type of player.

5. Is there a wild card on the Thunder roster?

His name is Anthony Morrow. As Brooks mentioned at the start of training camp, the team actually has a player with a higher 3-point percentage than Durant. The Thunder could have used him last season, but better late than never. Morrow has never been able to stick with any one team during his career, but the Thunder offers a unique situation where he really can solely focus on shooting 3s (and mix in a little defense). With Durant out, defenses will focus on Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka, who has become one of the best mid-range, pick-and-pop shooters in the league, and if Morrow can knock down 3s at his career rate of 42.8 percent, he could certainly see more minutes than his career average of 23.7, at least until Durant returns. Through three preseason games, Morrow is averaging 16.7 points and is 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. He’s also managed to get to the free-throw line, making all 14 of his attempts. Morrow’s accuracy could be the single most effective weapon in replacing Durant’s scoring.

Ball movement high on Westbrook’s list

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the Thunder’s media day

OKLAHOMA CITY — Visions of Pau Gasol, back to the basket, effortlessly tossing passes to cutters and slashers and 3-point shooters as if directing a choreographed ballet certainly danced through the minds of the Thunder, whose ambitions to increase ball movement in their potent, but heavily star-driven offense seem to have only intensified.

“Well, yeah, we had obviously a chance,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Monday of OKC’s summer dalliance with Gasol, a terrific low-post passer who chose to leave the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls. “One thing I look at is I love the team I have. I wished him the best. I had a great meeting with him. But it’s not something I even think about now.”

Brooks does love his team, and he’ll never miss an opportunity to let everybody know it. In fact on Monday he announced, without provocation, that Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the game.

And Westbrook promptly agreed.

“I feel like I’m the best player on the floor every time I step on the floor. That’s just my mindset,” Westbrook said during an exceedingly short and curt media session, perhaps the most telling sign that he’s back to 100 percent from the knee injury that robbed him of the 2013 playoffs and half of last season. “It’s not just this year, not just last year. It’s just how I think when I get on the basketball floor.”

If that’s the case then the Thunder’s desire to move the ball around more, to involve more players not named Westbrook, Kevin Durant or pick-and-pop maestro Serge Ibaka should not be the excruciating exercise it has been, particularly during out-of-timeout or late-game situations when execution is paramount.

But this is also a tricky area because Brooks must also allow his two supremely gifted stars to exploit their own unique skills to create for themselves and score. An over-reliance, however, can lead to over-dribbling, teammates standing around and ultimately either Westbrook or Durant forcing low-percentage attempts late in the shot clock. Memphis, a quality defensive team, has flustered Durant and the Thunder in each of the last two postseasons, winning in five games in 2013 without Westbrook, and forcing a seven-game series last year.

When Westbrook was sidelined during the 2013 playoffs, he watched the games from the suite level and said it helped him see the game differently. He vowed to return a smarter player. He missed half of the regular season and then was sensational in the postseason, averaging 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. But he also attempted nearly 21 shots a game and made only 42 percent overall and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

This summer the Thunder added 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow, the type of consistently lethal perimeter shooter they’ve lacked, and emerging second-year center Steven Adams has shown the ability to catch-and-finish in the paint. Westbrook said moving the ball isn’t just more talk, even suggesting we will take notice.

“I think that’s key. Moving the ball is definitely a big part of our improvement as a team,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that we made a conscious effort to be able to go into this year trying to do. There should be something that you see new from us.”

The Thunder have incrementally increased their assist totals over the last three years. In 2011-12, they ranked last in the league in assist ratio (14.7), the number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions. That also happened to the be the lone season OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. That season it also had Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, another rare player capable of getting to the rim almost at will.

The trade of Harden to Houston just prior to the 2012-13 season naturally forced changes that seemed unnatural for a team that had grown together the previous three seasons. In 2012-13, OKC ranked 23rd (16.7) and last year they ranked 15th, although their assist ratio didn’t change (Westbrook’s absence obviously also has to be figured into that). For reference, the Spurs led the league at 19.2 assists per 100 possessions.

