Posts Tagged ‘Thabo Sefolosha’

Brooks and the power of continuity


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks with the media on Sunday afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Could be time for Spurs to tweak lineup


VIDEO: GameTime previews Spurs-Thunder Game 5

SAN ANTONIO -- It wasn’t just Serge Ibaka’s miracle trip to Lourdes or a visit to the gods of Thunder that turned around the entire look and feel of the Western Conference finals. OKC coach Scott Brooks also jumped guard Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup in place of Thabo Sefolosha and the offense has since been cooking.

While all of the official talk out of the Spurs’ camp the past two days has been about attitude and energy and determination, there is still speculation that Gregg Popovich could come back with a change of his own tonight for Game 5 (9 ET, TNT).

Would the Spurs consider benching Tiago Splitter and getting Boris Diaw’s outside shooting into the starting lineup to try to pull Ibaka way from the basket? Would they think about going small with Kawhi Leonard at power forward? And what of Cory Joseph and Matt Bonner, who came hustled off the bench in Game 4 to make the final score respectable?

“Ask him,” Manu Ginobili said, pointing to Popovich, when asked about lineup changes. “I’m not allowed to say anything.”

Popovich, of course, isn’t revealing anything, except to say, “we’re considering a couple of tweaks here and there, just in the plan. I don’t know exactly where that will be. But we saw some things that might warrant a little tweaking.”

Diaw told the media at Thursday’s shootaround that he was not starting. However, that means nothing.

Diaw did acknowledge that he was successful going against the Thunder’s small lineup in the first two games of the series.

“But since Ibaka came back, they don’t play small as much,” he said.  “So we actually like it when they play small. It’s when they play big that we have a hard time the last couple of games to score inside.  But whatever they give us we got to find a solution.”

Diaw said it makes sense to take advantage of his ability to score from the outside to possibly get Ibaka out of the low post, where he has disrupted and distracted the Spurs whenever they’ve gotten the ball into the paint.

“For sure,” he said. “Shooting from outside, he’s a guy that’s helping a lot so we got to try to keep him out of the paint.

“There are some open shots that we don’t take.  There are also some contested shots that we shouldn’t take, should be more patient, move the ball a little more so we can be open. We have got to pass the ball more. Because it’s what we have been doing all year. So we have got to find a way to move the ball enough so we get open shots.”

Perhaps one good tweak deserves another.

Jackson fights sprain, ready for Game 5


VIDEO: Thunder guard Reggie Jackson injures his right ankle in Game 4

OKLAHOMA CITY – Just when it seemed the Thunder must be snake-bit, Reggie Jackson‘s right ankle having turned so dramatically to the outside that it appeared to touch the floor, there he was chasing down a loose ball at the sideline and tossing an alley-oop to Kevin Durant.

Jackson said he expects to be back in the starting lineup for Thursday’s Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. That’s significant news for Oklahoma City, which has been on quite a roll since Jackson and Serge Ibaka joined the starting lineup in Game 3, helping to turn a series that was all San Antonio Spurs.

“It’s not really a big deal,” Jackson said after Tuesday’s trouncing of the Spurs. “No excuse. I think a lot of people about this time have a bum ankle or a ding-up. Just play through it.”

Playing through it hardly seemed possible after watching the replay multiple times. And even after the game as the typically feisty Jackson gingerly walked in shower shoes, it seemed the real damage might not be discovered until the morning.

But he seems to have escaped that trap.

“He’s feeling pretty good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after a light team workout Wednesday. “He will get treatment throughout the day and then [Thursday], but he’s feeling pretty good today.”

Brooks said Ibaka is continuing to progress and has shown no ill-effects from playing in Games 3 and 4. He missed Games 1 and 2 with a Grade 2 calf strain that the team initially said would keep him out for the remainder of the playoffs.

Less than four minutes into Tuesday’s Game 4, Jackson drove to the basket. He planted his right foot on top of defender Danny Green‘s shoe and his ankle bent downward so far it wouldn’t have been surprising to see bone break flesh.

