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David Aldridge

Kevin Durant
Not even reigning MVP LeBron James could slow the tear Kevin Durant (center) has been on of late.

Fiercely determined Durant driving Thunder like never before


Posted Feb 3, 2014 10:19 AM - Updated Feb 3, 2014 5:45 PM

Headed to train off sight then practice to get better. I have to improve! I have no other choice. I won't settle ‪#StriveForGreatness‬ ‪#Akron
-- LeBron James, tweeting early Friday morning.

Kevin Durant was ready to go skiing Saturday night.

At least it looked like it.

He was actually hooked up to a hip-to-ankle length compression device that pumped oxygen into his legs as he sat as his locker, the latest device to try and get a tired player through the grind of an 82-game season.

"I'm 25," he said. "Been in this league for a while now."

Among the most underreported aspects of the NBA, and sports leagues in general, is this: greatness requires a sacrifice with which the paying customers are not familiar. It is not just the physical training that hones the athlete's body. It is not just the mental tax the elite pay to always have to be at their best. It is not the constraints on one's time, the constant noise from advertisers, media, coaches and fans. It is doing all of that, while pursuing the continuing education that being the best of the best demands.

So what is most amazing about what Kevin Durant has done over the last month, in his pursuit of LeBron James' standing as the best player in the NBA, while leading the best team in the NBA, is that he feels compelled to do it at all.

He is financially compensated well into his family's next three or four generations by the Oklahoma CityThunder. He is universally respected, from the ballers at Barry Farms in D.C., where he's been known to come play in the summer at the Goodman League, to the pitchmen that pay him millions to endorse their products. He has a standing invitation from USA Basketball to lead their next generation of stars in international competition, as he did in being the driving force behind the 2010 gold medal team at the World Championships in Turkey.

"He's as authentic as anybody I've ever been around," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

And yet Durant is compelled, like Clark Kent seeking his ultimate calling as Superman, to do more, to be more. His last month of play is the culmination of that yearning. When he says "I have to do better," as he does after every game, he means it.

Last week, Durant made his biggest, boldest attack on James, outplaying him in James' house, leading the Thunder to a dominant 112-95 win over the Heat. They took turns guarding each other, as they have for the last couple of seasons, and James was just as efficient offensively as Durant. But at the end of the day, Durant had a +18 plus-minus rating for the game, while James was a -17.

The scoring piece is the least of it. Averaging a league-and career-high 31.1 points a game, Durant has had to score more with Russell Westbrook recovering from a third knee surgery in the last eight months. But Durant is doing it with a ridiculous Player Efficiency Rating of 31.08, also tops in the league. James, for the first time in six years, has someone else ahead of him in that category.

Durant also leads the league in Player Impact Estimate, an NBA.com/Stats number that measures the percentage of plays in a game a particular player affected the most. Durant's current PIE is 21.4 percent, ahead of James's 19.8 percent.

During the Thunder's 10-game win streak to end the month of January (he missed the Boston game to give his injured shoulder some rest), Durant's averages were XBox-ish: 40 points per game, including 54 against the Warriors, while shooting 61.2 percent, 56.4 percent on threes and 88 percent from the foul line. Only six players in league history, including Durant, have reached the "180 Club" -- averaging 50 percent shooting from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the foul line for a season.

If Durant kept up those numbers he compiled during the win streak over a full season, he'd be the first member of the 190 Club. That he was even able to do it for the better part of a month was jaw-dropping.

"He's emptying his clip, I'll tell you that," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said in wonder. "I don't think he's done, either."

Perkins used to think the things he saw Durant do in games were incredible. That was until he saw him in practice every day, being triple teamed by OKC's assistant coaches, who use -- as if channeled by Lou Gossett's Sgt. Foley -- any and all means, fair and unfair, to trip Durant up. They play 1990s NBA defense on him -- handchecks, shots to the ribs -- and he shoots and makes over them.

"A lot of the shots KD makes, people think that's some unbelievable shot, one-legged step-backs and stuff like that," Perkins said. "It don't surprise me, because I've seen him. I watch him work on that in practice ... we land in cities at nighttime; he goes to the gym at 8:30 (the next morning). So he's locked in. Some of the things that amazes other people don't really amaze me."

None of what Durant is doing this season is by happenstance. He is determined to not only come back every season with something new, but to become a true student of the game, to know what defenses are going to try and do with him before they try and do it.

