Posts Tagged ‘Thabo Sefolosha’

With Sefolosha’s return, OKC starting to return to full strength

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

(Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

After missing 17 games, Thabo Sefolosha is back in the Thunder’s lineup. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Business as usual.

“I thought Thabo was good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks was saying Tuesday night at Sleep Train Arena, after his shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha, returned to action in a 107-92 victory over the Kings. “It’s hard to do in this league, to miss six or so or however many games or weeks he missed and come in and play an NBA game, but I thought he did a good job. He was moving well. He was active on defense. Those are the things we love about Thabo.”

Sefolosha made a pretty smooth transition after missing 17 games with a strained right calf. Russell Westbrook has still not been cleared for back-to-backs in the recovery from the lingering problem with his right knee, but his time restriction has been increased to about 34 minutes, or close to no time restriction unless Oklahoma City plays two nights in a row. And, Kendrick Perkins has been in the lineup three games in a row, albeit for no more than 14 minutes, after sitting 17 games himself because of a strained left groin.

The playoffs are coming, and so are the Thunder. Wins in eight of the last 11, including against the Spurs and in Chicago on the second night of a back-to-back, a big meeting tonight with the Clippers (10:30 ET, ESPN) with No. 2 in the Western Conference in play, Westbrook at 24 points and 48.3 percent from the field his last five appearances and expected to play in Los Angeles, and the health. Of course the health.

Sefolosha’s absence didn’t get nearly the attention of OKC missing Westbrook, understandably, or Perkins, because Sefolosha doesn’t usually get attention. Eight years in the league, 5 ½ as a Thunder starter, an important part of the defense. Just no spotlight.

“He has a mindset,” Brooks said. “He has a great knowledge on players that he plays against, teams that he plays against. He’s a long defender. He’s a multiple-position defender. He can guard some fours in the league and he’s done a great job. He’s one of the premier defenders in this league. Obviously his experience and his toughness adds to our team. He has been that guy for us for a lot of years.

“I think it’s just good to have your entire roster together. We’re moving in that direction. Perk came back a few games ago, Thabo’s coming back, Russell will be back. Thabo gives us another very good defender, and we all know we have to defend as a team and we can obviously do a better job of that than we have in the past. But I like where we’re going, I like how the spirit of our team is right now. It helps when we have all of our guys.”

Sefolosha said he had no pain or discomfort during his 15 minutes against the Kings and may even jump right into back-to-backs by playing tonight in Los Angeles. From there, he thinks he will be able to get his game legs in time for the playoffs. He thinks, in other words, it will be possible to make the same contribution this postseason as in the past.

“Basically the same impact I’ve been having with this team for the last four, five years,” he said. “Playing defense the way I play defense and communicating with my teammates and spacing the floor while making shots.”

So, basically business as usual.

“Business as usual.”

Morning Shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Garnett could return Saturday | Nash will play again this season | Wade expected back soon

No. 1: Garnett could return Saturday — Kevin Garnett has missed the last 19 games with back spasms. And while the Brooklyn Nets have gone 14-5 in that stretch, they need Garnett to help them on the glass. They rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage since he first went out. Garnett, by the way, leads the league in individual defensive rebound percentage. And he could be back Saturday night in Philadelphia, as Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York writes:

While coach Jason Kidd wouldn’t fully commit to it, the Nets coach sure seemed optimistic about the possibility.

“[Kevin] felt better today,” Kidd said Friday night following his team’s 15th consecutive home victory. “We’ll see how his plane ride goes, and then we’ll see in the morning how he feels. We would like to try to get him to go tomorrow, but it’s up to him.”

Garnett has missed the past 19 games due to back spasms. The Nets (41-34) have gone 14-5 without him.

Asked if he is worried about reintegrating Garnett into the lineup, Kidd replied, “Nope. Kevin is a professional. He’s been doing it for a million years, so there’s nothing to worry about. He’s about the team. He’s about what we as a team stand for — unselfishness, defense — so he won’t have a problem with that.”

***

No. 2: Nash will play again this season — Before meeting the Mavs on Friday, Steve Nash speculated that it might be his last game of the season, with Jordan Farmar set to return from injury in the coming days. But after Nash dished out seven assists (watch video) in 19 minutes, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said that the 40 year old will play again over the last 11 days. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin has the story from L.A.:

Nash left the arena without speaking to reporters Friday, but his coach is making sure there will be at least one more encore performance.

“I said this is not your last game,” D’Antoni relayed after the Lakers’ 107-95 loss to the Mavericks. “He said, ‘OK.’ So, we’ll play him.”

