TrueHoop: Kevin Durant

What KD can learn from LeBron's decision

July, 16, 2014
Young By Royce Young
Kevin Durant and LeBron JamesIssac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant faces his own decision in 2016 when he is slated to become a free agent.
Back in 2010, as LeBron James readied to shake the basketball world with Decision 1.0, Kevin Durant had already made and announced his via a simple typo'd tweet.

Durant was cast as a protagonist for the digital age, a star displaying the "right way" to announce a career choice, while James found himself somewhere between He Who Must Not Be Named and King Joffrey on the likability scale.

It was inevitable to compare and contrast. James left; Durant stayed. James took his talents somewhere on television; Durant stayed put in 140 characters or less. There was a certain charm to the misspelling -- "extension" as "exstension" -- that illustrated how little premeditation Durant had seemed to invest, while James had everything meticulously orchestrated for his one-hour special.

What was lost, though, is that Durant actually made the same choice James did some four years earlier. Durant was coming off his rookie scale deal and did what virtually every player in his position does: take a maximum extension. Nobody turns down that money at that time.

Still, there was one big difference between the two extensions. James signed his in 2006 for three years, a strategic financial move that would make him a free agent after seven seasons, which allowed him to get a max at 30 percent rather than 25. Durant, on the other hand, specifically requested there be no early opt-out. This locked him in for the full five years.

Yet even with the gesture -- and all of the nice things he has said about the team and Oklahoma City -- as soon as Durant hit "send" on that tweet, the clock started ticking toward his next decision, the actual decision, the one he makes in 2016 as an unrestricted free agent.

James spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland, falling short of a championship seven times. Durant will spend his first nine seasons with the Thunder franchise and thus far has failed seven times to reach the ultimate goal. Should the Thunder fall short the next two seasons, the assumption is Durant will depart as James did, even if the optics are different.

But there's something for Durant to learn from Decision 2.0. James' choice was painted primarily as a homecoming story, the prodigal son returning to right his wrongs. All true, no doubt. Except there's another, more practical reason he picked Cleveland: sustainability.

In some ways, his departure is what put the Cavaliers in the position to bring him back, meaning they got so bad that they piled up young talent and assets. When James turns 34, Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011, will be 26. Andrew Wiggins, the 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick, will be just 23. The Cavs provide an opportunity for James to chase a championship for his hometown, and do it over and over again for the next decade. In a lot of ways, James found his Thunder.

Oklahoma City's buzzword from day one has been sustainability, and for the past four years, it has sustained one hell of a run. A winning percentage near .750, three trips to the Western Conference finals, and one to the Finals. In James' final four seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs won 68 percent of their games, made two conference finals appearances, and one in the NBA Finals. For both, there is a common, painful denominator: no championship.

For Durant, when the time comes to make his choice in 2016, it's not going to be about if he won a championship. It's about where he can win his next championship. We can't be entirely sure that had the Cavs won a title with James before 2010 that he would've stayed. We can assume, but we can't know.

That roster, with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams and Delonte West and Shaquille O'Neal, wasn't built to contend for a decade. It was built to try to appease James on a year-by-year basis. Durant will be 27 when he signs his next contract somewhere, and that decision will be informed by the future, not the past.

Teams are already clearing space to have their pitch lined up for Durant. The Knicks have about $30 million in committed salary for 2016-17, the Nets $6.3 million. The Wizards owe $34.8 million, enough room to fit a max for Durant. The Lakers don’t have a single penny committed. The Thunder have $30.1 million committed, but that’s also their advantage -- because it’s for Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.

The likely market for 2016 doesn’t include a Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade out there for Durant to team with. Unless Durant wants to play with James, or Kevin Love exercises his player option, the best available free agents in summer 2016 are Dwight Howard (who will be 30), Deron Williams (who will be 32) and Al Horford (who will be 30).

Westbrook will be just 27; Ibaka will be 26.

There is the fact Durant plays in one of the league’s smallest markets and the financial realities that come with that. The Thunder have actively resisted dipping into the luxury tax, which reaffirms the perception that ownership is cheap and unwilling to spend for a contender (this is where you bring up the James Harden trade).

The reality is the team is planning for the future, avoiding years of the luxury tax that would place them as repeat offenders in 2016 and 2017, when they have to re-sign their core. Over-extending for the present is dangerous, and as the Thunder have harshly been forced to learn the past two postseasons with injuries to key players, there are no guarantees. “Going for it” can often only complicate your future.

Maybe Durant will be drawn back home like James, or maybe he'll want the big lights and big pressure of bringing a championship to New York. But what he'll really want is the best possible chance to win. And as long as the Thunder can provide that better than anyone else, his next decision will be just as simple as his first.

Kevin Durant has room for improvement

June, 1, 2014
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Kevin DurantTom Pennington/Getty ImagesWhile his game is sublime, it's not ridiculous to suggest Kevin Durant needs to work on some things.
Now, that strange time of year for criticizing players whose existence makes you feel lucky to be alive. Kevin Durant is certainly one of those guys who awes and inspires with his standard level of play. He’s as tall as a center, but moves like a guard. Actually, he might even move in a wholly different manner from anyone else. He floats out there on offense, in the best of senses. There’s an effortlessness to his shot and his handle that doesn’t seem possible for a man that size. Criticizing him really feels like kicking a gift horse in the mouth.

He has his flaws, though, flaws that helped swing the West finals in San Antonio’s favor. This isn’t to say such flaws are immutable, that this will be his curse for as long as he plays. This isn’t to say he’s “Mr. Unreliable.” One thing that’s been easy to rely on over the years is Durant’s ability to improve himself. It’s just that, yes, he was disappointing in these playoffs, and yes, his play revealed why, even though he deservedly won the MVP award from his regular-season exploits, he’s not yet better than LeBron James.

The difference between LeBron and Durant is the former really doesn’t have a weakness. Even if James slipped as a defensive force this season, at least some of that seemed to be a matter of effort, given his track record as a good defender. Defensively, Durant’s just bad, relative to his size and lengthy frame. A lot of that coordination and mobility we see on offense leaves him on the defensive end. He can be a wobbly defender, unsure of how much space to cede, unable to turn his hips when driven past.

To be fair, Durant does well defensively in the right matchup (He was good against Kawhi Leonard in this series, for example). The problems happen when he has to guard someone outside his comfort zone, like he frequently had to when OKC decided put Durant on Danny Green after Green’s Game 1 3-point outburst. In this matchup, Durant struggled to get around screens and fell asleep off the ball. Durant’s defense was a party to half of Green’s threes after Game 1. He also got blasted in the post by Boris Diaw in Game 2, causing the Thunder to largely abandon that strategy the rest of the way.

Offensively, Durant isn’t without flaws either. On balance, Durant was a better offensive player this season than LeBron was, but LeBron doesn’t feature weaknesses that can be exploited in playoff game-planning. If you take something away from James, he can do something else. Durant’s not quite there.

In this series Durant couldn’t wholly exploit his size advantage over Green when San Antonio put Leonard on Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was fine going against a larger player, flying past Leonard whenever the small forward so much as flinched. Durant struggled to get open against a quick defender, and struggled to dribble when played tight.

Right now he lacks the strength to assure himself post position. His handle is impressive for his size, but it’s not totally trustworthy in the way, say, LeBron’s is. Durant’s still reliant on others, he’s not great at getting open, and, though his passing has improved markedly over the years, he had a tendency towards tunnel vision in these playoffs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a guy to LeBron James, and the Thunder are the envy of the league for having a younger player who’s at least comparable. Durant might very well be at the point LeBron was after the 2011 Finals. He’s a brilliant player, blessed with gifts you rarely see in a lifetime. He just hasn’t yet honed those gifts to the point of having a solid counter to whatever defense comes his way. I, for one, will enjoy the process of seeing him get there.

