Good riddance to the Thunder-Rockets series

    The Thunder-Houston series was as ugly as the feud between Houston's Patrick Beverley and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook. (Photo by AP Images)

     

    BY CHRIS RYAN

    Executive Editor, The Ringer

    April 25, 2017

    The ink spilled on Russell Westbrook during this Thunder-Rockets series obscured how far apart these two teams were.

    Despite it being the rare early-playoffs matchup between MVP front-runners, this series brought out the worst in each team. I’m not sorry it’s over.

    There were 34 free throw attempts in Game 5’s fourth quarter alone. In the end, the Thunder played like they were blasting for minerals in a dark cave and only one guy brought a headlamp, while the Rockets ended the series relapsing into their dark-arts habit.

    We want to believe that playoff basketball is where the best of the sport is played, but the truth is dudes are out here trying to win no matter what. They lose faith in team concepts, record solo albums, take ill-advised shots or don’t shoot enough, look for cheap fouls, complain when they don’t get them, and try to drive the opposition nuts. James Harden’s bum ankle was like a time machine back to the days when his game seemed like an act of corruption.

    Diminished athletically, Harden seemingly looked for contact on every jumper and snapped his head on every drive. He was Moreyball on bad drugs.

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    When Russell Westbrook sits, his teammates fail miserably

    Russell Westbrook thoroughly expressed himself during and after the Thunder’s loss to Houston on Sunday. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
    BY TIM BONTEMPS

    Washington Post

    April 23, 2017

    Russell Westbrook found himself at the podium in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday afternoon, a short time after he and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates fell to within one loss of going home for the summer after a 113-109 victory for the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.

    This NBA season has, in so many ways, been dominated by Westbrook, from his chase to average a triple-double for the year to his propping up the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure before leading it back to the playoffs. Much more so, though, in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook’s status as the sole star remaining from the core that, five years ago, looked destined to win multiple championships, has made the guard the axis of the franchise’s existence.

    So when Westbrook, seated next to center Steven Adams, heard venerable local columnist Berry Tramel ask Adams — the best interview on the entire team — about the team’s struggles without the guard on the floor, Westbrook decided to take the question for himself.

    “I don’t want nobody to try and split us up,” Westbrook said, after advising Adams to “hold on.”

    “We [are] all one team,” he continued. “Regardless, if I go to the bench, or Steven’s on the floor, or if I’m off the floor, we in this together. Don’t split us up. Don’t try to make us go against each other, try to make it ‘Russell and the rest of the guys,’ or ‘Russell against Houston.’ I don’t want to hear that. We’re in this together. We play as a team, and that’s all that matters, and that’s that.”

    Westbrook then steamrolled further attempts at a follow up.

    “That’s fine,” Westbrook said. “Then say, ‘Russell, you ain’t played well at all.’ Or say, ‘Russell, the team hasn’t played well.’ Don’t say, ‘When Russell goes out, the team doesn’t play well.’ It don’t matter. We’re in this together.”

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    Patrick Beverley annoys Thunder on defense AND offense

    BY DAN DEVINE

    Ball Don't Lie

    April 16, 2017

    Just as we all predicted, the star of the first game in the head-to-head matchup between two of the leading candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award was … Patrick Beverley?

    With all eyes on high-scoring, playmaking All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, it was the hard-as-nails Chicago-born guard who helped tilt the game. Beverley rebounded from a bone-crunching screen by Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams to ignite a monster third-quarter run that turned what had been a tight contest through two quarters into a blowout early in the fourth, as the Houston Rockets ran away with a 118-87 shellacking of the visiting Thunder to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series.

    After getting planted by a pick with just over 8 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Beverley came back to drill a pair of 3-pointers off feeds from Harden to give the Rockets their first double-digit lead of the game and get the crowd at Toyota Center as fired up as they’d been all night:

    The second 3 set a new playoff career-high scoring mark for Beverley, who would finish with 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting (4-for-6 from 3-point land) to go with 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 26 minutes of work.

    “He’s been doing it since I’ve been here, five years,” Harden said when TNT’s David Aldridge asked him about his backcourt partner after the game. “He’s just this dog, man. He’s feisty. He’s going to play as hard as he can. That’s one of the reasons he’s in the position he’s in. Obviously, he knocked down some big shots, scored for us well, but he plays with a lot of energy, a lot of tenacity.”

    He also had a hand in limiting Westbrook, the league’s leading scorer during the regular season, to 22 points on 6-for-23 shooting (3-for-11 from deep) and helping Russ undercut his seven assists with nine turnovers.