“We know what it takes to win games. We know what it takes to get to the top, but we don’t know what it feels like to win a championship,” Westbrook said. “There’s steps we have to make as a unit, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to make those.”

A dozen stories to open training camps

Little has changed with the ageless Spurs since the confetti rained down on the champs, but much is now different with the rest of the NBA. So as the first handful of training camps open this week, here are a dozen storylines that will require immediate attention:

LeBron rocks, Cleveland rolls

LeBron James, 2007 (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Is it really as simple as putting the giant sign of LeBron James back up in downtown Cleveland and turning the clock back to the days of the Cavs as contenders for them to win it all? With Kyrie Irving‘s continued growth, his performance at the FIBA World Cup fresh in our minds, with the arrival of Kevin Love to be the third leg of the stool, it only seems a matter of time before the Cavs are on the main stage in June. Let’s remember that Irving and Love have never even been to the playoffs, let alone made a deep run. But let’s also remember that this is the Eastern Conference and that means the door is open.

Kobe vs. The World

Let’s face it. Nobody — not LeBron, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kevin Durant, not anybody — will have every step he takes on the court scrutinized and analyzed more than Kobe Bryant as he battles the calendar and what would seem to be common sense as he tries to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture at age 36. He’ll be determined, defiant, maybe even destructive to his own well-being. More than anything, you have to hope he can stay healthy all the way through the long grind of the season, if for no other reason than to see how he drives and browbeats a ragtag collection of post-Pau Gasol era Lakers in a quixotic quest.

Big Man in the Big Easy

They’ve changed owners, changed their team name and solidified the face of the franchise for the first time since New Orleans was last in the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if Anthony Davis can build on his big dog experience with Team USA in the World Cup and put some bite into the Pelicans. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. But based on the way he played in Spain, that might have only been scratching the surface. There are some ready to jump Davis over reigning MVP Durant as the next “best player in the game.” He’ll get up front support this season from Omer Asik, and if Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans can stay healthy, this could be the beginning of a whole new era.

Stuck on the launch pad

Until LeBron went back home to Cleveland, it was hard to top the last two offseason jackpots hit by the Rockets — landing James Harden and Dwight Howard. But that streak hit a wall when the Rockets went all-in to bring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to Houston. It was a bold and grand gamble that required trading away Omer Asik (to the Pelicans) and Jeremy Lin (to the Lakers) to create salary cap space. It also led to allowing Chandler Parsons to become a free agent and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Now with neither prize free agent, the Rockets are a team that won 54 games a year ago, lost in the first round of the playoffs and have the depth of a one-night pickup at a singles bar. How much can they get from Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan? What does Jason Terry have left? How much of the weight can Harden and Howard realistically carry?

(more…)

International scene in transition


VIDEO: Gold Medal Postgame: Coach Krzyzewski

MADRID — Serbia had looked really good in its previous three games, beating 5-0 Greece by 18, walloping 5-1 Brazil by 28, and putting up 90 points against a France defense that had just shut down Spain at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

But you don’t really know how good you are until you play against the best. And when Serbia faced the U.S. for the first time since the former was part of the larger Yugoslavia, it got crushed, 129-92, in Sunday’s gold medal game.

Serbia has a lot of young talent and a very good coach. It should be one of the best national teams in Europe for years to come. Though it won silver at 2009 Eurobasket and finished fourth at the 2010 World Championship, this run at the World Cup could be the start of something even bigger.

“This is a very, very big success for our country,” Miroslav Raduljica said. “We put a good, healthy foundation for something in the future.”

But the gap between one of the best national teams in Europe and the best national team in the world seems to be pretty wide, especially when you consider that LeBron James and Kevin Durant weren’t representing the U.S. this summer. The Americans have come a long way since the 2002 World Championship, having won four straight gold medals with a stable and sustainable system under USA managing director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

So does any other nation have any hope of knocking off the Americans any time soon?