No good deed goes unpunished

May, 27, 2014
Young By Royce Young
Scott BrooksRonald Martinez/Getty Images
The order of operations in assigning blame following a Thunder loss typically goes something like this:

1. Scott Brooks
2. Scott Brooks
3. Russell Westbrook
4. Scott Brooks
5. Kendrick Perkins
6. Sam Presti trading James Harden
874. Kevin Durant

Since winning NBA Coach of the Year in 2010 after leading a group of 20-year-olds to 50 wins and a postseason berth, Brooks has steadily seen his reputation drained to a punch line. He's ripped for his commitment to veterans such as Perkins and Derek Fisher. He's ripped for the Thunder's frustratingly simple offense. He's ripped for not getting more out of two outrageously talented superstars.

But I can't shake what Durant said during his MVP speech.

"I've never met anybody like you, so selfless," Durant said to Brooks. "You don't take the credit for nothing, even though you deserve all of it."

Take Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs. The Thunder stormed their way to an emotional 106-97 win, and the prevailing storyline was Serge Ibaka's return (and rightfully so). They appeared fixed and whole again. But within that was Brooks' shrewd move to add slashing guard Reggie Jackson to the starting five, putting more defensive pressure on the Spurs, opening up weakside options and more driving opportunities for Westbrook and Durant.

Barely went noticed.

Maybe the biggest criticism Brooks has faced in his five-plus seasons as coach is his staunch loyalty to his starting five, resisting change even when evidence suggests an adjustment may be in order. The Thunder have enjoyed remarkable consistency with their starting five since acquiring Perkins, trotting out that lineup 137 times in 165 games before this season.

This season was different. With Westbrook recovering from knee surgery and a couple of injuries to Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, Brooks was forced to tip off 55 games without his favorite five.

Maybe because of it, Brooks' mind opened more to the idea of switching up his starters. As the Thunder headed to Memphis down 3-2 to the Grizzlies in Round 1, the storyline centered on Durant and the "Mr. Unreliable" nonsense. But Brooks tweaked his starting five, subbing the more offense-minded Caron Butler for Sefolosha. The Thunder played their two best offensive games of the series and finished the Grizzlies in seven games.

Against the Clippers in Round 2, Brooks went back to his traditional starting lineup, and stuck with it despite building criticism, especially after a disastrous Game 1 loss. But as the Thunder advanced in six games, that group was maybe the Thunder's best combination for the series, posting a net rating of plus-11.1 in 77 minutes.

Against the Spurs, Brooks was again forced to make a change, but not out of choice. Ibaka was out, and Brooks tabbed steady veteran Nick Collison to replace him. The lineup was an abject disaster the first two games, as Collison, Perkins and Sefolosha combined to score nine points in San Antonio. With the Thunder’s backs to the wall down 2-0, Brooks was handed an obvious alteration. Ibaka was back, but he resisted the urge to just pencil in the status quo, instead opting for Jackson.

"It's a major decision," Brooks said Monday on switching his starting five. "We've been successful. I get knocked as a coach that we don't make changes. ... We've won a lot of games [with that starting five]. But there's times that we have to change in a series. I think our guys have adjusted well the last two times we've done it. We might have to do it again."

Not only was the new starting five electric (150.4 points per 100 possessions), but Brooks handed mainstay Sefolosha a DNP-CD. How's that for bold?

Brooks definitely has his faults, though. The Thunder sometimes appear like a team that's just winging it, trying to get by on raw talent, rather than having any semblance of a plan. The offense often teeters between best-in-the-league and oh-my-goodness-what-are-they-doing. Their half-court attack dissolves into a mushy mess, and the defense is maddeningly inconsistent. Many of their big shots come in transition or as Hail Marys off broken plays. And if well-conceived stuff is being drawn up in the huddle, it rarely seems to make it onto the floor after a timeout.

Durant and Westbrook get lost in their own games at times as Brooks extends a lengthy leash without much accountability. The rotations can be head-scratching and the veteran loyalty confusing. And Brooks does himself no favors with his comically empty "miked up" segments on the bench or his bland media sessions that leave you wondering if it's a tactical diversion or if he just doesn't know how to answer a question.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiOKC has been a big success under Scott Brooks, but does Kevin Durant need more?
When the Thunder win, it's because Westbrook and Durant are that good. When they lose, it's because Brooks isn't. It's the plight of a coach, especially one with superstars, forced to accept responsibility while rarely getting to share in the glory. Coaches don't get credit when a team does what it's supposed to. It's when a team overachieves and surprises that we take notice. And then we build them up just to tear them back down. Let's see how everyone feels about Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Terry Stotts in a few seasons.

Brooks isn't deaf to the criticism, but he also isn't all that bothered by it. The Thunder have experienced success under him -- five straight postseason appearances, three of the past four conference finals and one NBA Finals trip with a core roster that still isn't older than 25.

Durant is the Thunder, the heart of the franchise who has defined the culture with his work ethic, character and humility. But Brooks has cultivated and fostered that environment. He's the Walter White of locker room chemistry, concocting what might be the tightest roster in the league. His players play for him, and most important, his superstar loves him.

Brooks has stretched this postseason, and his big moves have resulted in big wins. Still, even when Brooks makes an effective change, the focus is often about how he was two games late with it. Heck, he was two years late in benching Perkins against the Heat, and Thunder fans still haven't forgiven him for it.

But he has won a lot of games. He's overseen the development of a number of incredibly talented young players such as Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Jackson and Steven Adams. Presti, the general manager, has drafted some players for Brooks to work with, but they've also entered into a setting keen on building them. Brooks reinforces positives and basically lives on the message that playing hard can cover most mistakes. The Thunder have a tangible culture that a lot of teams are trying to copy, and a lot of it starts with the coach.

The question is, though, has he taken the Thunder as far as he can? There's a parallel some have drawn between Doug Collins and Brooks, with Durant needing his Phil Jackson to get to that next level. When you have a transformative player like Durant, you can’t waste him. Not even for a year. The time is always now, and the seat is always hot. Erik Spoelstra felt it and then some before LeBron bailed him out in Boston in Game 6. You don't start getting credit until the job is done. It's not fair; it's just reality.

The diagnosis for Kevin Durant

May, 22, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
David Thorpe explains what's keeping Kevin Durant from scoring like he normally does.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 14, 2014
Thorpe By David Thorpe
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:

Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

For one day, KD gets away from it all

May, 6, 2014
Young By Royce Young
Special to

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The idea was pretty obvious. In an effort to write the story themselves, the Thunder staged Kevin Durant's MVP ceremony at the team's old practice facility, a skating rink rigged on short notice to house an NBA team after the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008. Back to the place where Durant started the process and put in his work.

But two hours earlier and five miles away, Durant and his teammates were locked in an intense film session, watching tape of a brutally embarrassing 122-105 Game 1 loss to the Clippers. There were plenty of defensive breakdowns during a chaotic 48 minutes that resulted in Durant sitting almost the entire fourth quarter of a postseason game, one in which faint traces of boos echoed in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

An MVP ceremony to celebrate a wonderful season here; a playoff series and a season in jeopardy there. The Thunder, at the request of Durant, boarded a chartered bus to make the trip to the old facility together, an obvious show of unity from Durant. But it also served as a keen metaphor for the current state of the Thunder: It's Kevin Durant trying to take 14 other guys somewhere special.

