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Western Conference Insider: Durant coming up big for Thunder

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Jan 26 2009 2:30PM

Bill Russell is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, centers to ever play in the NBA. Standing at 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, whatever Russell lacked in size he made up for in desire, toughness and positioning.

Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, measuring 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds, played on the wing his whole life, but at the behest of new Thunder coach Scott Brooks, he has abandoned the shooting guard position. In his second season, 40 years after Russell won his 11th ring, there's another slight guy manning the middle.

"I think Kevin is so talented he can play every position ... other than the one," Brooks said. "He doesn't pass enough to be a one."

In Durant's first season, former Thunder head coach P.J. Carlesimo decided to play Durant at shooting guard instead of at small forward, the position Durant played in his lone season at the University of Texas.

Carlesimo said playing the two was where Durant was "best suited." It was hard to argue with him. The lanky Durant, often likened to all-time scoring great George Gervin, averaged 20.3 points per game and won Rookie of the Year honors.

When Brooks took over after Oklahoma City started the season 1-12, one of his first orders of business was to improve his team defensively. He started with his best player, Durant, moving him back to the three -- and sometimes the four and the five -- to engage him on the defensive end.

"He's very gifted offensively, but he is improving defensively," Brooks said. "We all see it. He's rebounding better, he's contesting shots, he's staying in front of the ball and those are [points of] emphasis I'll have with him game to game. I challenge him that way. I know he's going to score points for us, but we need him to really focus on being a lockdown defender. He has length and he can really do a great job of contesting shots. He has improved in that area."

Whether the shift to forward did the trick, or whether Durant's self described "nervousness" to improve in his second season was the reason, the 20-year-old's numbers are up across the board. He's scoring 24.7 point per game (up from 20.3) on 46.8 percent shooting (up from 43.0), 42.2 percent from three (up from 28.8) and he's averaging 6.6 rebounds per game (up from 4.4).

"I don't think I'll ever go back to the two again," Durant said.

"I think Scotty is letting us experiment some. He moves me to the four and even the five sometimes ... It's been tough trying to move stronger guys out [of the paint], obviously, but I think if I just use my length it makes up for a lot. I got to continue to do that and also continue to add muscle."

Another advantage to Durant playing down low is that when he grabs a defensive rebound, he has the ball-handling ability to dribble the ball up the court to set up the Thunder's offense. On Friday, Durant scored a career-high 46 points to go with a career-high 15 rebounds in a loss to the Clippers. Los Angeles was missing Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph because of injury, so, sure enough, Durant saw a lot of time playing the four alongside Nick Collison and logged some minutes at center when Collison went to the bench.

Durant's numbers have created some All-Star buzz. He's trying to downplay it.

"I just want to get better as a team, just pile up win after win every night. Hopefully we can do that. The All-Star situation, I'll let that take care of itself," he said. "God has a plan for me, I think, and if the All-Star Game's not this year, hopefully it's years to come. I'm just excited about what this team has in store."

The Curse of the Gorilla?

Ever since Suns All-Star forward Amar'e Stoudemire told reporters on Jan. 18 after a win over the Raptors that he was "about to get my gorilla game on," Phoenix has floundered.

First came the Celtics on Jan. 19, who led by as many as 35 points before settling for a 17-point victory over the Suns on national television. Stoudemire was 0-for-7 from the field and racked up three points, one rebound and four turnovers in 30 minutes.

The next game was on Jan. 21 against the Knicks, run by former Phoenix head coach Mike D'Antoni. Stoudemire shot just 6-for-17 from the field and New York won by five, granting D'Antoni his first win against his former team.

The bottom really fell out on Jan. 23 when Stoudemire went 5-for-14 with six turnovers in the Suns' first ever loss to the Bobcats, a game in which Phoenix trailed by 34 in the second half before losing by 22.

Stoudemire finally helped stop the skid on Sunday, scoring a team-high 23 points in a win over the Hawks.

Minnesota Having Fun

With eight wins in their last 10 games, the Timberwolves are as hot as any team in the league. Kevin McHale took over as head coach after the team started 4-15 under Randy Wittman. Since the change, the Wolves are 11-12. They're 9-2 since Jan. 1.

"We're just sharing the ball a lot better and having a little bit more fun," sharpshooter Mike Miller said. "That's what's happening. Enjoy yourself while you're out there playing."

The Timberwolves' assists per game has increased only from 20.3 to 20.7 since the New Year, but scoring is way up. Minnesota's 106.6 points per game is fifth in the league since Jan. 1, trailing only Golden State, Denver, Indiana and the L.A. Lakers. Through the first two months of the season, the Wolves were 21st in the league in scoring, at 95.9 points per game.

"We got going a little bit, started winning some games and made it a little easier for us," Miller said. "We're playing a lot better right now right now and it makes it a lot more fun when a lot of people are involved."


Lakers head coach Phil Jackson on his plans for coaching the West All-Stars in Phoenix: "I'm looking forward to starting [Amar'e] Stoudemire on LeBron James. Those kind of matchups seem to be very interesting to me ... I'd love to see Shaquille [O'Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] have a chance to play with each other. I think that would be fun." ... The Mavericks' Jason Kidd is shooting better from behind the 3-point arc than he ever has in his career (at .391). In a three-game stretch last week he went 12-for-15 from deep ... Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich on the success former assistant Mike Brown is having on defense as the head coach in Cleveland: "[Taking credit] would be a little bit arrogant on my part. I learned as much from Mike as he learned from me." ... Golden State's Monta Ellis is back on the court after not playing in a game for nearly nine months following a freak moped accident. He averaged 15 points, three rebounds and three assists in his first two games back.

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