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    The most insightful piece ever written on Sam Presti

    Thunder general manager Sam Presti alongside pending MVP Russell Westbrook.
    BY LEE JENKINS

    Sports Illustrated

    April 12, 2017

    Thirty miles northwest of Oracle Arena, on 411 acres of secluded woodlands in the San Geronimo Valley, the crowds sit in silence. They file into a two-story cedar building, place shoes in cubbyholes, pour cups of hot tea. They plop down on the octagonal oak floor in the Great Hall, using pillows as seat cushions, and gaze out floor-to-ceiling windows at turkeys roaming the grasslands, hawks circling the redwoods. Three instructors stand on a low platform, flanked by twin Buddha statues, and explain the first rule of a retreat to Spirit Rock: No talking. Not over lunch in the meadow, not on strolls across the hillside, and certainly not during meditation sessions in the Great Hall.

    For Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, extreme displays of self-discipline are not a problem. Three years ago a Thunder doctor warned Presti about the effects of carbohydrates, and he has not consumed so much as a crouton since. Two years ago Presti’s wife delivered their first child, and he vowed to write the boy a letter from every road trip. Approximately 70 notes and postcards already fill a safe deposit box in an Oklahoma City bank. During the organization’s annual cardiac stress test, players typically hop off the treadmill after eight or nine punishing minutes, when the administrator can take a clear ultrasound of their pumping heart. Presti stays on the belt for up to 14 minutes, speed and incline spiking every 30 seconds, his barrel chest heaving and burning. He wants the administrator to take the clearest ultrasound.

    He stretches himself, which is why he strode into Spirit Rock alongside 160 strangers on the morning of Sept. 3, his only companion a sack lunch from a nearby natural foods store in West Marin. Presti meditates, but he is no Phil Jackson, and the Labor Day weekend retreat spanned 18 silent hours over three days. The schedule sounded daunting enough, before taking into account the setting. Presti is among the most prominent NBA GMs—marked by the clear-framed specs, the crisply parted hair, the omnipresent Blackberry (he keeps several backups in case the company goes out of business)—but he still passes largely unnoticed outside of OKC. He could have chosen a mindfulness center anywhere. Yet when the time came to clear his head and draw his breath he traveled all the way to the Bay Area, across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge from Oakland, where he was predictably surrounded by Warriors T-shirts. As he glimpsed the bright yellow in the Great Hall, he laughed, though obviously not out loud.

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    Harden vs. Westbrook should settle MVP debate in payoffs

     

    BY BILL REITER

    CBSSports.com

    April 10, 2017

    Here’s a novel notion in settling once and for all the debate over James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook, this NBA season’s most-pressing question.

    Let those two decide.

    Let’s bend the rules and allow them fight to an answer, man to man, when their teams face one another next week in the start of the NBA playoffs — instead of limiting the award to regular season.

    All season, the prevailing narrative has been that the MVP comes down to those two players. And while I think LeBron has gotten short shrift , there is no arguing that Russ and the Beard have been marvelous and mesmerizing.

    For Westbrook, his argument is dominated by his history-making, triple-double season, in which he also joined Oscar Robertson  as the second player to average 10 or more points, rebounds and assists for an entire season. Westbrook’s 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game put the Thunder, sans Kevin Durant, in the playoffs.

    And into the waiting arms of Harden and his 3-seed Houston Rockets.

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    Westbrook ends one board shy of season triple-double mark

    Wednesday in Memphis, Russell Westbrook finished one rebound shy of breaking Oscar Robertson's season record of 41 triple-doubles. (AP photo/Brandon Dill)
    BY TIM MCMAHON

    ESPN Staff Writer

    March 6, 2017

    MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Has there ever been a more spectacular, impressive, disappointing performance in NBA history?

    In a critical road game with significant playoff-seeding implications, Russell Westbrook put up 45 points on a sizzling shooting night, capping it with yet another clutch scoring flurry to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 103-100 victory Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies. He dished out 10 assists, including one for a Doug McDermott 3-pointer that accounted for the only Thunder points that weren't by Westbrook in the heart-pounding final five minutes at FedEx Forum. He even had a season-high five steals.

    But he finished with only nine rebounds on a night when he could have broken the Big O's 55-year-old record for triple-doubles in a season? C'mon, man!

    "It'd be nice if he'd grab the ball!" Thunder coach Billy Donovan cracked, referring to a rebound that Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter stole from Westbrook with 1.2 seconds remaining, tipping it to Andrew Harrison for a 3 that pulled Memphis to within a point. "It bounced off his hand. It was right there in his lap, right?"

    Even Westbrook, a man not exactly known for yukking it up with the media, found humor in the focus being on a rebound he didn't get immediately after such a phenomenal individual performance that guaranteed that the Thunder would finish ahead of the Grizzlies, no worse than sixth in the Western Conference. He chuckled when asked about the rebound that got away, costing him what would have been his 42nd triple-double of the season, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62.