Durant searched frantically all season to find an inner peace, a balance between pressing hard for something he desperately wanted for himself while maintaining a team-first approach. Durant’s dedication to his game is almost legendary, putting in countless hours on the most rudimentary things. But by his own admission, that attention to every detail, that concentration on every shot, sometimes put himself in his own way.

"This is the first year I played when I didn't put basketball first,” Durant said. “I put being a man first."

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiWhile Kevin Durant enjoys the spoils of the MVP award, a storm is growing around him and OKC.
The thing is, the presentation nearly took on a completely different tone. With hometown headlines running amok and his team on the brink of elimination against Memphis, Durant was pushed to a place he's never been. He was individually struggling, and even admitted that a defender was in his head. He faced the very real possibility of accepting this MVP as a spectator, not active participant, of the postseason.

His response? A defiant 36-point performance in Game 6, followed by a devastatingly efficient 33 in the decisive Game 7. Crisis averted, awkwardness avoided.

Still, his moment of individual conquest came with a cloud, one that happened a night before. One game doesn't define a series, but with a late-season defensive swoon and a difficult seven-game series that portends potential trouble, the league's newly crowned MVP wasn't able to bask in the shine of his trophy. At the moment he commemorated his accomplishment -- his ceremonial rise from second to first -- there was plenty of doubt circling his team.

Winning an MVP brings immediate validation and elevates a career, but it also adds a tremendous burden. With the assumption that he was going to be handed this, the noise was already starting a week ago. The line of thinking is pretty simple: "You're the MVP? Well, then play like it." It's an unfair expectation placed on the league's best, something LeBron James is all too familiar with. That's the price you pay, and Durant knows it.

But back to the old facility, where Durant was suited and booted with a striking indigo suit, delivering a powerful, emotional 25-minute speech in which he thanked each teammate personally for the award he was receiving. From rookie Grant Jerrett to Kendrick Perkins to Serge Ibaka to finally finishing with Russell Westbrook, it was a stirring journey around the team's locker room, providing a glimpse at Durant’s presence at the center of the organization.

"When they told me I was going to win this prestigious award, the first thing I did was go to YouTube and look at what LeBron James said, and what Derrick Rose said and I just tried to change it up a little bit," Durant said. "I wanted to come here and hit everyone in the face with what I said, so they could feel it. I wanted to leave my mark and I know it was a little long, but I felt like these guys deserved to be singled out, every single one of them because they've sacrificed for me."

Durant has always been the focal point of the Thunder's process, an organic developmental plan that, to this point, has become the model for the rest of the league. But as the struggles of the postseason become real and the triumph of getting to the 2012 Finals gets further in the rearview mirror, difficult questions will start to pile up about the validity of it all.

The reality, though, is that the so-called "Thunder Model" was never a championship blueprint. It's always been about a sustained movement that provides the consistent opportunity for success. The Thunder don't have a "go for it" mentality in the traditional sense, and never will as long as Sam Presti is in charge. Their go-for-it-ness is shaped by building a competitive roster that arrives at training camp with a shot at the trophy.

They're going for it every season. But that process will go only as far as Durant can take it.

He's only 25 years old, completing his seventh season in the league. LeBron won his first MVP at the age of 24, and didn't complete his championship hunt until 27, his ninth season. Michael Jordan won his first MVP at 24, but didn't win a title until 27, his seventh season. According to that, Durant's right on schedule to cement himself as one of the all-timers.

But playing in a market like Oklahoma City seems to create a different storyline, one in which the assumption is Durant will eventually have to graduate to somewhere bigger and better to take the next step. LeBron did that, so naturally, Durant has to follow the same path, right?

"This is a perfect place for me," Durant said. "And I enjoy being a part of something like this. Knowing coming to the arena, they're going to love you no matter what. Losing by 25 in the playoffs, or winning a Game 7 on your home floor. They're always going to feel the same way about us. And I don't want to take that for granted because the grass is not always greener on the other side."

That's easy to say today, on the biggest individual day of his career, when the positive vibes flow as freely as the tears. What if Game 2 against the Clippers doesn't go well? What if the Thunder make another second-round exit? What if the frustration begins to build and all that positive emotion and love for his teammates, coaches and front office fades?

An MVP is a considerable career achievement, that's now been checked off Durant’s list. The clock is now ticking for something else.

The MVP is in trouble

May, 6, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Kevin Durant finally earns his first MVP award just as his Thunder wrestle with a blowout loss to the Clippers and emerging questions about their title chances.

No bluff: Thunder are Grizzlies' best rivals

April, 24, 2014
By Chris Herrington
Special to
Kevin Durant and Tony AllenAP Photo/Alonzo AdamsThe Tony Allen-Kevin Durant matchup has become the heart of one of the NBA's best rivalries.
If NBA fans around the country played word association with “Memphis Grizzlies” and “rivalry,” they’d probably see images of Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin rolling around on the floor. But while the recent battles between the Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers have generated more heat, the rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder has proven more momentous to Memphis.

On Thursday night, at Memphis' FedExForum, these teams will play for the 30th time in four seasons, including in three playoff series (counting this one). The Grizzlies hold a 15-14 edge, but the clashes have provided much more than that. The series has given Grizzlies fans six overtime games and the franchise’s first Game 7, and has paved the way for a first trip to the Western Conference finals.

Most of the lexicon of Grizzlies fan culture also has emanated in opposition to OKC: The boast-as-threat “We Don’t Bluff” traces to an altercation between Randolph and Kendrick Perkins in November 2012. The crunch-time penchant for converting “growl towels” into "Norma Rae"-style signs materialized organically during a Game 3 comeback against the Thunder in May 2011. Even “grit and grind” first came about on the sidelines of Chesapeake Energy Arena in February 2011. When Rudy Gay was traded, the team’s next game -- a loss, the “champagne taste on a beer budget" game -- was against the Thunder. When Marc Gasol unexpectedly returned from injury this season, in a win, it was against the Thunder.

If the Grizzlies-Clippers rivalry is embodied in Randolph vs. Griffin -- a prizefight of relative equals, made more compelling by their radically contrasting styles and personalities -- then the Grizzlies-Thunder rivalry is embodied in Tony Allen vs. Kevin Durant: an ostensible mismatch, the role player and the MVP, David and Goliath.

Last season, Allen was suddenly deemed too short for the assignment despite ample evidence to the contrary. He was kept off Durant for the first seven quarters of the teams’ second-round series, in which the Grizzlies lost one game and were headed toward losing a second. Finally let loose in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Allen held Durant scoreless for 7 minutes in a close win, stealing the ball for a meaningless-to-most exclamation dunk in the final seconds and then running by the scorer’s table, yelling, “First team, all-defense!”

Was he taunting his opponent? More likely speaking to some mixture of the basketball gods, himself and his coach. The Grizzlies swept the remaining games against the Thunder, with Durant increasingly overburdened.

This season, upon returning from injury, Allen reluctantly moved to a reserve role and averaged fewer minutes per game than increasingly limited starter Tayshaun Prince. But against the league’s most dominant scorer on Monday night, Allen played 35 minutes, while Prince played only 14. The Grizzlies won 111-105 in overtime to tie the series. As they say in Memphis, No. 9 when you need him.

Allen’s first couple of months with the Grizzlies didn’t go well, either. When he first came to the team, in 2010-11, he played behind rookie Xavier Henry and totaled nearly a dozen DNPs. He blackened the eye of teammate O.J. Mayo in a squabble over a card game. The first game after that incident was at home against the Thunder, and Allen spent the first quarter botching uncontested layups and suffering ballhandling misadventures. He ended it with 16 second-half points, a clutch 3-pointer (followed by a backpedaling shimmy), a violent block on a Russell Westbrook layup attempt, and several thousand new fans.