There are only six games left to the Lakers season and Nash already all but ruled himself out Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, fearing he won’t have enough recovery time to prepare himself for the early 12:30 p.m. PT tip.

He has repeatedly said he wanted to get out of the way when Jordan Farmar returns from a strained groin injury next week, preferring to give the minutes he’d play to Farmar and Kendall Marshall so they have the opportunity to prove themselves with free agency coming for each.

But D’Antoni, who first coached Nash a decade ago in Phoenix, isn’t going to let Nash disappear so easily.

***

No. 3: Wade expected back soon — The Miami Heat might not really need Dwyane Wade before the conference semifinals, but his health will always be a concern. Wade has missed 24 games this season (some just for rest), including the last five with a strained left hamstring. The Heat are 16-8 without Wade, but their defense is at its best when he’s healthy and active. The playoffs are exactly two weeks away, but there’s not a high level of concern in the Miami locker room, as Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes:

A strained left hamstring sidelined Heat guard Dwyane Wade for a fifth consecutive game on Friday night, but Heat players said he’s improving, and LeBron James said Wade “probably” will return “within the next week.”

There doesn’t appear to be concern about Wade’s availability for the start of the playoffs in two weeks.

But there is some uncertainty about a timetable. Udonis Haslem said Friday “it’s hard to tell” when Wade will play in a game again.

The Heat host the Knicks on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Thabo Sefolosha is getting closer to a return for the ThunderTayshaun Prince went down with an ankle injury in the Grizzlies’ win over Denver … Ty Lawson was benched after missing a team meeting (and then turned his ankle too) … The Bulls may sign one or more vets after waiving rookie Erik MurphyEric Gordon went to L.A. to have his knee checked out … and Leon Powe wants to own an NBA team.

ICYMI of The Night: Gerald Green went off the glass to himself as the Suns picked up a huge win in Portland:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Gerald Green

Rolling Thunder thrive without Harden

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Kevin Durant’s streak of 25-point scoring games

It wasn’t so long ago when the citizens of a certain city in Texas were ready to vote Sam Presti as 2013 Man of the Year for the trade that sent James Harden to Houston.

The wise-cracking line was that if the Rockets eventually won an NBA championship, the OKC general manager would be first in line to get a ring.

And by the way, did he derail the hopes of the Thunder winning a title of their own?

Now, 17 months later, while the Rockets would probably still be willing to save him a seat in a victory parade, Presti’s move does not quite seem to be his folly.

After all, it was OKC that snapped San Antonio’s 19-game win streak — completing a 4-0 season sweep of the Spurs — and now bring the NBA’s second best record into the Toyota Center tonight to face Harden and the Rockets (9:30 ET, ESPN).

The plain and simple truth is that Presti’s decision to trade away Harden was all about money, something he never made a secret of. After having given new contracts to the cornerstone duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with a four-year extension for Serge Ibaka, there was simply no way small-market OKC could “max out” on Harden.

We can debate all through the night whether Presti might have been better served by keeping his Big Three together for one last run before he would have had to deal Harden. But Westbrook’s knee injury in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs last season likely dashed championship dreams in any case.

Presti’s challenge after the Harden deal was done was to fill in the hole in the lineup and keep the Thunder moving forward.

Enter Reggie Jackson.

The immediate return for Harden from Houston was Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Martin capably filled in capably off the bench in Harden’s old role last season before jumping to Minnesota. Lamb held down that spot in the rotation through the first 60 games of this season before giving way to free-agent small forward Caron Butler, who was signed last month.

However, the added bonus in the equation is Jackson. He was drafted in the first round in 2011, but was mostly stuck behind the young backcourt trio of Westbrook, Harden and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha. But since the Harden deal, he has gotten an opportunity to play. He’s performed well, with his first opportunity coming in the 2013 playoffs after Westbrook’s injury. This season, he’s averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg and 1.1 spg. No one is putting him close to a level with Harden, but then neither is his $2.3 million salary, which helps make the rest of the OKC operation work.

As for Lamb, he’s seen his playing time cut over the last month because Butler can also hit the 3-pointer and adds size and rebounding on the wing. Still, the 21-year-old has upside that fits the Thunder blueprint going forward.

Presti also counted heavily on Ibaka, giving him an additional $48 million and expecting him to play up to that good faith. A year ago, it appeared to be a bad gamble — to many, OKC was choosing Ibaka over Harden. But this season he’s averaging career bests of 15.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg. While his blocked shots are down slightly (2.6 bpg, 3.0 bpg in 2012-13), the truth is Ibaka has concentrated less on trying to swat everything. As a result, he’s become a more consistent, more effective rim-protector and all-around better player.