Jackson hopped all over the floor, flailing his arms in desperate hope of getting any one of the three referees to stop the game action. When the whistle finally blew, an agonizing Jackson hopped on his left leg to the baseline near the Thunder’s bench and crumpled to the floor.

He headed to the locker room, but returned to the bench and then started the second quarter in what seemed at the time to be an admirable, but unrealistic gut-check of his toughness. In the opening 1:25, Jackson missed a reverse layup, misfired a jumper, committed a turnover and then, again, limped off the floor.

“I liked Reggie coming back and trying to make another effort,” Brooks said. “It was a little too sore. I decided to rest him.”

Jackson’s night figured to be over, until he was back on the floor warming up with the team prior to the start of the season half. He would play more than eight minutes in the third quarter before Brooks, with the Thunder in control of the game, decided to rest him for the entire fourth.

“I would’ve played the entire game if I had to,” Jackson said. “I’d have found a way.”

No need on that night, but the fight is hardly over. Brooks has turned to Jackson as a replacement for slumping shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who has not played a minute since being benched before Game 3. Jackson played a team-high 37 minutes in that game and posted 15 points, five assists and four rebounds.

He and Ibaka have transformed a decidedly defensive starting lineup, with only Durant and Russell Westbrook as scoring threats, into a faster, attacking offense.

Jackson, 24, is another example of the Thunder’s researched drafting and player development. They drafted Jackson out of Boston College with the 24th pick in 2011. He averaged 11.1 mpg as a rookie with James Harden still on the team, and then just 14.2 mpg last year until he was called upon in the playoffs to replace injured Russell Westbrook.

Before that season, Jackson acknowledged, he began to doubt his ability to cut in the NBA. The playoffs boosted his confidence as he logged more than 30 mpg, but ultimately couldn’t help OKC get out of the second round.

Now he says he knows he belongs. After practice the day before Game 3, the very durable Jackson seemed pleased with his progress, but also sensed just how fragile a player’s body can be during the postseason.

“Hopefully, God-willing,” Jackson said, “I can stay healthy.”

It appears, a scare and some pain notwithstanding, he has.

Spurs letting Thunder party like it’s 2012


VIDEO: Thunder wax Spurs in Game 4

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s deja vu all over again.

Hello, 2012.

Can Obama win a second term? Can the Spurs win another game against the Thunder?

There was no need for postgame locker room fireworks this time. Things got explosive early in the third quarter when coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan went jaw-to-jaw over another uncertain pass that led to another sure-thing dunk at the other end.

It’s no longer just about the inspirational presence of Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup.

It’s about the entire energetic, athletic, run-til-the-cows-come-home Thunder lineup. And a Spurs lineup that, just as it did two years ago, suddenly looks like the morning after.

This is no longer a matter of simply asking Tony Parker to play better. It’s about finding a way for the Spurs to regain their poise and effectiveness against an OKC team that in the last two games has come at them like a rolling bundle of butcher knives.

There have been four games played now and four blowouts. But no matter what the series score sheet says, it doesn’t feel like the Western Conference finals are tied at 2-2.

You could say the Spurs have been put back on their heels, if it didn’t look like they were flat on their backs. It’s looking just like two years ago, when the Thunder spotted San Antonio a 2-0 lead and then roared back for a reverse sweep.

Remember Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio when the Thunder front line of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha put up just nine combined points? It pushed Thunder coach Scott Brooks to make a lineup change to get Reggie Jackson on the floor with the starters and Jeremy Lamb into the rotation.

Here was Duncan (nine points) Tiago Splitter (3) and Danny Green (3) managing to squeeze out just a few more drops and the solution is hardly to sound the trumpet for more of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and the Desperation Cavalry.

With the young arms and legs of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Lamb and Jackson cutting off angles and jumping into passing lanes, the Thunder have smothered San Antonio’s offense.