In Memphis, this became known as “The Tony Allen Game.” A February rematch that season in Oklahoma City, in which Allen had 27 points (still his high with the Grizzlies), 5 steals, 3 blocks, zero turnovers and brilliant late-game defense on Durant, rendered it “The First Tony Allen Game.” Following the overtime win Monday, Allen turned a postgame interview into an impromptu sideline soliloquy, warning of the dangers of the Ibakas and Sefoloshas of the world, but not before a now-familiar rallying cry: “It’s all heart. Grit. Grind.”

Oklahoma City brings out the best in Tony Allen. And now here he is again, matched up against arguably the best player of the 2013-14 season.

Grizzlies fans can work up a feverish, fun “sports hate” for Griffin and Chris Paul. Maybe even for smirking Westbrook or frowning Perkins or old-and-in-the-way Derek Fisher. But Durant? Not a chance. Grizzlies fans by and large don’t -- can’t -- dislike Durant. They regard him with a mix of awe and admiration, fear and resentment.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTony Allen has come off the bench to find himself in a familiar role: locked up with Kevin Durant.
Instead, Durant’s greatness creates more of a sour taste. Memphis has never had a player like Durant, perhaps never will. Yet for Thunder fans, Durant is all they have ever known. Grizzlies fans (and the players they love most) often feel as if they’ve come up the hard way. They think Thunder fans have had it too easy.

The fan cultures also seem so different in these small, middle-American markets.

Oklahoma City’s crowd acts more orderly. Everyone dutifully puts on their themed T-shirts, bearing sincere, agency-sublimating slogans.

Memphis’ crowd seems more unruly. The Grizzlies used to try T-shirts come playoff time -- the “whiteouts” and “blue-outs” and what have you -- but had to spend too much time before games shaming reluctant fans into putting them on. The lockstep look didn’t fit, especially with unofficial Tony Allen T-shirts erupting into a local cottage industry. People preferred the towels. They lend themselves to more boisterous, physical expression.

It’s easy to be snarky from a distance, of course. To roll your eyes in the abstract. But Grizzlies fans who make the trip to Oklahoma City inevitably come back impressed by the intensity and the dedication Thunder fans have for their team, by the family atmosphere at games, and by the graciousness bestowed upon guests.

These are two great fan bases. But they are different.

And if Durant and Allen embody their teams -- the gifted favorite and the scrapping underdog -- they’re also perhaps fitting reflections of their communities.

Allen might not make sense as a cult hero in every NBA city, but he fits in colorful, big-hearted but rough-edged Memphis, where he’s embraced his “The Grindfather” persona so fully that he displays the nickname on a vanity plate on the front of one of his cars.

Durant’s persona, of course, would play anywhere. But more befitting pious, respectful Oklahoma City, Durant has declined the similarly fun and intimidating moniker “Slim Reaper,” asking instead to be called “The Servant.”

Now it’s back to Memphis, with Allen’s team holding home-court advantage and his matchup with Durant squarely in the spotlight. In what has become one of the NBA’s most compelling rivalries, the best is yet to come.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Calling the MVP race

April, 9, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
The ESPN Forecast is overwhelmingly clear, and it's not looking good for LeBron James. But first, there's something to explain about an ox that lived a century ago.

Who is the NBA MVP?

March, 24, 2014
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Amin Elhassan gives us his early top-five ballot for the NBA's MVP.

James Harden settles in as a star

February, 4, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport"I’m still new to this whole 'star player' thing" says the Rockets' leading scorer, James Harden.
The most famous beard in the NBA was getting a touch-up, and it needed it: In minutes, it would be starring in a major ad campaign.

“I’m super selective,” said James Harden from the stylist’s chair on the Houston set of the ad shoot, “about who trims my beard.”

It was an off day in mid-January, and Harden was in full NBA-leading-man mode. It's not just that the iconic global brand on his chin was being groomed. It's routine offseason trips to Asia on behalf of sneaker companies, his status as a shoo-in All-Star, his highlight-ready score-from-anywhere game, his flirting with the unofficial "NBA's best shooting guard" title. On top of all that, Harden had a reporter on speakerphone and an assortment of “people” hovering at the ready -- from Foot Locker, from various agencies -- to fetch things or chime in to protect Harden, the beard or the brand, as necessary.

Although Harden has a disarmingly low-key way of talking -- part of his appeal is everyday nonchalance -- his message can veer into star territory. At one point, he circled back to add “you know, me and Dwight,” after, accidentally or not, calling the Rockets “basically my own team.”

And the commercial he's in the middle of making pivots, with a wink, on the notion that Harden is incredibly famous.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with one of the best basketball players in the world acting and talking like one of the best basketball players in the world. Harden is a business worth many millions. He is the centerpiece of a team that’s hanging tough in a stacked Western Conference. He is one of the most skilled scorers in the game. He is all that.

The surprising part of Harden’s place in the spotlight is that Harden was known, not long ago, for the opposite.

Less than two years ago, Harden was a delightful young surprise off the Thunder's bench, and his GM in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti, was telling The New York Times that what made Harden special was that fitting into a team was “really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player.”

If that was wishful thinking from a GM hoping to hold his contending squad together, it didn't sound like it. Everyone in the organization, including Harden, talked like that. It was believable, and, to those fans who prefer players who don't act like millionaires, delightful. Here was a player you could love for his jaw-dropping highlights, his blue-collar attitude or both.

Then, in the summer of 2012, coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the Thunder faced a dilemma. Assorted hard realities -- no team has ever had three maximum-contract wing players, the owners were feeling a financial pinch, the team was destined for heinous salary-cap and luxury-tax issues -- drove Presti to offer Harden less than a max deal to remain with the team.

When Harden declined, he was promptly traded to the Rockets, causing an uproar that still simmers. “If the Thunder could have kept Harden” is one of the league’s enduring memes.

In Houston, famously analytical general manager Daryl Morey was ready to pounce. He had examined Harden’s production every which way and saw the elite double-team-drawing scorer his team sorely lacked. The Rockets were only too happy to give Harden all the dollars, minutes and touches any All-Star could dream of. And, more than any other move, nabbing Harden made Morey's early career. Although there will always be grousing about Harden’s defense (it’s not great) and his high usage rate (he shoots a lot) -- not to mention the coming barrage of "What has he won?" critiques that are standard for ringless All-Stars -- there's no disputing that Harden is a top-tier NBA scoring talent, and now he's a Rocket.

Yet Harden remains a source of anguish. The Thunder had the closest thing the NBA has to a fairy tale -- all those supertalented young Durants, Westbrooks, Hardens and Ibakas putting the team first. A lot of NBA watchers and Thunder fans liked the idea of Harden sticking around for the long haul as an icon of good-natured ego management. A lot of people wanted the dream of that Thunder team to last forever. Even Harden sounds wistful at times, saying, for instance, that he wishes the team could replay Game 2 of the Finals the Thunder lost to the Heat.

But it's over. And, in part, Harden plays the hero in that story -- as the player everyone wanted. At the same time, he's part villain. His insistence on more dollars helped bring it all to an end. At times, Harden has been reluctant to discuss his transition from Oklahoma City backup to Rockets leading man, but, from the beard stylist's chair on the set of a commercial shoot in Houston, he was gracious enough to address it in some detail. The conversation has been edited for length.

Can you talk? Are you allowed to move your jaw while you’re getting a beard trim?

Yeah. Little movements. But I can do it.

Challenging environment.


Do you have a beard-care strategy?

No strategy. I just let it grow. It’s got a mind of its own. If it needs trimming, it gets trimmed. I’m super selective about who trims my beard. My barber usually does it to make sure it’s fresh. But if he’s not around, then I usually comb it a lot and occasionally trim it myself.