"I'm seeing some crazy-type, crazy defenses every night," Durant said Saturday. "Whether teams are face guarding, or they're doubling, and they're rotating so far over from our guys. I'm trying to watch film to see, 'cause I never know what teams are going to throw at us. Everything's new. That's why I kind of approach the game slowly, try to get into it, so I can just watch film and see where I can get to my spots, and see where I can make plays.

"And I always can grow. So if I see that situation again, I know what to do. I'm familiar with it. And I can help my team. It's all about progression. I know that. I've just got to keep finding ways to get better."

Those words again.

But Durant is also finding his voice, in a locker room full of young reserves who are being counted on this season to help OKC work its way through the Western Conference. Westbrook, often as moody as he is talented, is not ever going to be a natural leader. Durant, however, has those chops.

"I think he's figured out a lot more about the game, and himself, and our team," said forward Nick Collison, the only other player besides Westbrook that's been with the Thunder and with Durant since the move from Seattle in 2008.

"He knows that he doesn't have to force it," Collison said, "and it's going to come back to him, and he's still going to have opportunities. He'll get better opportunities. Our team -- it's not just Kevin -- our team has grown a lot in that area. Playing with the pass, realizing it's important where we are on the floor, spacing-wise. It's important that the passes are on time.

"We're executing a lot better. It's taken us years to figure it out. But we're finally maturing, I think, in that area, and Kevin's a big part of that. He draws so much attention, but he's making the right play. And then the ball comes back to him. We're moving the ball. He's still getting enough shots, but he's taking better shots, and his confidence is off the charts."

The Thunder's philosophy on player development, combined with strategic cap flexibility -- OKC hasn't paid the luxury tax yet, though it could and likely will in the future -- means it needs its rookie contract players to do more than play like rookies.

Durant's peers -- Westbrook, Collison, Serge Ibaka -- don't need guidance. But Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams do.

"He's only 25, but he's been through a lot of basketball experiences," Brooks said. "So he's able to talk to these guys, whether it's in front of the group, whether it's one on one, or whether it's the guards or the bigs or the younger players. And they listen to him, because of who he is as a man. I've been around enough NBA players, when you're walking your talk, you're not going to get eyes rolled. They know if you're a phony and a fake and you're not authentic. Nobody can ever say that about KD."

Durant views it as a natural responsibility as the roster has turned over in the last couple of seasons, the domino effect from sending James Harden to the Rockets before last season for Kevin Martin and the rights to Lamb.

"Well, we got a lot younger, and those guys want to be led, and they want to be taught," Durant said. "I don't have all the answers, but I've been in the league for a while, and I've learned from some great vets and some great coaches. Just try to help the younger guys, and teaching them what I've been through, and some of the situations I've seen in this league. Everybody wants to listen, and they respect me, too. That goes a long way."

Great leaders, though, must also be accountable. Durant can get on players when they need to be, um, gotten on. But he takes it when necessary, too.

"He's humble," Ibaka said. "We keep saying, he's one of the best leaders, I don't know, I've been playing with. He's really humble. When he do something wrong, you can go talk to him -- it's like this, it's like that. He says, 'My fault, I'm sorry.' He do better. He's really humble. That's why, me and the other guys, we love to play off of him. Because he knows when he's wrong. He will take it like everybody."

The chemistry between Durant and Ibaka is critical to the Thunder's title hopes. Durant and Westbrook will get theirs. But Ibaka is OKC's best hope of being that consistent third scorer, the Horace Grant to Durant's and Westbrook's Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

When teams inevitably doubled Jordan, or collapsed on Pippen driving in the paint, the ball found Grant, right of the key. He didn't miss that shot, it seemed, for five years. That's what made the Bulls unstoppable in the halfcourt.

Grant never shot less than 50 percent in any of his seven seasons in Chicago. I know: mid-range shots aren't any good any more. And Ibaka has expanded his range well beyond the 3-point line; he's shooting 36 percent from deep this season. But he will help OKC most by becoming a deadly 18-foot shooter, whether on the baseline or on the wings.

OKC is running a lot more screen and roll with Durant and Ibaka than in years past, stretching the defense to the breaking point. But where there was a moment's hesitation between the two in years past, now, Durant gets the ball to Ibaka exactly at the right moment. Forty-nine games into the season, Ibaka has already tied his career high in assists (43). OKC's action on the weakside has been just as impressive as Durant's scoring.

But that all comes from Durant.

"He knows Kevin's going to draw two, and he knows he's going to hit him on time," Collison said. "And so he's getting to that spot, and it's expected. The ball's expected. So he's ready to shoot it."