With their driving, relentless aggressiveness, OKC has also overwhelmed the Spurs’ defense. Of Westbrook’s 40 points and Durant’s 31, a lion’s share came with them going to hoop and making the Spurs look helpless to do anything about it.

It ended up 21-0 in fast break points. What’s more, in the first half the Spurs did not even run a single transition play. That’s plays, not points.

While Parker came out determined to re-establish his attack mode in the paint, his constant challenging of Ibaka actually took the Spurs out of their offense.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They’d know who Serge was.

“(It was) really unwise basketball … instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We have seven turnovers in the first half, but really 14 because of seven blocks. You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error. You’d better be smart the way you play and you can’t afford to screw up as many times as we did.”

At this time of the season with a core of veterans, there are not Xs and Os to be rearranged on the chalkboard that will deliver a solution. That’s the reason why Popovich pulled Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard when the OKC reached 27 points and it was still the third quarter. He needs to conserve whatever is left in those worn tanks for what is left of the series and maybe the season.

“This has got nothing to do with adjustments,” Popovich said. “It’s about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes.”

Not doing that has turned Chesapeake Arena into the Spurs’ own house of horrors.

Since the 2012 conference finals, the Spurs have an NBA-best road record of 62-33 against 28 other teams. But they’re also 0-9 in OKC since then, too.

“I think we should not think like that,” Parker said. “Each game is different, each series, each year.”

So how come it feels like 2012 and we already know how the election and everything else turned out?

Westbrook accepts the Parker challenge

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook blocks a Tony Parker shot in Game 3 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Russell Westbrook is taking the Tony Parker challenge.

Spurred by Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks‘ lineup shakeup in Game 3, which removed defensive-minded shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha and inserted Reggie Jackson, the onus of guarding the Spurs’ shifty All-Star point guard falls largely to Westbrook.

Jackson had his own challenge guarding Spurs’ 3-point specialist Danny Green, who was 7-for-10 from beyond the arc in Game 2 and 11-for-16 in the series.

In both cases, the matchups played out favorable to the Thunder in their 106-97 victory. Parker, who was 16-for-29 from the floor with five turnovers in the first two games, was 4-for-13 shooting and with as many turnovers (four) as assists. Green went 2-for-6 from beyond the arc.

“Big focus. I mean, that’s their team,” Westbrook said of his Game 3 defensive plan. “You control him, you can kind of control the rest of everything that goes on. They obviously have good ball movement when he’s in control. You try to control him. He’s definitely going to be aggressive and try to spoil what you can do and make shots for himself.”

As much as power forward Serge Ibaka aided the Thunder’s paint protection, and likely provided the peace of mind for Westbrook and Jackson to defend more aggressively on the perimeter, the new guard combo starting for the first time together simply delivered a greater level of intensity.

In the 2012 Western Conference finals, the 6-foot-7 Sefolosha had success guarding the smaller Parker, but this time Sefolosha’s defensive chops weren’t at a level that made up for his offensive shortcomings — scoreless in the first two games — prompting Brooks to make the switch.

The 6-foot-3 Westbrook has the quickness to keep up with Parker and the strength to at times overpower him.

“At my position, my advantage is my size, my quickness and being bigger than my opponents, so I’ve got to use it to my advantage,” Westbrook said. “Be smart about it, but use it to my advantage.”

With Westbrook and Jackson sharing the backcourt, they can also cross-match defensively whenever necessary.

Offensively, Jackson provided an additional attacker that prevented the Spurs’ defense from loading up on Durant and Westbrook as it had in the first two games. Jackson finished with 15 points, five assists and four rebounds in 37 minutes.

Sefolosha never got off the bench.

It marked the second time this postseason that Brooks opted to sit Sefolosha. In Games 6 and 7 of the first round against Memphis, a series OKC trailed 3-2, Caron Butler replaced Sefolosha and the move paid off. Sefolosha rejoined the starting line throughout the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers.