Take me back to June 12, 2012. You were up 1-0 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and I think, if you asked Vegas, people would have bet that the Thunder were about to reel off multiple championships. What were you feeling like that day?

Oh. Three more. Three more, and our next game is at home. We’re going to win that game, and try to take care of business in Miami. Three games away from a championship is closer than ever. Seems like everything slipped away from there.

I guess the vast majority of NBA players never get to that point.

Right. It’s so tough in this league. You’re talking about championships, and some players go 10, 15 years without even making the playoffs. So it’s difficult. You have to cherish it every single time that you’re there.

Did you picture it? Did you picture winning it all?

Of course! Of course we pictured it. Like I said, we were there. We needed three more games. Our Game 2 was at our home court, and it was tough to beat us there. We would have to steal two in Miami. And if we didn’t, we would come back home. Like I said, it seemed like it just slipped away from there, and we lost four straight.

Miami did a pretty good job in just doing what they did. They were in that situation the previous year, and so they kind of knew, you know, how to play and especially on the road in the Finals. They stole one! And then they came home and took care of business at home.

If you had won that year, would you be in Oklahoma right now?

I have no idea. It’s a great question. I wish we could go back and play Game 2 again.

Then you had that crazy summer of contract uncertainty. I know you played it cool, but it must have turned your stomach a little not knowing what was going to happen.

No, not really. That summer was pretty busy for me. I didn’t really have time to think about it. Right after the Finals, it was off to USA Basketball for the entire summer, so I really didn’t have much time to think about it.

We started discussing it right after the Olympics. That’s when the discussions really started to begin.

It ended up they had some salary cap and money concerns and didn’t offer you as much as you could make elsewhere. If the money had been equal and you could choose OKC or Houston, where would you have chosen?

Um. It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question.

I don’t know.

Like I said, I grew in Oklahoma City. They taught me a lot. Now I’m in Houston, I’ve got my own, basically, my own team. You know, me and Dwight. It’s kind of different situations. Oklahoma City: came off the bench. Now, I’m starting. There’s a larger role. Both are great situations.

I found this old Sam Presti quote: “James really wanted to be a part of something … [being part of something bigger] was really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player. We loved that mentality. We thought it was a really mature outlook.” Was that a phase? Was it never really the case?

Definitely that was the case. Winning is the most important thing. Winning is how anybody gets recognition. We already had our groove. We had me coming off the bench, the starters did what they did. Everybody felt comfortable in their role. That’s how it worked.

I fit in, and I bought in. And it was good for us.

Could it have ever lasted? One thing someone explained to me, that makes sense to me, is that no team has three max wings. It has never happened. If you had gotten there first, and Kevin Durant had arrived later, it would have been a no-brainer that he would have looked for his own team because he’s Kevin Durant. That you happened, by random chance, to get there later, doesn’t make it weird that you’d like to run your own team, because you’re James Harden.

I didn’t look at it that way. Like I said, those were my brothers; we were focused on one thing, and that was winning. If I had to take a backseat, I was comfortable with it. Just ’cause, you know, the most important thing was winning.

You have this incredible array of ways you score. Jabs, step-backs, Euro-steps, floaters, hesitations ... how does that evolve? Does it come from the offseason? Does it come from watching film? Do you steal from other players? Do you have a personal coach who helps you with that? Is it Rockets staff, do they help you develop it?

All of the above. I do a lot of work in the summertime. I have coaches helping me out with the Rockets. I watch a lot of film and see how defenders are guarding me. Even during the season, every single day I’m constantly working on something in my game. I’m still new to this whole "star player" thing, so I have to be on point at all times. Just me working every single day is going to help me out.

If you work on something alone, how do you know it’s going to work with defense there? What are the signs of a good maneuver?

Just by watching film. Like I said, by watching film and seeing how different defenders are guarding me and different counters to how they’re guarding me. Obviously, it’s a lot different when they’re there, but if you focus on the move and you go hard enough, it doesn’t matter if the defender’s there or not.

How deep is your shooting range? If they had 4-pointers that were 35 feet or whatever, would you take ’em?

I would probably take ’em. But not often. Not often. I’d leave that to other guys in the league.

People can do it though, right? In practice, people can hit very long shots.

Oh yeah, definitely. I see it all the time. I see it all the time. But I wouldn’t be one of those guys to take a lot of 4-pointers.

Does your left hand, still, at this level, get you buckets from the fact that people are used to guarding righties?


Us lefties are very rare. So, um, I don’t know if people forget sometimes that I’m left-handed or whatever, but it’s difficult to guard.

What was your role in recruiting Dwight?

Very small. I guess Dwight knew his choices and options and what he wanted to do and where he wanted to spend his career, and he chose Houston for the reasons that, you know, he did. As far as that we have a lot of options and a lot of growth. I guess he felt this was the right fit for him.

I saw that, when teams were pitching Dwight, some people told him that James Harden uses the ball just as much as Kobe does, so he shouldn’t go play with the Rockets because he won’t get the ball. How does that make you feel?

Uhh ... I mean, I never heard that. But I handle the ball a lot. A lot. As far as bringing the basketball up. But I’m definitely a willing passer. I would rather average 18 points and 10 assists than 28 points.

So, whatever it takes to win, that’s the kind of team player that I am. You know, my job is to make my teammates happy, and Dwight happy.

Durant storming his way into MVP lead

January, 18, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Let's go back and look at one step on the long journey to Kevin Durant's career-high 54 points Friday night, a part of the process that took place in 2007.

He had finished his lone college season at Texas, and as he stuck around campus and worked out in preparation for his move to the NBA, he still had more questions than answers.

Royal Ivey, a former Longhorn who had spent three years in the NBA at that point, tried to tell him what to expect:

Life is about to change. You're going to be either the No. 1 pick or the No. 2 pick. It's going to be a different realm for you.

But Ivey knew that if Durant's circumstances changed, they wouldn't change him. He gleaned that in very little time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant is averaging 36.8 points per game in January.
"Just the way he carried himself," Ivey said of Durant. "His humbleness, his humility. On the court it's different; he's a freak. But just the way he carried himself. He was intrigued. He asked questions. He was like a fish out of water because he didn't know what to expect. I was like, 'He's going to be special because he wasn't all ... entitlement. He was like, 'I'm going to go out and get it. I'm going to work.

"That's what he does every day."

Ivey, who was recently signed to a 10-day contract by the Oklahoma City Thunder, got an up-close look at the end result nearly seven years later. He saw Durant make seven of his first eight shots for 15 points in the first quarter, drop 14 more in the second quarter, "slump" to 10 points when the Golden State Warriors double-teamed him more in the third quarter, then start demanding the ball to put the finishing touches on his magical night after the Thunder took command in a 127-121 win over the Warriors.

Durant's main objective was securing the victory, Oklahoma City's third in four games and seventh in the 12 games without Russell Westbrook as he recovers from knee surgery. Durant has scored 30 or more points in the past six games, twice going over 40.

"That's greatness," Ivey said. "Another All-Star goes down, one of the key players, and he steps up and puts the team on his back. You've got to do that. He's willing the team. Everybody's following suit. That's what great players do. He leads by example, but now he's more vocal, so everybody's following him."

This wasn't something that just happened. It's like this story about Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Academy Award nominee for Best Actor whom most people hadn't heard of before "12 Years A Slave."

Ejiofor has been acting for more than 20 years, since he was 13 years old. This is the accumulation of decades spent on a craft, not happenstance.

For instance, it's not an accident that eight of Durant's 19 field goals Friday night came from the right side of the lane.