    "I mean, I think that people obviously come to see that," said Westbrook, who is now only six assists shy of guaranteeing that he'll join Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season. "It was a lot of people here to see that as well, but it happens like that. We've got a lot of games left. I'm happy we got the win. That was the most important part to me."

    Westbrook was in perfect position to get the rebound if Harrison missed. But it was a swish by the Grizzlies' fill-in starter at point guard, a 28.9 percent 3-point shooter this season. And Westbrook was well aware at the time what that rebound would have meant.

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    Durant and Calipari defect: In sports, hey, that's the norm

    Former Memphis coach returns to FedExForum as Kentucky's coach.
    BY GARY PARRISH

    CBSSports.com

    March 24, 2017

    MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari was at The Peabody late Wednesday. On the top floor. Surrounded by about 100 old friends. In the Skyway that overlooks downtown Memphis -- a place where he went 137-14 in his final four years coaching the Tigers while making four consecutive Sweet 16s, three straight Elite Eights and the national title game of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

    He was a king here once. That’s not an overstatement.

    Calipari, for years, was the most popular person in the city by a wide margin. And anybody who dared question him -- for enrolling a known gang member, for pulling a scholarship from a signed prospect, for barely suspending a player charged with domestic violence -- was labeled a “miserable.” He was the man pointing and essentially saying “fake news” before that other man started pointing and saying “fake news.” And Memphians ate it up. In Cal We Trust, the diehards insisted. Those were fun and weird times.

    But everything changed the moment Calipari changed addresses.

    When he left Memphis for Kentucky on April 1, 2009, while the NCAA was investigating Derrick Rose’s fraudulent standardized test score that ultimately caused the 2008 season to be vacated, UK fans who previously called Calipari a slimy cheater embraced him with open arms while Memphis fans who treated him like a god decided he was the devil. It’s all ridiculous, of course, because Calipari’s not much different in 2017 than he was in 2007. His zip code changed. But he didn’t. And I’ve never understood how hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even millions, can have their view of a human flip so drastically based on where that human works.

    But that’s sports, right?

    In any other world, it makes no sense for Oklahoma City fans to despise Kevin Durant for spending nine great years with the franchise and then deciding, accurately, that he would have a better chance to achieve his dreams with Golden State. But in the sports world, it feels mostly normal.

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    50 Shades of Westbrook

    (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
    BY BILL SIMMONS
    CEO, The Ringer

    March 9, 2017

    The most exciting play in basketball somehow happens five times a game. It’s always Russell Westbrook grabbing a rebound or an outlet pass, then deciding to dribble 70–80 feet for another defiant layup. Does he care how many opponents might be in his way? Not really. Westbrook pushes the ball quickly, skipping along the court like a gymnast building momentum for a double salto with a twist. Right around midcourt, he throws on Terminator sunglasses and calculates the remaining dangers.

    Three guys left, the one nearest to the rim is tallest … hmmmm … activate warp-speed mode … split the first two … go hard at the third … veer right at the last second, avoiding the rim protector who’s a split-second late … finish hard at the backboard … don’t careen into the camera guys.

    Russ solves everything in 0.034 seconds, only as he does it, he transforms from the Terminator into a Tesla. Whooooooooosh. He always beats the first two guys because they’re backpedaling, and unlike Russ, they’re actually human beings. They never had a chance. But the third guy — he’s always taller and he’s determined to avoid ending up on YouTube or Twitter. He either wants to block the shot or plow into Russ like a strong safety. Russ isn’t making him look bad.

    One problem: Suddenly, Russ is coming right at him. At 75 miles per hour.

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    Westbrook scores 58, yet Thunder loses fourth straight

    Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
    ESPN Stats & Information

    March 8, 2017

    Russell Westbrook scored a career-high and franchise-record 58 points, but the Thunder still lost to the Trail Blazers 126-121 on Tuesday. Looking at his performance, it's clear he had little help from teammates, who struggled to make shots when he was not involved.

    Westbrook shot 54 percent from the field (21 of 39). His teammates shot even better -- 64 percent -- off his passes. But on shots taken on plays in which he wasn't involved, the Thunder shot 44 percent (14 of 32).

    A look into Westbrook's efficiency:

    - He shot 50 percent (15 of 30) on contested shots. This was his first time in nine games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He shot 50 percent (10 of 20) on pull-up jumpers off the dribble, his first time in seven games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He scored or assisted on 82 of the Thunder's 121 points (68 percent), including 41 of their 54 second-half points (76 percent). The 82 points scored or assisted on, and the 68 percent of the team's total, are season highs for Westbrook.

    - The Thunder was outscored by 12 points with him off the court Tuesday. Thunder has been outscored with him off the court six times in its past eight games and 43 times in 64 games overall this season.