Ultimately it was a choice between paying Ibaka or Harden. The Thunder might have correctly decided that, at some point on any championship contender, defense has to matter. They were, after all, exposed by the Heat in the 2012 Finals.

The Thunder’s banner still has to be carried by Durant and and a healthy Westbrook in order to win a championship.

Yet they also have an offense that is rated seventh and a defense rated fifth in the league. They are more balanced, and likely even better, overall.

While Presti can perhaps count on the eternal gratitude of every Rockets fan and maybe even that seat on their bandwagon, the fact is he did what he had to do to keep the Thunder on track.

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.”

Westbrook handles emotions, dominates Beverley, Rockets


VIDEO: Fan Night crew breaks down the Westbrook/Beverley battle

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook get into a scuffle in the first quarter

Was the ballsy play a message from Beverley?

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

That didn’t happen. Beverley had a forgettable night, finishing with as many fouls (five) as points and assists combined. Westbrook dominated this round with 24 points, seven assists and four rebounds. He got to the free throw line 14 times, six on two bad fouls by Beverley behind the arc.

When Westbrook checked back into a 34-28 game in favor of OKC with 7:42 to go in the half, Brooks kept calling Westbrook’s number. He attacked the smaller Beverley, beating him off the dribble and launching to the basket. He scored nine consecutive points and 11 of 15 that put OKC ahead 56-41 at the half, a lead the Thunder would have to work to protect, and Kevin Durant made sure they did with a spectacular second half, scoring 25 of his 42 points and four of his five 3-pointers.

“He took advantage of every opportunity,” Durant said of Westbrook. “Posting little guys up, getting to the cup, getting to the free throw line, so he was great.”

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

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

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

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

What OKC did was end an ugly slide that was making the natives restless, and cool off a Rockets team that had won five in a row and 15 of 17. The Thunder had lost two in a row — allowing 242 points to the Suns and Lakers — and five of eight coming out of the All-Star break. Never mind that Westbrook was playing in just his ninth game and still on a minutes restriction since a near-two-month recovery from a third surgery related to the initial injury. Plus perimeter defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and heavyweight center Kendrick Perkins are both out with injuries.

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

“We went in there soft tonight,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.

Former Thunder sixth man James Harden started slowly and couldn’t quite bring his team back despite 28 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. He acknowledged that the high emotion delivered early, and arguably recklessly, by Beverley threw off the Rockets.

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


VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook lead the Thunder past the Rockets

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

Butler’s Reported Addition To OKC Provides Boost To Durant, Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Caron Butler has sidestepped the King and a three-peat bid to serve the noble cause of delivering Kevin Durant title No. 1.

The veteran forward, bought out by the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, had been speculated to join the Miami Heat, the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2002 and, in ’04, traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in a package for Shaquille O’Neal. Instead, the 6-foot-7 Butler intends to play for the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder when he clears waivers, multiple news outlets have reported.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, who was among the first to report the news, has more:

Caron Butler has chosen to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder over the Miami Heat, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Butler informed teams of his decision on Friday morning, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

After securing a contract buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday morning, Butler is expected to clear waivers on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, and will sign for the rest of the season to play with Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Despite close relationships and history with the Miami Heat, Butler decided that his best opportunity to make an impact and chase a championship belonged with Oklahoma City. Miami has lost out on the top two free-agent buyout players in Danny Granger and Butler.

The fact that Oklahoma City stopped pursuing Granger several days before his Los Angeles Clippers commitment led many in the NBA to believe the Thunder were confident of securing Butler as a free agent.

Butler, who turns 34 on March 13, will be a significant veteran pick-up for the youthful Thunder, who will benefit from Butler’s rugged, perimeter defense in isolated matchups. His addition allows Durant to occasionally lessen his defensive load, and Butler is a capable shooter from mid-range to the 3-point arc.

OKC is light on wings with starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha being a defensive-minded player and reserve Jeremy Lamb only his second season and first as an integral part of the Thunder’s rotation.

Butler won a title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, knocking off James’ Heat in their first Finals as the Big Three, but Butler was inactive for the entire playoffs after suffering a gruesome knee injury on Jan. 1 during a game at Milwaukee. The Mavs, inspired by Butler’s commitment to work his way back, although ultimately he could not, dedicated their postseason run to him.

He signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2011-12 season and broke his hand early in the playoffs. He manged to continue playing, saying he wasn’t going to allow another injury to take him out of a second consecutive postseason.

After last season’s first-round exit, the Clippers traded Butler to the Phoenix Suns along with guard Eric Bledsoe. The Suns, more interested in a youth movement, moved Butler to the Bucks, allowing him to play close to family and friends in his hometown of Racine, Wisc.

