Updated: January 23, 2013, 3:45 AM ET

1. 'Other' Kevin Deserves Credit For OKC's Start

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- In the past, back when he was a Sacramento King (or as we'll say one day, back when there were Sacramento Kings) Kevin Martin would look up at the scoreboard, see 11 points by his name after only seven minutes of playing time and figure he was on his way to a 40-point night.

It doesn't work that way anymore. This time 11 points in seven minutes turned into 13 points in 32 minutes. Martin isn't the first-option scorer on this Oklahoma City Thunder team. He's not even the first-option Kevin. That would be Mr. Durant, who had a game-high 32 points in the Thunder's 109-97 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night. And don't forget about Russell Westbrook, who had 26 points of his own.

"When your two big dogs come back in, you just go back to your third-man role," Martin said. "I accepted it. This is probably the happiest I've been in my career since my Sacramento days."

You'd have to rewind past Martin's 2½ seasons in Houston and go back to 2005-06, the second of Martin's 5½ seasons with the Kings, to find the last time Martin was on a team that made the playoffs. The Thunder are not only playoff-bound, they hold the pole position in the race for the No. 1 overall seed, with a record of 33-9. They're a game and a half ahead of the Clippers, whom Oklahoma City dropped to the third spot by handing them their 11th defeat. With victories in two of their three meetings this season, the Thunder clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker should they wind up with the same record.

Kevin Durant
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsOKC's No. 1 Kevin in his usual MVP form.

This game was reflective of Martin's place on his new team: He isn't the reason why they're winning, but they wouldn't be in this place without him.

In the final 75 seconds of the first quarter, he fed Nick Collison for a jumper, then drained two 3-pointers of his own, accounting for the points that erased an eight-point Clippers lead. Another 3-pointer and a dunk early in the second quarter helped the Thunder go up by seven. A 15-point swing in less than 3½ minutes of game time -- with Martin right in the middle of it -- giving the Thunder the lead they didn't relinquish the rest of the night.

Martin was the principle piece Oklahoma City received from the Houston Rockets when an impasse in contract extension negotiations with James Harden led the Thunder to trade him. Many (including me) thought the Thunder would be wounded by the loss of the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year and a critical component of the team.

Instead they're a game ahead of last season's pace after 42 games. Martin can stake a claim in the best record in the league, if for no other reason than he didn't burst like a water balloon from the pressure of replacing the popular Harden.

"Man," Martin said, exhaling at the memory of his arrival in Oklahoma City. "People really don't understand that. Especially a trade like that. It's going to be under a microscope. Them getting to the [NBA] Finals, just having good team chemistry and coming in and knowing you've got to be a big part of what they do now.

"It's tough. But I think that's where my personality comes in. Just staying level, don't get too high, don't get too low, just be confident in what you did over the last eight years in the league. Coming in, trying to fit in and not mess up."

It was in that last line that Martin found the solution. The best part for him is that he did not have to be the answer, he just needed to avoid raising new questions. A mere approximation of the 20-point scorer he has been for most of his career would suffice. The Thunder have established the NBA's best winning culture north of San Antonio. All Martin had to do was "Not. Mess. Up."

"James [Harden] was a real key piece to our whole program," Durant said. "But we still came back. We still had Russell, myself, Serge [Ibaka]. Our chemistry is growing every single day. We added K-Mart. He's a veteran. He knows how to play the game. And he came in since Day 1 and sacrificed.

"He wanted to a part of this group. He sacrificed shots, minutes, just for the better of the team. When you have a guy that's willing to do that, it makes everything else smoother."

Martin's 15.0 points and 10.5 shots per game are the lowest since his second season in Sacramento.

"I'm here to do whatever they want me to do and try help them get back to the championship, and hopefully we can win it," he said.

He sounds sincere when he says it. He's certainly more accepting of his newfound role coming off the bench than Pau Gasol is with the Lakers. The good news for the Thunder is Martin has swallowed his pride, but he hasn't lost it. He seemed to take pleasure at beating the Clippers at their strength -- bench scoring -- during his run in the first half.

"They have a very deep bench," Martin said. "But we're just as confident as they are."

The Thunder starters were too much for a Clippers squad without the injured Chris Paul. The Clippers didn't get Paul at his best in an overtime loss in Oklahoma City during their first meeting of the season and they didn't get him at all Tuesday night. They're welcome to withhold judgment until he turns in a good game against the team that's most likely to be blocking their path to the NBA Finals.

For now, the Thunder are a worthy No. 1 in the West. The only question Martin wanted answered was how much the team's two stars had his back when he tangled with Matt Barnes late in the game. He wanted to watch the video to, in his words, "see how much we've grown together these past two months."

I think we already know the answer.


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