This time around, it appears Sefolosha will be hard-pressed in this series to get his job back.

Durant must answer call with authority

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s Dennis Scott talks about what the Thunder must do in Game 3

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – With or without miracle healer, if not yet miracle worker Serge Ibaka, the 2014 Oklahoma City Thunder’s postseason, sink or swim, will be owned by Kevin Durant.

The regular-season MVP and scoring champion has yet to sustain such a consistent level of brilliance in these playoffs, shooting just 45.4 percent from the floor despite a league playoff-best 30.1-point scoring average.

He acknowledged that fact the morning of Game 2: “I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done.”

And then the Thunder got thumped by 35 points, 20 more than Durant scored. Danny Green dropped more 3-pointers (seven) than Durant had field goals (six). Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were both plus-32 in 29 minutes. Durant was minus-26 in 29 minutes.

Allow those numbers to sink in.

As badly as Durant needs Thabo Sefolosha to can a jumper, and Caron Butler to come through with more than one 3-pointer since Game 3 against the Clippers, and for Russell Westbrook to stay in control when momentum swings against them, the second-best player on the planet has to show up as such.

LeBron James yielded the MVP to Durant this season, but the Miami Heat’s leader remains No. 1 in grabbing his team by the boot straps. With a squad thinner and more vulnerable than the past two championship versions, with Dwyane Wade playing mostly unspectacularly through the first two rounds and Chris Bosh averaging a pedestrian 13.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg, James has raised his scoring average in the postseason (28.8 ppg) while still shooting a remarkable 56.3 percent from the floor.

He’s increased his free-throw attempts by two a game compared to the regular season and improved his accuracy. He has the Heat now 9-2 in the playoffs, yes, against inferior Eastern competition compared to OKC’s playoff opponents. The Thunder stand 8-7 heading into Sunday night’s massively important Game 3 on their home floor (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

While Ibaka’s two-game absence (so far) has eliminated a lethal pick-and-pop game and robbed OKC of its third-leading scorer and fiercest two-way player against the most dangerous opponent, Durant has struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs. His 3-point percentage of 35.0 percent (39.1 percent in the regular season) has slowly trended up, although he’s 4-for-11 against San Antonio after an 0-for-4 night in Game 2.

After shooting 40 free throws in the last three games against the Clippers, Durant’s managed just nine in two games against the Spurs, and a total of one beyond the first quarter. During the rest of the playoffs, as well as the regular season, he’s averaged more than nine a game.

He’s continually denied that his league-leading 3,121 regular-season minutes (Dallas’ Monta Ellis was second with 3,022) and a playoff-high 648 more (Indiana’s Paul George is second with 619, also in 15 games) has worn him down or flattened his shot.

Game 3 will demand Durant be at his sharpest, both shooting it and play-making to involve and potentially ignite a cast, that when involved, propels an offense that has sagged in Games 1 and 2 to 94.0 points per 100 possessions against a Spurs defense it burned for 110.2 points per 100 possessions in going 4-0 during the regular season.

If Durant, 25, can’t summon that “next level” against the longest-standing Big Three of them all, he’ll swallowed by pre-championship-level LeBron scrutiny.

Durant got an initial dose of it last year, mostly unfairly, when the Thunder’s title hopes were dashed by Westbrook’s first-round knee injury. Durant was bottled up by Memphis in crunch time and he couldn’t get OKC out of the second round.

At each stage of this postseason, Durant has been tested mentally and physically. He showed frustration early against the defense of Tony Allen and the Grizzlies. When the Thunder went down 3-2 to Memphis with Durant going 10-for-24 in Game 5, the “Mr. Unreliable” headline made its appearance the next morning. Durant answered it with consecutive stellar games to move on.