"I've been working on that shot, the right wing," Durant said. "That used to be the shot I missed the most."

So let's see, not only has he become a better passer and defender, he shored up a weakness in his shooting that many weren't even aware existed. It feels as though his game is nearing completion, even though he's still only 25 years old.

"He's got some more in the tank," Ivey insisted. "He's got some more."

Over the past two games, Durant has shown a slightly different edge. Last season, he tried to counteract accusations that he was too nice by picking up 12 technical fouls. All that did was cost him money and rebukes from family members.

Thursday night, Durant was jawing a bit with Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets. Friday night he was barking for the ball while running downcourt, giving pained looks when his teammates didn't comply, advising Reggie Jackson to "just give the ball to me" when a failure to do so resulted in a turnover.

DurantESPN Stats & Info
Durant hasn't turned selfish. He still had six assists on his big scoring night. He was a big reason Serge Ibaka made eight of 11 field goals.

But rather than wait for his turn, Durant took it. The longer he can keep the Thunder near the top of the Western Conference without Westbrook, the louder the "MVP" chants will grow.

For now, Durant called any Most Valuable Player talk "premature."

"It's still early in the season," he said.

If these were the primaries, however, he'd be the leading candidate. Put it this way: It's now up to someone else to prove why Durant is not the MVP.

If LeBron James' envy over the amount of shots Durant gets to take were meant to throw a twist into the MVP race, Durant didn't bite.

"LeBron James, I'm sure he can do whatever he wants for his team," Durant said. "I'm sure he can shoot 30 shots, he can go out there and get you a triple-double. I'm sure he can do whatever he wants. He's not jealous of me. I'm sure he isn't."

Media obligations fulfilled, Durant made his way to the showers, singing a New Edition song.

"Sunny days, everybody loves them."

He didn't sing the next line. That's the part it looks as if it's up to the rest of the NBA to figure out.

"Can you stand the rain?"

Because if you were watching the skies, you could see these clouds have been gathering for a long time.

Killer Lineup: OKC's Jackson Five

January, 16, 2014
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder's starters without Russell Westbrook.

Oklahoma City ThunderLineup: Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 100.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 92.0 points per 100 possessions

How it works defensively

Incredibly well when we consider this starting lineup performs 11.2 points better defensively this season with Jackson at the point than the same unit with Westbrook. This prompts the question: How can Jackson, who is no faster or longer than Westbrook and is accountable to the same schemes, possibly be this much of an upgrade?

The riddle is especially confounding after the 2013 postseason debacle. Jackson put up some solid offensive numbers, but the Thunder’s starting unit with Jackson got annihilated against the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. The grouping was minus-31.4 per 100 possessions in 10 games and hemorrhaged defensively to the tune of a 116.0 mark.

Reports that a secretly healthy Rajon Rondo has been suiting up for the Thunder in a prosthetic Reggie Jackson suit this season are unfounded. Jackson’s improvement is his own, born out of increased familiarity with his teammates, coverages and expectations.

Jackson is a lower-stake gambler than Westbrook, who perpetually has one eye on the passing lane. While Westbrook rolls the dice, Jackson makes the sure bet. He’s able to squeeze his way above screens like someone trying to dash into an elevator before the doors close. This allows Ibaka to drop and contest after a short show. When the small defender isn’t playing catch-up and the big guy has the ball handler in front of him, it's advantage: defense.
[+] EnlargeJackson
Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty ImagesMr. January? Reggie Jackson's heady approach has taken the Thunder's defense to a whole new level.

Another theory for the better defensive numbers resides in the notion that Westbrook’s quick shots are more likely to result in run-outs for the opponent. The Jackson Five gives up almost 30 percent fewer fast-break points adjusted to pace. The Westbrook lineup also coughs it up more. Then there’s the defensive glass: This lineup has a better rebounding rate and gives up 30 percent fewer second-chance points. Add up these ancillaries and we start to account for that 11.2-point differential.

The results since Westbrook’s most recent absence confirm the eye test. In the 10 games since Jackson assumed starting duties, not one of his 10 matchups has shot better than 50 percent from the field -- and only one (the man of the hour, Jordan Crawford) shot better than 40 percent.

The schemes don’t differ with Jackson in the lineup. The Thunder have more or less been running the same pick-and-roll coverages for a while -- though Ibaka’s development has enabled him to approach ball screens more situationally. In the parlance of X’s and O’s, the Thunder generally "weak" a high pick-and-roll with the intention of sending the ball handler to his weak hand. Ibaka will still toy with a long show on a high screen, but the hulking Perkins stays put. On side pick-and-rolls, the Thunder push baseline, and Perkins and Ibaka will exert varying levels of pressure on the ball handler.

Durant, Ibaka and, to a lesser extent, Sefolosha give the Thunder uncommon versatility. Durant and Ibaka will switch liberally, and Sefolosha has license to use his instincts as well in tandem with Ibaka, depending on the matchup.

Every coach will tell you he wants to keep his team out of defensive rotations, but some teams treat it as an article of faith, while others regard it more as a general guideline. The Thunder with Westbrook certainly fall into the latter because Westbrook loves to gamble and apply pressure. With Jackson, the Thunder play it more conservatively -- again, more an expression of Westbrook’s temerity than anything Jackson is or isn’t doing.

When the Thunder do get caught in a rotation, Ibaka’s heightened understanding of team defense often saves the day. It’s difficult to overstate Ibaka’s all-around growth on the defensive end. Not long ago, he was a weakside defender more interested in swatting a shot into the fifth row than timing his rotations with precision. In two seasons, his block rate has plummeted from 9.8 to 5.8, and his foul rate has taken a similar dive, but he’s a far better vertical defender than in past seasons.

Amazing to get this far and not address both Sefolosha and Durant. There’s no mystery to Sefolosha. His wingspan puts playmakers in a stranglehold, and he’s still one of the toughest guards in the league to screen.

Durant’s defensive improvement that started in earnest two seasons ago continues its upward trajectory. The light bulb turned on a while back when he realized that while his physical strength is no longer a liability, his length and awareness will always carry him as a defender. Synergy has him ranked third as a pick-and-roll defender among players who’ve guarded more than 50 plays. Against isolation? No. 1, thank you.

Perkins is still wily defensively -- you’ll see him try to jam a screen or buy time for Jackson with all sorts of grabby shenanigans. When Perkins fails, it’s generally a lack of speed that does him in. He doesn’t blow any help situations and the post defense remains steady.

The Jacksonians are due to return to planet earth, but in the Thunder’s ongoing campaign to endow their young backup point guard with confidence, OKC couldn’t ask for better results on the defensive end.

How it works offensively

Only marginally better than the Westbrook crew, which has struggled all season, but is still far too reliant on Durant to create shots out of nothing.

Let’s rewind to last spring. The 2013 playoffs against Houston and Memphis were every bit the nightmare for the Jackson-helmed offense as they were for the defense. In 107 minutes, they scored only 84.7 points per 100 possessions. The starters couldn’t establish any pace, plodding at an 85.8 possessions per game. Things are clearly better in Oklahoma City this season for the Jackson-led squad, but the offense still drags for long stretches.

The primary objective in the half court for any Russell-less Thunder unit is to get the ball into the hands of Durant. Achieving this goal is easier if Durant doesn’t spend all his time on the strong side of the court, because the defense can key in on the ball or Durant, but it’s hard to do both. With that in mind, the wide pin-down for Durant on the weak side has been the prototype in the Thunder’s offense, and the Thunder have installed countless wrinkles and reinterpretations.