But the Bucks have been awful and agreed to buy him out of the final year of his contract that pays him $8 million. Butler has been nicked up throughout the season and has played in 34 games with 13 starts. He’s averaged 11.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg in 24.1 mpg. He’s shot just 38.7 percent overall, but a healthy 36.1 percent (53-for-147) from beyond the arc.

Butler is no longer the high-minute, All-Star-type small forward he was a few seasons ago. But in spurts off the bench, he can bring the Thunder the toughness and scoring punch they need.

Meanwhile, the West continues to get even more competitive with Butler headed to OKC and former Indiana small forward Danny Granger committed to joining the Clippers after being bought out by the Pacers.

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.

Film Study: LeBron And KD, Head-To-Head

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The season is only 55 percent complete, so it’s way too early to make any kind of call in the MVP race. By leading the Oklahoma City Thunder on an eight-game winning streak without co-star Russell Westbrook and going on a ridiculous scoring binge along the way, Kevin Durant has seemingly taken the lead over LeBron James.

But this is the time of year when James led the Miami Heat to 27 straight wins last season, a streak that included a win in Oklahoma City. Head-to-head matchups could linger in the minds of voters, and the Heat have won six straight games against the Thunder, going back to Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. They’ll look to make it seven in a row on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Miami, and will have another meeting right after the All-Star break.

Because Durant and James (mostly) play the same position, they truly are going head to head, though one typically defends the other more than vice versa.

In their two meetings last season, James defended Durant on 67 percent of Oklahoma City’s possessions when two were on the floor together. The only time he wasn’t Durant’s primary defender was in the third quarter of the Feb. 14 meeting, a game which the Heat led by 17 at halftime. Dwyane Wade took on Durant duties for most those 12 minutes.

Durant, meanwhile, only defended James on only 44 percent of Miami’s possessions when the two were on the floor together. Thabo Sefolosha was tasked with defending James most of the other possessions, though it was Russell Westbrook‘s job in the fourth quarter of that February game.

Durant and James were their team’s best defenders on their opponent’s best players. Both scored more efficiently when being guarded by other defenders.

Over the two games, when James was guarding him, Durant scored 0.95 (35/37) points per scoring chance (shot from the field or trip to the line). When James wasn’t guarding him, Durant scored 1.48 points per scoring chance (37/25).

When Durant was guarding him, James scored just 0.88 (15/17) points per scoring chance. When Durant wasn’t guarding him, James scored 1.71 (53/31).

Part of the discrepancy is transition opportunities when nobody was really defending them. But it’s clear that each was the other’s toughest matchup.

Nothing easy one-on-one

James is seen as the better defender, but Durant is so darn long. Though they totaled 140 points in the two games, neither guy could get anything easy against the other.

Here’s Durant in an iso against James, hitting a really tough shot.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant hits a tough, isolation shot vs. LeBron James

And here’s a James post-up, where Durant contests a 16-foot, step-back jumper…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant contests LeBron James’ step-back jumper

Easier against the other guys

In Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have another defender with the size and quickness to make things tough on James. But Ibaka only defending James on a couple of switches or transition matchups last season. Shane Battier has typically defended Durant when James has been off the floor, but doesn’t have James’ size and strength.

Wade and Sefolosha really can’t handle the job.

Here’s Durant going right around Wade for an and-one on an iso…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant breezes past Dwyane Wade in an iso situation

And here’s James muscling through Sefolosha on a weak-side duck-in.


VIDEO: Thabo Sefolosha can’t stop LeBron James on this play

Getting the ball out of KD’s hands

While James defended Durant more than Durant defended James, he would have more help from possession to possession. When Durant runs a high pick-and-roll or comes off a pin-down screen to catch the ball on the wing, the Heat will blitz a second defender at him to force the ball out of his hands.

Here’s one such play from the Christmas game last season, where Durant takes a handoff from Kendrick Perkins and immediately gets double-teamed, forcing him to give up the ball…


VIDEO: The Heat bring a strong double team at Kevin Durant

Here’s a link to the Thunder’s second possession of the Feb. 14 meeting, where two defenders chase Durant as he comes off a pin-down.

Durant on the move

So that Durant doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with James or face double-teams so much, the Thunder can get him the ball on the move. Here, they use him as a screener and he gets an open shot off a flare to the right wing…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant gets open off a flare screen on the wing

Superstar decoys

When Durant is used as a screener, his defender has a difficult decision to make. If he leaves Durant (like above), he’s giving the league’s leading scorer an open shot. But if he stays at home on Durant, the ball-handler has an opening.