Oklahoma City hasn't suffered any defensively without Westbrook. The Thunder are third in defensive efficiency this season, allowing just 99.2 points per 100 possessions, just behind Indiana and Chicago. Durant is a top 10 small forward (among those who start or play significant minutes) in defensive rating, according to NBA.com/Stats.

"Defensively, the last couple of years, he's definitely taken another level up," Brooks said. "He's not known for being a defender, but he can defend. He can defend. We've put him, and we have, [on] one through five. He guards points, twos, threes, fours, and some fives in the league. That's something that gets overlooked with our defensive principles. We can switch out on a lot of different players, and he's a big part of that, obviously."

All that has the league salivating for 2016, when Durant would become a free agent if he didn't sign another extension with the Thunder. Yes, every team would love to have James, but almost all of them know that there's no chance of that happening ... James will almost certainly stay in Miami (you think Heat president Pat Riley has left anything to chance where LBJ is concerned?).

Durant, though, seems a more possible target. He's played without complaint in one of the NBA's smallest cities for the last five years; he certainly seems to be able to get in where he can fit in. The Washington Wizards' dream is that he would be ready to come home in two years. The Brooklyn Nets hope he'd be ready for the big city just when they get almost all of their contracts off the books. The Los Angeles Lakers will just happen to be in need of a franchise player that summer, when Kobe Bryant's (probably) last contract is up.

Durant isn't biting on any speculation. It's one of the benefits of tunnel vision -- you can't see anything that isn't directly in front of you. So Durant remains focused on the one man that is his equal at playing basketball in the world at the moment, who runs the team that has what Durant so desperately wants.

"He's playing with an edge," Perkins said, "and I like that [bleep]. But then, after the game, he's still the good dude, good person that we know as good people. But when he steps on the court, he's a monster."

DRIBBLES

They wouldn't go for Ubuntu in the City of Angels, probably.

But something is keeping the Los Angeles Clippers standing, and thriving. A month after Chris Paul went out with a separated shoulder, the Clippers were supposed to be taking on water. Instead, they've maintained their lead in the Pacific Division, and disabled a well-worn narrative in the process.

The idea was, Blake Griffin was all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. Griffin's game hasn't developed. He's more interested in making commercials than post moves. Even as he makes yet another All-Star team, Griffin has to fight this conventional wisdom.

Except, it doesn't hold up.

Griffin is playing the best basketball of his still-young career in Paul's absence, averaging 25.9 points in his last 10 games. Almost all of the Clips, 11-4 in Paul's absence, have picked up their play. Coach Doc Rivers hasn't let them take the out of being without their MVP.

Darren Collison has been an effective starter for Paul. Center DeAndre Jordan has been a man on the glass, leading the league in rebounds per game (14) and fielgoal percentage (.649). He even hit four free throws down the stretch last week to help secure the Clippers' win over Washington.

Griffin's offensive game has gotten more and more diverse this season (Grantland's Zach Lowe did an excellent deconstruction of the evolution recently). His PER is half a point higher than last season; he currently ranks fifth among power forwards.

It's not a coincidence. Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge are suddenly in a battle as Tim Duncan's heir as premier power forward in the West. Both of their respective games are both pointing due north.

"I need to be a leader," Griffin said late Thursday. "I need to step up. Chris is a big part of our team, and when he's gone, it obviously leaves a big gap, and I'm trying to fill it. I'm not trying to replace him, or do what he does -- just do it my own way."

His way, per Rivers' instruction, is to do whatever it is he's going to do with the ball quickly. No hesitation. Griffin's been listening.

"He's bringing the ball up, he's making the jump shot," Rivers said. "We want him to face his defender, because there's no one in the league who can stay in front of him."

The Clippers are running more and more of their offense through Griffin, and he's responding with more and more efficiency. He's hitting a career-best 70 percent from the line, and has a career-high True Shooting Percentage of 58.2 percent.

"He's shooting the pick-and-pop shot, he's getting the ball and taking it coast to coast, and that's like a freight train coming at you with his athleticism and speed," guard Jamal Crawford said. "He's making plays for us. He's unselfish. He's being a facilitator. He's blocking shots. He's truly doing everything on the court. We're all sitting there just marveling at this 24-year-old kid getting better in front of our eyes."

With all the hype -- much of it self-generated, with all the commercials and endorsements he goes through -- the notion that Griffin really does work on his craft is sometimes lost. No one's growth is linear; there are always fits and starts along the way. Just because Griffin was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Draft doesn't mean he could shortcut the growth process. (The argument about whether he should punch the next guy in the nose who 'bows him upside the head, as the Chuckster and others advocate, is a separate one.)