    - He had the second-highest-scoring game in the NBA this season behind Klay Thompson's 60-point game in December against the Pacers. It was Westbrook's third career 50-point game, his second this season. He and James Harden of the Houston Rockets are the only players with multiple 50-point games this season.

    - He tied the SuperSonics/Thunder franchise record for points in a game, matching Fred Brown, who scored 58 in March 1974.

    - The Thunder has lost four consecutive games in which Westbrook has scored 45 or more points. Elias Sports Bureau research shows that the most recent player to lose four games in a row when he scored 45 or more was Nate "Tiny" Archibald with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972-73.

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    Westbrook deserved a better fate, and Presti delivered with a trade

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 23, 2107

    As Thursday’s 2 p.m. NBA trade deadline approached, it would have understandable if OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti had decided to stand pat and allowed the remainder of the 2016-17 season to simply stay the course.

    With the All-Star Break ending, the Thunder (32-25) held an 8-game lead for the final Western Conference playoff spot, a comfortable cushion ahead of a team that had just traded away its franchise player in DeMarcus Cousins. Just 3½ games out of the No. 4 spot with 25 regular-season games remaining, OKC also was in position to improve its first-round playoff chances considerably.

    So Presti refused to stand pat.

    Presti tried to stand pat five years ago, and with good reason. He simultaneously had three of today’s greatest players on the OKC roster in Kevin Durant (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (also 23) and James Harden (22), plus budding star Serge Ibaka (22). Presti also had an impatient bench warmer named Reggie Jackson (21).

    Fresh off making the 2011-12 NBA Finals, a spry squad that coach Scott Brooks affectionately referred to as “Thunder U” was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse with the potential to win multiple championships.

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    Durant-Westbrook feud adds to NBA All-Star drama

    Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
    BY ANN KILLIAN
    San Francisco Chronicle

    Feb. 16, 2017

    It’s not often that you get an All-Star Game with actual, real-life drama. Usually these exhibitions are simply back-slapping celebrity photo-ops that happen to include a ball or a puck.

    But we’ve got some actual drama on tap this weekend in New Orleans.

    It comes courtesy of the Warriors and Kevin Durant. They’ve been the biggest story of the NBA season, so why not at the All-Star Game, too?

    Durant and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook will be reunited as teammates this weekend, both members of the Western Conference All-Star team.

    That might not be such a big deal except that the All-Star Game comes just one week after the emotional, intense night in Oklahoma City. During Durant’s first return to his former home city, the animosity between him and Westbrook seemed very real, bubbling onto the court. His coach and teammates described it as an ugly, difficult night.

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    Durant receives standing ovation at OKC restaurant after game

    J Pat Carter/Getty Images

     

    BY RAMONA SHELBURNE

    ESPN Senior Writer

    Feb. 14, 2017

     

    The Saturday night before Valentine's Day is always one of the biggest nights of the year for an upscale steakhouse like Mahogany Prime Steaks in downtown Oklahoma City. General manager Dave Osborn says couples from all over the state call weeks in advance to book a table.

    But this night in Oklahoma City wasn't about romance. It was about the love lost between a city and its once-favorite son.

    Kevin Durant arrived at Mahogany with a group of eight to 10 friends and family members shortly before midnight. The restaurant was still packed with Oklahoma City Thunder fans and players who had walked over from Chesapeake Energy Arena after Durant's first game back in town as a member of the Golden State Warriors.

    It had been an emotional night for all involved. But now it was time to unwind. So Durant went to his favorite postgame spot as a Thunder player, the restaurant owned by his former business partner, Hal Smith.

    Depending on whose version of events you believe, someone from Durant's camp might have even called a few weeks in advance to inquire about renting the place out after the game, but both the Warriors and Durant's camp disputed those claims. Nothing had been set up in advance.

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    The verdict is in -- Kevin Durant no longer is welcome in OKC

    THUNDER WARRIORS BASKETBALL
    Golden State's Kevin Durant (35) reacts after being called for his fifth foul during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017. Golden State won 130-114. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

     

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb, 12, 2017

     

    Saturday night’s game between the OKC Thunder and Golden State Warriors was a mismatch and you can credit, or blame, Kevin Durant for this.

    With Durant’s free-agent defection on July 4 last year, the Thunder went from being an elite team (one win shy of claiming last year's Western Conference championship) to its current status as a lower-echelon playoff team (currently the conference's No. 7 seed).

    In three meetings this season, Golden State has dismantled OKC by 26 (122-96 at Oracle Arena on Nov. 3), by 21 (121-100 at Oracle on Jan. 18) and by 16 last night with a 130-114 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The season's final mismatch will be March 20 in OKC.

    If Durant’s intent when he left was to humiliate teammates and fans who did everything within their power to support him as a four-time scoring champ and the league's 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, well … congrats. Mission accomplished.

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