Following three fourth-quarter turnovers in the Game 4 meltdown against the Clippers, Durant responded with a late surge after a rough three quarters in Game 5 to propel an unlikely comeback that prevented a 3-2 deficit heading back to L.A. In the series-clinching Game 6, Durant recovered from another slow start to overwhelm the Clippers and earn a third West finals berth in four seasons.

The Spurs are a near-perfect machine with essentially one flaw that had worked in the Thunder’s favor so often before — difficultly keeping up with super-athletic lineups. Before this series, before Ibaka strained his calf, the Thunder were 10-2 in their previous 12 games against the Spurs.

If Ibaka is capable of playing in Game 3, it will certainly give the Thunder a psychological boost and shore up defensive holes from the first two games in which the Spurs totaled 120 points in the paint.

Game 2 was stunningly lost after Durant checked back in with 6:18 left in the first half. Tim Duncan was at the free-throw line and gave the Spurs a 37-36 lead. A sudden San Antonio surge, which sparked words between Westbrook and Durant heading into a timeout, and the Spurs were up 58-44 going into halftime.

For the Thunder to reverse course in this series as they did in the 2012 West finals when the Spurs also jumped out to a 2-0 lead on their home floor, Durant must answer this call with authority.

Difference from 2012? Spurs just better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich speaks at Spurs practice ahead of Game 3

By the time they finally take the floor for the opening tip on Sunday night (8:30 ET, TNT), they will have reviewed it, relived it, dissected it more than a frog in a high school biology class.

Everywhere they turn, every newspaper or blog they read will remind the Spurs of the last time they were in Oklahoma City with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs actually brought 20 consecutive victories and an air of invincibility onto the court at Cheasapeake Energy Arena. And they left it eight days later with a fourth straight loss and the shards of a season in their bloody hands.

But you’ll excuse Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the silver and black for not being kept awake by scary reminders and bumps in the night.

This time around is like returning to the haunted house in broad daylight when it doesn’t seem quite so spooky. Gone, for one, is the ghost of James Harden, who hit big shots and was the third weapon in the OKC armory. Then there’s the skeleton of Serge Ibaka, out with a calf injury, that is now locked away in a closet.

“We’ll remind everyone of that situation,” said Duncan, showing the proper amount of the so-called appropriate fear. “We need to go into Oklahoma for that first game with the focus we’ll need to win the game.”

However, there is another more basic reason that the Spurs can walk a bit more boldly. They’re better.

In the past two years, the Spurs have added to their depth, improved their balance and become a more potent overall team than any of the remaining contenders in either of the conference finals.

The Heat are the two-time defending champs and may still have the best player in the game in LeBron James. But his supporting cast, beginning with Dywane Wade, has fallen off and James is now required to do more. Often much more.

The Pacers with the emergence of Paul George may be a step up from 2013. However, their late-season swoon, near-cratering in the first round against Atlanta, overall mood and performance swings — not to mention George’s physical status for Game 3 — makes Indiana shakier than a rope ladder.

The Thunder, of course, have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but are playing without two ingredients that made the previous comeback possible and three-fifths of a starting lineup — Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — that has produced a total of nine points in the first two games.

While the Spurs’ solar system still revolves around the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the fact is it’s the emergence of the others that have allowed the veterans to keep their minutes down to all-time lows during the regular season in order to step up now, along with providing some punch of their own.

Danny Green — Parker’s partner in the starting backcourt became so lost and discombobulated during the 2012 series that he was eventually benched by coach Gregg Popovich for the final two games, playing less than four minutes in each.

“He’s come a long way,” Popovich said. “We cut him a couple of times and other people cut him, and he went to Europe and he went to Russia and he went to the D-League and he went all over the place. But the light went on and he become a little bit more aggressive, so that I think he could play at the defensive end. But I think his confidence grew shooting-wise, and I think that he gets a lot of credit for persevering and ending up where he is right now.”

That’s hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 2, giving him 21 points for the night, which is more than the total of 20 he scored in the entire 2012 series against OKC.