The Heat can use James in a similar fashion. On this play, Chalmers gets an opening, because Westbrook stays attached to James…


VIDEO: LeBron James is used as a decoy in the Heat offense

Forcing the switch

The Heat also use James as a screener to get him matched up with a smaller defender. Here, he gets Westbrook in the post, draws the attention of Perkins, and finds Chris Bosh for an easy dunk late in the Christmas game…


VIDEO: The Heat force the Thunder to make a defensive switch

A lot more than just one-on-one

Wednesday is a matchup of the two best basketball players in the world and will make some kind of impact on MVP voting. But how Durant and James play goes well beyond their defense on each other. It’s also about how their coaches and teammates set up their touches, how they take advantage of other matchups and how much help their defenders get from their teammates.

With Westbrook Out, Thunder’s Success Will Start With Defense


VIDEO: Brent Barry and Dominique Wilkins discuss the impact of Westbrook’s injury on OKC

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Scoring don’t come easy. Not without Russell Westbrook.

Friday’s bombshell that Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard needed a third surgery within nine months to repair more damage in his right knee hit his teammates hard.

“Obviously it was an emotional day with Russell,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Friday night after his shorthanded club beat the Charlotte Bobcats 89-85 to improve to 24-5. “But I thought we did a good job of handling that.”

The only other time this season the Thunder, averaging 106.3 ppg, failed to reach 90 points? The second game of the season and the last that Westbrook would sit out following his surprising second surgery in early October. Ever since, including a masterful Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden, Westbrook has been dynamite: 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.0 rpg.

A festering knee issue? A third surgery? Out through All-Star Weekend? Yeah, right.

Yet that’s the deal. The meniscus Westbrook tore in the first round of the playoffs when he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley isn’t going away nearly as quietly as the Thunder did in the second round without their dynamic second star.

The extended absence OKC expected at the beginning of the season is now here unexpectedly. The league’s scoring leader and MVP candidate Kevin Durant – who wowed Charlotte with 34 points (on a season-high 28 shot attempts), 12 rebounds and six assists — will again, just as he did during last year’s playoffs without Westbrook, attract the glare of the spotlight.

But to focus solely on Durant’s ability to carry the team over the next six weeks would be misguided. The Thunder’s success — or lack of it — will be defined at the end of the floor that rarely draws the headlines. While OKC will blind you with dazzling offense, it mostly goes unsaid how they’ll muzzle you with a quick-twitch defense. Only Indiana allows fewer points per 100 possessions. Only Indiana holds teams to a lower field-goal percentage than OKC’s 41.8 percent. The Thunder have been a top four defense for two seasons and top nine for three.

The Thunder’s ‘D’ might just be the league’s best dirty little secret.

“It’s what we take pride in, we’re a defensive team,” Brooks said. “We’re a team that can score, but we are a defensive team. We take pride in every possession. We take pride in stopping the man from scoring and contesting shots and rebounding. I thought our defense was superb [Friday]. We did a good job of making them miss shots, and not hoping that they miss. And that’s our mentality. Give our guys credit that they stepped up.”

OKC held the Bobcats to 37.5 percent shooting and outrebounded them 48-43. The upcoming competition delivers decidedly more sophisticated offenses with three of the Thunder’s next four games against Houston (Sunday), Portland (Tuesday) and Minnesota (Jan. 4). Westbrook could miss as many as 27 games.

No doubt the Thunder are better prepared now to soldier on without Westbrook than during the suddenness of last April and May when Durant tried unsuccessfully to shoulder everything, even through constant late-game double-teams. He’ll still naturally assume more of a do-it-all, triple-double Magic Johnson-type approach, but he can’t do it all. Reggie Jackson, who will again assume the starting point guard duties, is a much more confident player, although he had a rough start at Charlotte, and the bench is deeper.

Still, the realities of Friday’s initial game without Westbrook can’t be overlooked. Durant scored 34 points while Jackson, Serge IbakaThabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb combined for 44.

This is drastic change. Over a six-week stretch, there’s simply no replacing Westbrook’s ferocious athleticism and attitude, his ability to discombobulate a defense and create easy scoring opportunities for himself and others. In the last two weeks he averaged 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.

In the nine games he missed during the playoffs, the Thunder averaged 95.3 ppg after averaging 105.7 ppg during the regular season. Against Memphis’s stifling defense, they scored more than 93 points once in the five games. This season OKC ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. In the three games Westbrook has not played — the first two of the season and a Nov. 24 game against Utah for extra rest — OKC scored 101, 81 and 95 points.

Scoring don’t come easy without Westbrook.

If the Thunder are going to maintain a top-four spot in the West until their indispensable playmaker returns, the defense will force a few more headlines.