“I think we can lose our next game,” Krzyzewski said after extending the USA’s winning streak to 63 games (45 FIBA and FIBA Americas games, 18 exhibition games) on Sunday. “That’s the way we prepare, because we know how good everyone is. So I don’t see a gap. I just see good basketball, and then we’ve been able to win.”

For the USA’s opponents, it helps to know what you’re up against. And Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic said Sunday that his team was at a disadvantage having never faced the speed, athleticism and talent of the best players in the world. Now, it has that experience.

“Each time we play against a team like that,” Djordjevic said, “we are growing up as a team. And we need this more often, because we have to understand how we have to bring up our level of athleticism, our level of defense, our level of passing, to achieve the level these USA players have. So this was a great, great night for us. A great game. We can learn a lot from this game.”

The U.S. is always going to have the talent. But a lot of other national teams, especially those from Europe that play together almost every year, have the edge when it comes to chemistry. And each time they play the Americans, they gain reps against the best. So, the next time we see this matchup, Serbia will be more prepared.

Here are a few more ramifications of what went down over the last 16 days in Spain.

A summer off

Along with the gold medal comes automatic qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. So, for the fourth straight time (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015), the U.S. won’t need to send a team to the FIBA Americas tournament in the year between the Olympics and World Cup.

If they had lost on Sunday, they would have needed to qualify for the Olympics through the Americas. And it would have been interesting to see what kind of team Colangelo and Krzyzewski put together next summer in a tournament that has far less appeal than this one. But they won’t have to worry about that.

Things are going to change after 2016, however. And an Olympic gold in Rio will not earn instant qualification for the 32-team, 2019 World Cup. Instead, in a format change that was announced last year, there will be 16 teams from the Americas competing for seven spots in the World Cup via a qualification similar to that of the soccer World Cup, with some games taking place during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 NBA seasons. That, of course, will bring up even more questions about who will play for the U.S. and other nations with key players in the NBA. (more…)

Summer Dreaming: First-time All-Stars

The regular season will only be a few weeks old when the ballots will go out for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Most of the voters won’t even have to think about the first handful of names they’ll fill in:

LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Durant. Kobe Bryant.

Everybody wants to see the marquee stars. Nothing at all wrong with that.

But with only 24 roster spots in a league with 450 players, a few deserving players get overlooked. Sometimes for an entire career. It happened over 17 seasons, 1,199 games and 19,202 points for one of our all-time favorites, Eddie Johnson.

So in honor of Eddie, here in the Summer Dreaming headquarters, we’re going to pour a frosty drink and raise a toast to the players most deserving to make their All-Star debuts at New York in February:


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs — Go figure. He’s got the Bill Russell Trophy for being named MVP of the NBA Finals sitting on his mantle, yet Leonard has not yet been named to an All-Star team in three years in the league. Of course, a big part of that is the cap that coach Gregg Popovich puts on the minutes of all of the Spurs. That doesn’t allow for those eye-popping stats that get the attention of voters. But you’d think the coaches would recognize all the things he does at both ends of the floor and add him as a reserve.


VIDEO: DeMarcus Cousins puts up 29 points, nine boards and six steals on Suns

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings — Let’s just admit it. The 2014 All-Star Game was played in New Orleans and that was what got the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis the Western Conference substitute nod over Cousins. You don’t have to dive into advanced metrics. Just know that Cousins outscored Davis 22.7 to 20.8, out rebounded him 11.7 to 10 and ranked third in the league in double-doubles with 53. Of course, Boogie hasn’t gotten the respect because he hasn’t always had his head in the game, or been the best of teammates. But if he just goes back to work, it will be time to end the Kings All-Star drought that goes back to Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller in 2004.