Kawhi Leonard — He’s steadily grown into the role that Popovich described as a “future face of the franchise” after the Spurs traded for the No. 15 pick on the night of the 2011 draft. He was a 20-year-old rookie in that previous series against the Thunder, taking the occasional wide open jumper and hustling for loose balls. Now Leonard is the Spurs’ No. 1 defender, locking up with Durant, James and every other big gun in the NBA while also blossoming at the offensive end to quite devastating effect at times, bull-rushing to the hoop or confidently stroking shots from the perimeter. His 14.7 rating is the best in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs by any player.

“He’s growing month by month, week by week,” Popovich said. “He’s been pretty special for us.”

Tiago Splitter — After nearly two full seasons in the starting lineup alongside Duncan, the Brazilian big man is showing more and more of the ability that got him named MVP of the Spanish League in 2010. OKC coach Scott Brooks shook his confidence by intentionally fouling Splitter during the 2012 series. But now he’s a key Spurs element at both ends of the floor. He and Duncan have developed rugged defensive combination, limiting opponents to 93.4 points per 100 points when they’ve been on the court together in the playoffs. He’s also an excellent interior passer and had a breakout Game 2 with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Splitter has more rebounds (18) in two games than the entire 2012 series (11).

“What he does for us now is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years,” Popovich said. “He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”

Patty Mills — The Australian dynamo only got off the bench for mop-up duty in the 2012 meeting with the Thunder. But now he’s Parker’s first backup at the point and he steps onto the floor with a fearless sense of belonging. His offense punch has not been needed so far against OKC, but Mills scored in double figures six times in 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Dallas and Portland.

Marco Belinelli — The free agent signing is the only newcomer to the core rotation since the 2012 series and has been invaluable all season long with his on-court smarts and excellent perimeter shooting. He was the team’s top bomber from behind the 3-point line this season and has had the best overall shooting year of his NBA career.

Spurs’ defense tightens its grip

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: A slow-motion look at the best plays from each conference finals’ Game 2

SAN ANTONIO – When the passes are crisp, the ball is moving and the shots are falling, it is easy to become hypnotized and think the Spurs are all about a smooth offense that should be set to waltz music.

But there’s a little head-banging defense that helps them rock and roll, too.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may have finished Game 2 with their playoff low of 15 points apiece because they sat out the entire fourth quarter. But when they were part of the 112-77 massacre in the Western Conference finals, the Thunder top guns were a combined 13-for-40 from the field shooting.

Through the first two games, OKC has connected on just 14-of-47 shots (29.8 percent) from behind the 3-point line and hasn’t been able to develop any kind of offensive rhythm that isn’t just Durant or Westbrook going 1-on-1.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t professing to have solved the dilemma of stopping the Thunder permanently.

“I’m sure at times we guarded them well and I’m sure that at times they had open shots that they didn’t make,” he said.

Knowing that OKC doesn’t have Serge Ibaka as a third option in its offense, the Spurs have been able to play more aggressively on Durant and Westbrook, closing out faster on jump shots and contesting drives to the basket.

After Kawhi Leonard handled the lion’s share of the defensive assignment on Durant in the series opener, he got into early foul trouble and played just under 16 minutes in Game 2.

Danny Green and Manu Ginobili stepped into the breach for the most part, while Marco Belinelli also got a few trips down the floor on Durant.

“First Marco took Durant, then I came in,” Ginobili said. “Of course, we got worried because Kawhi is our designated defender on him. Besides that, even if he wasn’t our designated, he’s a huge part of what we do and we need him on the court.”

It certainly helps when the Thunder are starting games with a lineup that might as well be the equivalent of a one-armed juggler. The combination of Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison scored just five points in Game 1 and came back with a worse output in Game 2 (four points).

“You’re not going to stop (Durant and Westbrook),” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “We know they’re going to keep being aggressive and they’re going to score some points. So far, we’re doing a pretty good job. I think we can do better. It’s going to be harder to stop them at home.”