This is top-grade offense because, whether he’s catching the ball on the move toward the hole or just getting it for an open shot in space, Durant is the most dangerous shot-maker in the league. Under the Jackson administration, the Thunder are still oriented toward this brand of offense. For example, Ibaka will set the down screen for Durant on the right side, off which Durant zips to the perimeter for the catch. Durant can shoot, drive or play a two-man game with Ibaka off the action.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Bart Young/Getty ImagesWithout Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's offense has become more reliant on Kevin Durant than ever.

When healthy, Westbrook is a frequent screener for Durant in these situations, and Jackson has assumed that task on many a set. The Thunder will run Sefolosha up from the baseline around a Perkins-Ibaka stack to receive the ball from Jackson. After delivering the pass to Sefolosha, Jackson will cut to the far side to set the screen for Durant. When Westbrook and Durant run this action (any action) together, it’s a matter for the State Guard, but Jackson can make it work.

Most of the well-worn pages in the Thunder playbook are sets designed to get Durant the ball in position to shoot in the half court. OKC relies on the aforementioned pin-downs. They still love good ol’ floppy action, in which a big man sets a low screen off which Durant flashes to the foul line. They like to post Durant up on the weak side, where he either catches the entry pass after the ball is swung or, if the defender is denying that pass, slips out the back door.

All this is great stuff, but it must be balanced with some other flavors, and, right now, Durant is too self-sufficient when playing with this lineup. Historically, the Thunder’s offense has been at its most efficient when Durant (and Westbrook) share the load with the supporting cast. Last weekend, Durant conceded as much, saying that he needed to take fewer shots.

Jackson’s knowledge of the pro game has grown exponentially, and he understands that his job is to make the game easier for Durant, but he’s not yet at the point where he can ignite the offense on the attack in the manner Westbrook does -- and the Thunder need that spark for a fluid offense.

The Thunder derive a good deal of their offense from early midrange jumpers because they can drain them with proficiency. That doesn’t change in Westbrook’s absence. Jackson, Durant, Ibaka and Sefolosha all hit better than 40 percent from midrange. Finding those shots early is more challenging with Jackson than Westbrook because he’s less lethal on the push, but the Thunder starters with Jackson have had success.

We rarely think of Kevin Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league.

A drag screen from Ibaka on the secondary break is the mainstay of the Thunder’s early attack, and it does so many things for OKC. Ibaka gives a path to the rim for Jackson, space for Durant, a potential face-up jumper for Ibaka once he pops or a kickout to Sefolosha in the corner against a panicked defense.

The same is true of Durant, who loves to push the ball. We rarely think of Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league. When he rushes the ball up, he and Ibaka routinely look for optimal conditions to run that quick drag screen against a backpedaling defense. Jackson and Sefolosha will stake out a spot along the arc, and Perkins will roost on the weakside baseline (Durant almost always veers right in this situation).

Pace is so vital for the Thunder’s starters, especially since they’re saddled with Perkins. He can’t run the floor, but his presence in the half court presents a dilemma for the Thunder. Situate him along the baseline on the strong side, and he clogs up the driving lane. Place him away from the action, and his defender accepts it as an invitation to play free safety. This is particularly problematic for Jackson, who relies far more on dribble penetration -- and needs more space to do it -- than Westbrook does.

For all the pressure on Jackson, the foundation of the Thunder’s offense is Durant’s ability to make decisions. It’s not as if he’s failing. During the Thunder’s current stint without Westbrook, Durant is logging an assist rate of 29.6 percent -- there’s one non-point guard in the league who’s better (take a wild guess).

When Durant started to put up big assist numbers last winter, Scott Brooks would say that the idea that Durant wasn’t a willing passer early in his career didn’t accommodate for the reality of a young player. Durant wasn’t a point guard growing up, and for the first 15 years of his basketball life, he didn’t have much need or occasion to pass. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but confidence fathered it.

A ThunderWorld without Westbrook

January, 9, 2014
Young By Royce Young
Special to
Russell WestbrookAP Photo/Sue OgrockiA knee injury has downed Russell Westbrook for the third time in eight months. Is it all OK in OKC?
There was a familiar tone of defiance in Russell Westbrook's voice as he said it.

"Never," he answered Sunday when asked if he had any doubts he'd be the same after a third surgical procedure in eight months. "Never a doubt."

Westbrook's unwavering confidence isn't shocking. He's Russell Westbrook, the man who fires from 18 feet with 20 seconds on the shot clock and never thinks twice about it. But his inner confidence doesn't ease any of the growing concerns emanating across Oklahoma City.

The Thunder’s superstar point guard, their heart and soul, their emotional leader, has now had the same knee operated on three times since Patrick Beverley crashed into him last April, causing a torn meniscus in his right knee that threatened to sap the explosiveness that allows his game to thrive. Westbrook plays with an uncaged fury, but it works only because he's such a freakish athlete, because his body makes it so.

When Westbrook returned from arthroscopic surgery in November four weeks ahead of schedule, he was pain-free and didn't need long to look like his old self. The Thunder ripped off 20 wins in 22 games, capped by Westbrook's Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

Then the bad news came: another scope on Westbrook’s knee because of swelling, another multiple-week absence.

The anxiety and fear absent on Christmas as Westbrook carved up the Knicks crept back into focus. "The team will manage the situation" -- that's how Thunder general manager Sam Presti described the situation over and over, yet there's no denying the future is murky again. The cryptic description of the injury -- from a loose stitch the first time to something being called “the area of concern” this time -- makes it impossible not to fret.

During his availability on Sunday, Westbrook was peppered with a lot of specific questions about the procedure. When it was over, he stood up and said, “It’s not really any of y'all's business, anyway.”

That’s just the Thunder to their core. We all exist on a need-to-know basis, and the organization’s tight-lipped approach in some ways leads you to believe it knows what it’s doing. But the reticence also increases the worry. I had a friend and OKC resident recently phrase it to me like this: “Royce, why do the Thunder keep lying to my face?” After all, three procedures in less than a year doesn’t exactly ease concerns. First it was the loose stitch, now it’s persistent swelling. Was the original surgery botched? Is there something wrong with Westbrook’s knee we don’t know about?

The Thunder are as prudent as any team when it comes to the long-term health of their players, so it's not hard to decode the current mindset and give them the benefit of the doubt. A healthy Westbrook in April is of far greater value than his playing through uncomfortable swelling in January. The question is: Will the Thunder have a healthy Westbrook in April?

Westbrook's value on the floor can't be undersold. Before "the player that crashed into him" -- which is what Presti called Beverley in a recent teleconference -- put Westbrook out, some wondered if Westbrook held his team back. They nitpicked box scores, fixating on stats like Durant's shot attempts versus Westbrook's. They wondered if Durant needed a more "pure" point guard alongside him, whatever that means. But when the Thunder struggled without Westbrook in the playoffs, that talk disappeared rather listlessly.

When asked last postseason what he'd learned about his team after playing without Westbrook, Durant had a simple answer.

"That we need him," he said. "That we miss him."

Every team wants to preach a "next man up" mentality, but that's a difficult proposition when the first man is Westbrook. Reggie Jackson has filled the spot admirably, but for a team so driven by Westbrook, that's like asking for Coke and hearing, "Is Pepsi OK?" Besides, the shift has taken the super-sub away from the role in which he'd become so comfortable.

In a certain sense, Durant is the next man -- then the next, and the next -- but the Thunder's philosophy has never been to assign a burden that heavy on a single player. Durant tried to carry that load in the postseason against the Grizzlies and learned from it. He's been spectacular in the seven recent games without his All-Star buddy -- 35.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists. In two of the seven games, Durant has attempted more than 30 shots, something he’d done only four times previously in his career. What so many wanted from Durant, to see him unhinged without a shoot-first point guard supposedly holding him back, we’re seeing.
[+] EnlargeOklahoma City Thunder
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCan the Thunder cope with the loss of Westbrook?