VIDEO: Mike Conley has grown into a solid leader for the Grizzlies

Mike Conley, Grizzlies — He’s been flying beneath the radar for far too long, playing at an All-Star level for at least the past two seasons. The No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft has steadily grown from a tentative young player into a solid quarterback that can run the show, get to the hoop and hit 3-pointers at a respectable rate. The trouble is a numbers game. For one, he plays in the Western Conference, which is teeming with top flight point guards — Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard. For another, his rep takes a backseat to the 1-2 front court punch of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It’s about time Conley got some love.


VIDEO: Al Jefferson spends time with Dennis Scott

Al Jefferson, Hornets — If only the voters who gave Jefferson’s spot on the Eastern Conference team last season to Roy Hibbert could have known that the Pacers center was preparing to do a swan dive down the stretch. Much credit to first year coach Steve Clifford for giving the former Bobcats an identity and to Kemba Walker for delivering, as usual. But it was Big Al who set himself up in the middle in Charlotte and went to work, toiling and scoring and rebounding the way he has for 10 seasons. He averaged a double-double (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds). Sometimes the guys who carry their lunch buckets to work every day should be invited to the banquet and given a chance to sit at the head table.


VIDEO: ‘The Serge Protector’ turns away eight shots against the Pelicans

Serge Ibaka, Thunder — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It’s almost like they’re a single entity, because you rarely hear one name mentioned without the other. Meanwhile there’s that jumping jack just out of the spotlight who is deserving of All-Star billing, giving the Thunder the “Big Three” punch to be a top title contender year in and year out. Until the Thunder break through and win a championship, it’s not likely that fan voters or the coaches are going to give Ibaka much respect. They should. The Spurs did in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals. He’s led the league in blocks twice, is a three time All-Defensive First Team member, dunks like he’s mad at the rim and, oh, there’s also that jumper.


VIDEO: DeAndre Jordan’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers — It’s funny how your numbers and value to the team can go up when you simply get more minutes. Coach Doc Rivers came to town and got in Jordan’s ear and his head and demanded more. The former part-time highlight reel star delivered with a solid 35 minutes a game. Maybe the All-Star voters and the coaches still questioned whether he could keep it up at the midway point of last season. He did, leading the league in rebounds (13.6), finishing third in blocked shot (2.48) and eighth in double-doubles (42). Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the engines in the Clippers’ machine, but it’s Jordan delivering consistently as a defensive stopper that can fuel a rise to a championship.

France shocks Spain, giving Team USA clearer path to gold


VIDEO: FIBA: Day 2, Quarterfinals Wrap

MADRID — The dream of a Spain-USA final at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup is dead.

France ended it Wednesday with a stunning, 65-52 defeat of the Spain in the quarterfinals, playing a near perfect game to keep the hosts from even playing for a medal.

The USA’s chances to win its fourth straight international gold increased dramatically with Spain’s ouster. The Americans still have to get through Lithuania in the semifinals on Thursday and the winner of Serbia-France in the gold medal game on Sunday.

After a 2-3 performance in Group A, Serbia has played fantastically in the knockout rounds, beating 5-0 Greece and 5-1 Brazil by a total of 46 points to reach the semis. And if France continues to play the defense that it played on Wednesday, it can beat anybody.

But Spain was obviously the biggest threat to the USA’s winning streak, now at 43 games after Tuesday quarterfinal win over Slovenia. In fact, Spain looked like the World Cup favorites, with a full roster and a raucous home crowd behind them. Group A was the toughest pool in the tournament, as evidenced by its 4-0 record against Group B in the round of 16, and the hosts rolled through it, beating Brazil, France and Serbia by an average of 19.7 points.

On the other half of the bracket, Australia made a clear effort to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals and better its chance for a medal with who and how they played in their final pool-play contest. France had the opportunity to do the same with Spain, but played its final Group A game to win.

“We know, being third, we could cross with Spain in the quarterfinals,” France coach Vincent Collet said after his team’s win over Iran last week. “That’s basketball.”