The Spurs had the No. 3-rated defense in the league during the regular season, giving up just 102.4 points per 100 possessions. But Green said the Spurs still needed to turn up the level of energy and aggressiveness after built a 36-33 lead about four minutes deep into the second quarter of Game 2.

“They were doing pretty much everything they wanted, the things that we didn’t want them to do in the first quarter,” Green said. “We changed some things, tried to show them different looks and they started missing shots.

“We started contesting harder, being more aggressive and trying to limit them to one shot, not to let them get second chances and offensive rebounds.”

Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan also ramped up their protection of the basket, blocking five shots in Game 2 and going over others.

In two games, the Thunder have made only 72-of-169 shots (42.6 percent) in the series.

“Those guys can score the ball so easily,” Leonard said. “So holding them under 50 percent is a great job.”

Reeling Thunder seem out of answers

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew hands out some advice for struggling Thunder

SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder had to feel pretty good. Relatively speaking. No, they hadn’t shot it well and the offense remained a combination of two overburdened superstars and haphazard execution.

But they had also stemmed another early San Antonio paint party and were getting enough hustle and grit from role players off the bench to survive Kevin Durant sitting out the first 5:42 of the second quarter, darn near a vacation for Mr. Inexhaustible during this postseason.

As the MVP checked back into the game between Tim Duncan free throws, the first tying it 36-36 and the second giving the Spurs back the lead, 37-36, the Thunder did have to like what was happening. They were hanging in, defending well enough that the Spurs, shooting under 40 percent, had to earn their looks.

Coming out of a timeout with 2:37 left in the half, San Antonio went up 47-42. Then the hurricane hit with a devastating wallop. First a Danny Green 3-pointer followed by a Boris Diaw reverse layup and then another quick-trigger Green 3 as Durant lunged, helplessly out of position to contest.

Suddenly it was 55-44 — an 8-2 explosion in 81 seconds.

Durant and Westbrook exchanged words heading to the bench for a timeout — leaders getting on one another, Westbrook explained, “what leaders do” — although it’s doubtful either could hear what the other had said.

The ascending roars inside AT&T Center reverberated off every seat in the house until the place felt as if it was going to blast off. For the Thunder it must have felt like the roof had caved in on them, leaving them stumbling through choking clouds of rubble. At least that’s how they played on the Spurs’ next possession.

First Diaw grabbed Ginobili’s missed layup. Then Ginobili snuck inside of Durant and rebounded Tony Parker‘s errant 3. Ginobili dribbled freely all the way out beyond the arc as if taking it back behind an imaginary line on his driveway, lined up a 27-footer and buried it with 33 seconds left in the half.

It was 58-44, a 22-8 burst being the precursor to a second consecutive blowout, 112-77.

“You can’t go from down 5 to 14, not in two minutes,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said.

“I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter,” Durant said. “I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I overhelped and he got another 3, and then Ginobili hit the 3. All those plays was on me … We shouldn’t have been down that much at halftime, but I made three bonehead plays.”

Durant sounded a lot like Chris Paul after the Clippers’ Game 5 loss at Oklahoma City. Paul shouldered blame for a series of bungled plays. This one obviously had much more time to play out, but just as the Clippers never recovered, there’s an undeniable dire feeling attached to this so-far non-competitive Western Conference finals.

Durant and Westbrook could have combined for 60 points and it still wouldn’t have been enough. Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was held scoreless again. He, Perkins and Ibaka fill-in Nick Collison have combined for nine points in the two games. Only Jeremy Lamb off the bench cracked double-digits and those points came after this one was long over.

With 5:41 to go in the third quarter the Spurs led 76-50. “Sweet Caroline” played over the audio system during a timeout and 18,581 swaying fans turned the arena into a rollicking sing-a-long.

