As Kobe Bryant(notes) looked at the NBA standings throughout the season, his eyes would inevitably stop at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s record. The Thunder, Bryant thought, couldn’t keep it up. At some point they had to fade. Weren’t they supposed to be a year away from becoming a legit playoff contender?
Apparently not. A year after winning just 23 games, the Thunder find themselves in the first round of the playoffs, facing none other than Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers.
“I love what Oklahoma is doing and how well they’re playing,” Bryant said. “This is a young team where everybody, including myself, is kind of sitting around saying, ‘OK, well, they’re playing well. Eventually they are going to fall off.’ And they don’t.”
Led by Kevin Durant(notes), the NBA’s youngest scoring champion ever, talented second-year point guard Russell Westbrook(notes) and versatile forward Jeff Green(notes), the Thunder entered the season with plenty of potential, but little experience. With nine players 23 and younger, the Thunder’s young age was expected to work against them. But Durant kept scoring, Westbrook played like a top 10 point guard, everyone else filled their roles and the Thunder kept winning.
“When we clinched a playoff spot in Dallas, I didn’t know what to expect in the locker room,” Thunder coach Scottie Brooks said. “More than half of them haven’t been to the playoffs. So when I went to the locker room, I thought they’d be hooting and hollering. But it was just like another game to them.”
The Thunder finally showed their age over the last two weeks of the season. Oklahoma City was in position to challenge for home-court advantage in the first round and maybe even finish as high as second in the Western Conference. But a tough 140-139 overtime loss to the Utah Jazz – after which the NBA admitted Durant should have been given free throws on the game’s final play – sent the Thunder into a funk. Oklahoma City lost three of its next four games, including a collapse against the Golden State Warriors in which the Thunder wasted a 20-point lead.
“Every game is a learning experience,” Durant said. “It’s all about getting better from here.”
The question now is whether the Thunder are good enough to dethrone the defending champions. Westbrook’s size and quickness could pose a problem for the Lakers’ guards. Green can also lure opposing big men out to the 3-point line. Durant, of course, will occupy a considerable amount of the Lakers’ scouting report: He averaged 25.8 points while shooting 46.3 percent against the Lakers this season, but the Thunder lost three of the teams’ four meetings.
“All your sets you have to run all the way through because everybody knows it,” Durant said. “Everybody knows your first and second move, so you got to counter.”
Brooks is confident Durant will be ready.
“Guys take pride in trying to stop him,” Brooks said. “But he’s an incredible offensive talent. He takes pride in trying to score on you. I think he’s seen what he’s going to see in the playoffs. They’re going to be physical with him. They’re going to try to double[-team] him. They’re going to take [the ball] out of his hands.
“This year, he has gotten better in making plays for others. That’s what you have to do.”
The Thunder don’t have much postseason experience. Among Oklahoma City’s starters, only center Nenad Krstic(notes) (15 games) and guard Thabo Sefolosha(notes) (nine) have appeared in the playoffs. and the rest in zero. The only reserve in the playing rotation who has postseason experience is forward-center Nick Collison(notes), who has appeared in 11 playoff games.
Durant said he isn’t asking anyone for advice about the playoffs. He just wants to “experience it myself.”
“We are just going to go out there and play focused basketball and be ready from the tip and play hard every possession,” Durant said.
The Thunder are facing long odds, but they also figure they don’t have much to lose. At the start of the season, no one really expected them to make the playoffs anyway.
“People really don’t know who we are,” Durant said. “Making the playoffs is something new for us. They’re used to all the regular teams like the Suns, the Lakers and the Spurs making it there. A new team like us, a team like Charlotte, they are going to root for. That would be cool.”
Believe only the Clippers
After firing interim coach Kim Hughes, the Los Angeles Clippers said they have begun their coaching search without a leading candidate or timetable. They even borrowed a tactic from the Oakland Raiders – who have increasingly become the NFL’s version of the Clippers – and announced in a news release that any information about their coaching search that does not come directly from them is likely erroneous.
“When and if it is deemed appropriate, the Clippers’ Communications Department will issue official progress updates,” the release stated. “Any speculative information concerning the search, which appears in the news media or emanates in a form not directly attributed to the Los Angeles Clippers should not be considered valid or reliable.”
When told of the Clippers’ statement, a long-time NBA media executive laughed loudly before saying: “So I’m going to tell you that the world is round, but if you don’t hear that from the Clippers it’s not true? Why would they do that? In this day and age with the media working the way it is, right or wrong, you are going to tell people not to believe what they say?
“The Clippers are crazy. Do they really have that much cache in their background for people to believe what they are saying is the truth? Really?”