Australia played to lose and then lost to Turkey in the round of 16. France played to win and pulled off the biggest upset that we’ve seen in a long time in international basketball. They simply outplayed Spain on both ends of the floor.

“For Spain, it was not that easy to play against us a second time,” Collet said afterward. “I think the big spread (24 points) of the first game was something important for us, because it was more motivation. We used it. We showed the players how bad we looked during the first game sometimes.”

The French players said they came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude and felt that all the pressure would be on Spain if the game was close down the stretch.

“It’s tough sometimes for a team to play at home,” Boris Diaw, who led France with 15 points, said. “I think we had the motivation to win and they had the motivation to not lose.”

But the pressure wouldn’t have been on the hosts’ shoulders down the stretch had France not played terrific defense. It started in transition, with France holding Spain to two measly fast break points.

In the half court, the Spanish guards mostly got nowhere on pick-and-rolls, as the French bigs hedged and then recovered quickly to their man. France’s rotations were sharp, keeping Spain from getting clean looks at the basket. As a result the hosts shot a brutal 2-for-22 from 3-point range.

Inside, the Spanish frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka was neutralized by Diaw and France’s pair of young centers, Joffrey Lauvergne and Rudy Gobert, who both played the games of their lives.

Pau Gasol scored a game-high 17 points, but didn’t dominate like he had in earlier games. His brother and Ibaka both shot 1-for-7.

Lauvergne played the Gasols strong in the post, forcing them into tough shots away from the basket, and grabbed 10 rebounds in less than 17 minutes of action. Gobert outrebounded the Gasol brothers, 13-12, himself.

Gobert, the 22-year-old who played in just 45 games as a rookie for the Utah Jazz last season, has had a limited role on this team, backing up the smaller Lauvergne at center. But at 7-1 with a 9-foot-7 standing reach and a lot of bounce, he has a world of potential. He played a tourney-high 23 minutes on Wednesday and was, for the first time, on the floor down the stretch of a close game.

“He has a real desire to do good,” Collet said. “I think the dunk early in the game tonight gave him special energy and, for sure, he did an incredible job.”

Gobert had a strong Summer League. But this was a much bigger stage. He started to realize some of that potential on Wednesday, taking on the challenge of defending Pau Gasol and holding his own. He came up with one incredible block of an Ibaka tip-in and later swatted Gasol at the rim.

“He was incredible on defense,” France point guard Antoine Diot added. “When he plays like this, with his head, he’s fantastic.”

“For myself, I always knew I could help the team win,” Gobert said. “All my teammates played great offensively and I just had to guard Pau, because Pau is one of the best players in the world. If you stop him, they’re not the same team.”

Indeed, Spain played awful, and not just on offense. While France’s defense was near perfect, Spain’s guards got beat back-door countless times, leading to layups, open shots and offensive rebounds for France.

“We weren’t well prepared for this game,” Juan Carlos Navarro said.

Spain had looked determined to win this tournament on its home soil and to avenge gold-medal-game defeats to the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Both Gasols showed up in Granada for pool play in terrific shape, while Navarro looked sharper than he did for FC Barcelona last season. Spain was a juggernaut through its first six games, jumping out ahead early and bullying its opponents into submission.

But when it was forced to play from behind and feel the pressure of a nation of fans on its shoulders, the team crumbled under all that weight. After trailing by seven at the half, Spain forced turnovers on France’s first four possessions of the third quarter and took a one-point lead into the fourth. But France answered with a 7-0 run and put the building on high alert.

“We kind of knew if we stay close,” Nicolas Batum said,  “at the end of the game, they’re going to doubt, because they can’t lose that game.”

They did lose that game. There will be no USA-Spain final, because the hosts failed to do their part.

“It was a painful loss, disappointing,” Pau Gasol said. “This team had such high expectations. We had played an incredible tournament up to this point. It just wasn’t our night.”