With 1:47 left in the period, the margin stretched to 87-58 after a Kawhi Leonard layup, another layup that accounted for 54 point in the paint, 120 in the series. Durant slammed the ball to the floor and Thunder coach Scott Brooks threw in the towel. Durant, just 6-for-16 for a playoff-low 15 points, and Westbrook, 7-for-24 for 15 points, watched the rest of it from the bench.

Inevitably, the Thunder’s 2012 West finals comeback when they went home down 0-2 to the Spurs and then steamrolled them with waves of athleticism in four straight, became a popular line of postgame questioning. And OKC’s players all answered as they should, that they’re not giving up the fight.

But three key differences make this time feel a whole lot different: James Harden plays in Houston, Serge Ibaka is on crutches and this souped-up Spurs team, humming at top efficiency, is even better than that one.

Game 3 in Oklahoma City is not until Sunday night, leaving Brooks 72 hours to dissect this two-game train wreck and seek solutions to questions that seem unanswerable. Ibaka’s athleticism to defend Duncan in the post, meet Parker on penetrations and step out for 15-foot target practice on the offensive end, appear too much to overcome.

Brooks went small in Game 1 and he tried to go big in Game 2. He got by with again starting the second quarter without Durant and Westbrook on the floor. At the 9:13 mark, Westbrook returned with OKC up one. They’d keep it right there over the next three minutes when Durant returned to anchor another newly concocted lineup with Westbrook, Collison, Perry Jones and Steven Adams.

They got flattened. Now comes three days of introspection before the Thunder puts their season, their championship dreams, on the line in Game 3.

“It’s hard to do, but like I said, we can do it,” Durant said. “Of course everybody is going to try to spread us apart these next few days, but we’ve never been a team that front-runs. We always stick together no matter what. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

Can Sefolosha get his corner 3 back?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: What must OKC change in Game 2?

SAN ANTONIO – This is a contract season for Thabo Sefolosha, but you wouldn’t know it from his statistics. The veteran shooting guard is a defensive specialist, but he’s also been a dangerous and necessary corner 3-point shooter for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only his accuracy has mostly gone MIA this season.

He shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc after consecutive seasons of shooting better than 40 percent. His slide has continued into the postseason — 28.6 percent — and it’s led to erratic minutes and even sitting out the entirety of Games 6 and 7 in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies when coach Scott Brooks instead inserted Caron Butler in the starting lineup to help space the floor.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and the San Antonio Spurs, Sefolosha played just 16 minutes and after missing his first three jumpers and being yanked midway through the first quarter, he sat for the remainder of the first half.

Sefolosha expressed frustration with his limited playing time after the game. On Tuesday he took a less opinionated tact.

“I don’t really want to talk on it. It’s coach’s decision,” Sefolosha said. “When I’m on court I’m going to play and when I’m not I’m going to cheer for the guys. You know, it’s part of the game.”

The Thunder need Sefolosha’s offense more now than ever with third-leading scorer Serge Ibaka shelved presumably for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury. With Nick Collison replacing Ibaka, the Thunder suddenly start three low-scoring offensive players in Sefolosha, Collison and center Kendrick Perkins.

In Game 1, those three combined to go 2-for-10 from the floor for five points, all scored by Perkins. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant accounted for 53 of 58 points scored by the starting lineup.

Sefolosha’s corner 3s have always come off kickouts from Westbrook and Durant penetrations as defenses collapse. The benefit to the Thunder’s offense when Sefolosha hits 40 percent from the arc is obvious. During the regular season, 56 percent of Sefolosha’s 3-point attempt came from the corners as did 60 percent of his makes.

He’s just 3-for-9 from the corners in the playoffs.

The Spurs forced Sefolosha off the 3-point arc altogether. He ducked under defenders following a shot fake and badly missed on this first three mid-range in the first quarter. Nearly 44 percent of Sefolosha’s shot attempts this postseason have been 3s, but he managed just one on four shot attempts in Game 1.

“If the 3 is open, I definitely would rather take the 3,” Sefolosha said. “But they did a decent job getting us off the line.”