The Thunder, though, are 4-3 during that time.

Durant’s talent is interplanetary, but he needs help. And if he can get it, the Thunder may be better for it in the long run. Amid cries for additional help last summer, Presti and his staff remained disciplined, sticking to their core principles of building a roster from within and giving an opportunity to talented youth like Jeremy Lamb, Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams. The Thunder, now 27-8 and in second place in the Western Conference, are deeper than they've ever been, and far stronger than the team that limped out of the second round of the postseason in five games to Memphis. Durant is better, and so is his supporting cast.

Still, while there may always be some debate over what Westbrook does on the court, the Thunder are better with him healthy. They miss him.

They never had to for the first five years of his career. Westbrook was the unbreakable man, the player who had never missed a game since high school, the guy who treated ankle sprains and hip contusions like a runny nose.

Now, he’s being associated with the likes of Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Derrick Rose -- the What Could’ve Been All-Stars. But what’s so confusing is that Westbrook's performance on the floor belies the complications off it. One day he’s dropping a triple-double at the Garden. The next he’s on the operating table.

So you have to wonder, are we going to be asking what could have been not just with Westbrook, but with the Thunder too? With Westbrook, they’re a bulldozer that throttles through the league with a historic margin of victory. Without him, they’re a team eliminated in the playoffs by a No. 5 seed and dispatched on Tuesday by the 12-25 Utah Jazz.

Westbrook may be fine. He may return in a few weeks and put all these fears to rest. But even after that, Thunder fans will remain on a knife's edge wondering when that next press release will announce another procedure for their point guard. And the questions will start again.

The March classic we never saw coming

January, 3, 2014
By Benjamin Polk
Special to
Kevin DurantGarrett W. Ellwood/Getty ImagesWith buzzer-beaters and frantic action, one mid-March regular-season game became a classic.
Most regular-season NBA games share a certain weekday rhythm. First quarter proceeds to fourth, runs are exchanged, the game winds down. You wake up in the morning and go to work. You tell a few jokes, come home and go to sleep.

But sometimes this rhythm is disrupted. Sometimes a game ruptures our expectations, startles us out of our patterns of habit. Sometimes the everyday turns transcendent.

On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves slouched into Oklahoma City to play the Thunder. Both teams were wobbly with fatigue, the result of the grueling, lockout-compressed schedule. The Thunder were cruising to the top seed in the Western Conference while the Wolves were shredded by injuries -- Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley were all on the shelf -- and mired in another wrecked season.

We thought we knew what was coming. Kevin Love would grab some rebounds. Kevin Durant would score a bunch of points. The Thunder would roll the Wolves in routine fashion and we would all say goodnight, see you again tomorrow. The season would grind on.

Instead, what we got was a minor classic, a wildly exciting two-overtime 149-140 Thunder victory. Love scored 51 points. Durant went for 40 and 17 rebounds. Russell Westbrook dropped a career-high 45. J.J. Barea notched his first triple-double. The game had manic offense, frayed D, impossible plays, incredible performances, desperate comebacks. Westbrook and Barea relentlessly shredded defenders. KD and Love traded buzzer-beating 3-pointers like new-school editions of 'Nique and Larry.

“It was a crazy game, it was crazy,” Durant says. “We almost gave up 200 points that game!”
[+] EnlargeKevin Love
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsKevin Love matched an important late 3-pointer from Kevin Durant with one of his seven own treys.

“It was mayhem,” Love says. “It was just nuts.”

By the end, despite the humble circumstances, the game somehow felt consequential. “I replay it in my mind a lot,” Durant says. “It was one of those games that you’re going to think down the line and be proud that you were a part of.”

The game wasn’t played at near-perfection levels like last season’s NBA Finals; it was much weirder and woollier, filled with absurd bounces and fatigue-addled mistakes. But it shared with those Finals a sense of crazy, righteous desperation. And those very imperfections made it feel more beautifully unhinged and thrilling, as if the fundamental facts of everyday life -- the blemishes and mistakes, the banalities and small absurdities -- had become transfigured. The game had no impact on the standings and didn’t so much as blemish the playoff picture. By our normal calculus it meant almost nothing. And yet it felt as if something truly meaningful were at stake.

“The crowd gets into it and gets energized,” says Love when asked to describe the game’s energy. “In something like that it’s fight-or-flight. You really have to pick up your intensity to a whole new level. You know the other team’s really going at you and giving us their toughest blows and you’re trying to put that sledgehammer on them too.”

So what was the moment that transported this game to that new level? Was it Barea -- displaying all of the desperation, skill and absurd bravado that make him the maddening, fascinating player that he is -- converting an offensive rebound and diving layup to tie the game at 113-113 with 27.3 seconds remaining and cap the Wolves’ late comeback?

Was it Durant’s answer on the ensuing possession, the gorgeous crossover and step-back 3 that had Anthony Tolliver skittering on his heels? Or Love’s cold-blooded, heavily defended, buzzer-beating, game-tying reply seconds later, his seventh 3 of the game? (“He said ‘In your face,’” said Westbrook, who was guarding Love on that shot. “He kept pointing like ‘In your face, in your face.’”)

Was it KD’s corner 3 at the end of the first overtime that tied the game at 129-129 and capped a five-point, 46-second comeback? Or his in-out dribble and deep-leaning baseline fadeaway that put the game away in the second overtime?

Or maybe it was one of those strange plays that give a game like this its rough texture and life? Like, in the second overtime with the Wolves trailing by three, when Tolliver gathered an offensive board, found himself wide open at the doorstep of the basket, poised to cut the lead to one … and blew the layup. Almost instantaneously, Westbrook was streaking in the other direction for an electric coast-to-coast finish that put OKC up by five. It was a devastating -- and devastatingly quick -- swing that stunned the Wolves and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

So which was it?
[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsRussell Westbrook surged late, scoring a career-high 45 points.

Says Durant: “Really, when Kevin Love hit that shot to take it into overtime. After that it was like, man, whatever comes through this game, I’m not surprised.”

Says Love: “We were down by like 10, and people watching might have thought it was over. But then we made a run back at them at the end and started inching our way back. And when I hit that shot on Russell to head it into the first overtime, I thought, ‘this is a wild game.’”

But by the time Love hit that shot, the game’s intensity had already escalated; the Wolves had already capped their improbable comeback with Barea’s offensive rebound and drive to the rim. Love himself acknowledges that his shot was not just remarkable in and of itself, but as the culmination of an unfolding process.

Even more telling is Barea’s answer. When asked which moment defined the game’s new intensity, he did not hesitate: “Oh, when we hit a shot to win the game and they tied it to go to overtime.”

Which sounds perfectly reasonable, except that what he describes never actually occurred.

Without a doubt, the individual moments are memorable in and of themselves. But they carry special significance in our minds because of the context of intensity and thrill from which they emerged. Ray Allen’s Game 6 buzzer-beater is already legendary not simply because it was a great shot at a hugely important time, but also because it signaled the incredible competitive fervor of the entire series. Love’s 3 is memorable not just because he nailed a deep, heavily contested shot as time expired, but because it embodied and distilled everything that came before and after: the incredible shots and feverish rebounding battles; the appalling turnovers, the blown layups.

Some spectacular plays -- a Blake Griffin dunk, a Kyrie Irving crossover -- come out of nowhere. But most truly great moments feel impoverished as disembodied highlights. They are culminations; when we watch them we realize that something incredible has already begun to happen. They are instances of a phenomenon already in progress, of a game already overflowing.