So, with that in mind, we should attach a disclaimer to the information that follows: “THIS REPORT IS NOT APPROVED BY THE LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS AND IS DERIVED ONLY FROM KNOWLEDGABLE SOURCES WHO HAVE SPOKEN TO YAHOO! SPORTS.”
League sources say candidates for the Clippers position include Dallas Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey, former NBA coach Byron Scott, Houston Rockets assistant Elston Turner and ABC-TV analyst and former Clippers guard Mark Jackson. Sources believe the Clippers won’t make a quick hire. Formal interviews with some candidates might not start until after the playoffs and a coach likely won’t be in place until shortly before the draft, at the earliest.
While Jackson, Scott, Avery Johnson and Jeff Van Gundy could become candidates for several coaching vacancies this summer, it will be interesting to see if frugal teams (like the Clippers) will be willing to pay enough to make it appealing to walk away from their TV analyst jobs.
Who wants Rudy?
Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay(notes) figures to be an attractive commodity on this summer’s free-agent market, particularly if LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) stay with their respective teams. Gay, just 23, averaged 19.6 points and 5.9 rebounds this season and scored a career-high 41 points against the Miami Heat on Dec. 13.
“It’s almost like you’re being drafted again,” Gay said about becoming a free agent. “…It could make or break me, I understand that.”
The catch, however, is that Gay is a restricted free agent, which allows the Grizzlies to match any offer he receives. Memphis owner Michael Heisley has told season ticket holders he plans on re-signing Gay. But would he match a heavily front-loaded deal that would pay Gay an elite salary? Memphis All-Star forward Zach Randolph(notes) is hoping for an extension, too.
Gay wanted a five-year, $65 million deal before the season began. Despite reports that Memphis offered a five-year, $50 million dollar extension, a source said the best offer made was three-years, $30 million. But after Gay’s play this season, he’ll likely merit at least a $65 million offer.
“Listening to what Mr. Heisley said, there is a good chance of me being here,” Gay said. “The summer will really tell because obviously I’m not allowed to talk to anybody. For me, I’m in the dark about it. All I know is how Mr. Heisley thinks about me. So until I get a chance to talk to other teams, I really don’t know.”
In Memphis, Gay has a young and talented roster around him that includes O.J. Mayo(notes), Michael Conley, Marc Gasol(notes) and Randolph. After finishing 40-42 this season, the Grizzlies should again contend for a playoff berth. Gay says that despite talk of the contrary, he and Mayo are “cool.” But he acknowledged he also sometimes wonders what it would be like to play in a bigger market.
“I know the business,” Gay said. “For the most part, I look at teams and how I fit in before I get into all that. It’s kind of flattering to see teams interested in you and admire your talent. Hopefully, they understand that. Whatever Memphis does, they do. But hopefully that doesn’t stop [other teams] from thinking about me.”
Knight short for Kentucky?
Could Kentucky-bound Brandon Knight be John Calipari’s next one-and-done point guard to head to the NBA. John Wall will be Calipari’s third straight freshman point guard to get drafted, following Derrick Rose(notes) and Tyreke Evans(notes).
“I know what those guys have done, and I don’t think coach Cal held any of those guys back,” Knight said.
Knight, the No. 1 ranked prep prospect by Rivals.com is the second-leading scorer in Florida high school history, but was seen as more of a scorer than a point guard by NBA scouts during the Hoop Summit last weekend.
“He will be a quality first year player and will have an immediate impact,” one NBA scout said. “But he is not in the class of Wall, Evans or Rose.”
Said an NBA executive: “The word is he is coming out after one season. We’ll see if he’s that good.”
While the Atlanta Hawks appear to be leaning toward offering coach Mike Woodson an extension after the season, sources say if a deal is not completed quickly, Woodson could become a candidate for other jobs. Woodson is a former Philadelphia 76ers assistant, and the Sixers just fired head coach Eddie Jordan. …Some NBA teams are expecting more than 100 college underclassmen to enter their name into this year’s NBA draft. Most have yet to hire an agent and can still return to school before the deadline. Said one NBA executive: “Every junior should [declare]. Why not check out your stock?” …How deep is this year’s draft? “We can get someone I like even in the second round,” Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge said. As for his Celtics, Ainge remains confident about their playoff prospects, despite their recent struggles. “We’re playing well,” Ainge said. “K.G. [Kevin Garnett(notes)] is looking good. Paul [Pierce] is looking good. Ray [Allen] and Rajon [Rondo] have had a great year. We’ve been waiting for this moment all year. We’ll see how they respond.” …Jazz guard Deron Williams(notes) plans to play for Team USA in the World Championships this summer. “If I’m healthy,” Williams said, “I’m playing.”