"Reading defenses, taking what they give me, not forcing anything, it all helps," Griffin said. "And the more I learn, the more better off I think our offense will be. I'm still trying to learn and understand when to attack, and when to sit back, make a pass, all of those things."

It made the recent Internet report that the Knicks and Clippers were having some sort of undefined "discussions" about a Griffin-Carmelo Anthony trade laughable. Griffin's presence is the only reason that Paul re-signed with Los Angeles last summer. As well, the Clippers' streak of 116 consecutive sellouts at Staples Center started on Griffin's watch.

His jersey ranked just behind Paul's last season in the league's top 10 in sales. The Clippers were seventh, seventh and fourth, respectively, the past three seasons in road attendance before this year, when they've taken a drop to 18th. Most importantly, the Clips will trade Griffin over owner Donald Sterling's dead body. Griffin has a max deal for a reason: he is Sterling's north star, the person who led his franchise out of the wilderness.

"He's prepared for this," Crawford said. "Having Chris go out was kind of a blessing in disguise, as far as the growth of Blake. Chris has always been like the big brother for Blake. He's gone through the wars, and the situations, and he's been there. But now, Blake had to do it in front of us. We didn't have a choice. And he's been doing it, and he's been doing a heck of a job."

Paul is still hoping to return to the lineup around the All-Star break (he may or may not play in the Feb. 16 game after being voted in by the West's coaches for a seventh appearance). He's working out with the Clippers' athletic training staff before games and says he could play now, but hasn't gotten the go-ahead yet.

"He has been unreal," Paul said of Griffin. "Before Blake goes on the court, I tell him every night, I make sure I tell him, 'Can't nobody stop you.' The way he's playing is like, I want to be a part of it. That's one of the reasons why I hate that I'm not playing now. But to see what he's doing, and the way he's leading the team, it's remarkable. We have to keep going. I just want to get out there and help him some."

Until then, the Clippers are dependent on their three-guard rotation of Collison, Crawford and J.J. Redick, who is finally back in the rotation after suffering a series of injuries to his back, hand and UCL in the right knee. Crawford and Reddick have especially been good together in fourth quarters. After a terribly disappointing season playing for coach Rick Carlisle in Dallas last year, Collison signed with the Clippers to reprise his old role in New Orleans as Paul's backup.

The Clippers finally get some home games after Monday's game in Denver as a five-game homestand leads into the All-Star break. After that, L.A. hopes to be back at full strength, ready to see if the changes Rivers has built into the team's culture have taken hold -- and hope that Paul's shoulder has healed, too.

"I feel like I could be somewhat effective [now]," Paul said. "The great thing about Doc, and having our coaching staff, is that everything is about the big picture."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Jan. 20 ranking in brackets; last week's record in parentheses)

1) Oklahoma City [5] (3-1): KD's dominance aside, the best development for the Thunder is Serge Ibaka's offensive growth. He has to continue to play at that high level for OKC to have realistic title hopes, whether or not Russell Westbrook's on the floor.

2) Indiana [1] (2-1): Pacers are either coming back to Earth, or teams are catching up a little, or it's the January blahs.

3) Portland [2] (1-1): With Saturday's win over Toronto, the Blazers have beaten every division leader other than Miami, who beat them by one in December. Blazers will get another crack at the Heat in Miami in March.

4) L.A. Clippers [6] (3-1): You wonder if the Clips are satisfied with their current stock of small forwards.

5) Miami [3] (1-1): Stirrings: Shane Battier shooting 45 percent (9 of 20) behind the arc in his last six games, including 4 of 7 in Saturday's win in New York.

6) Houston [8] (3-0): Hack-a-Dwight in full effect against the Spurs, but Howard finished the week shooting 64 percent (28 of 44) from the line. The Rockets will take that every week the rest of the season.

7) Golden State [7] (2-1): Jermaine O'Neal (wrist surgery), out since mid-December, tells me he might back on the court this week; if so, that would be a boon for a Warriors bench that has been unproductive of late.

8) San Antonio [4] (1-2): Running out of bodies, with the Rodeo Trip looming.

9) Phoenix [10] (4-0): I've run out of things to say about this incredible season the Suns are having. Please don't have any sodium pentothal available to ask Ryan McDonough what he really thinks.

10) Memphis [11] (4-0): Never a good time to lose your starting point guard, but the Grizz will have to get along without Mike Conley for a week after bad ankle sprain.

11) Dallas [9] (1-1): Mavs' bad defense has to be driving Rick Carlisle crazy: they're 22nd in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (108.4).

12) Toronto [14] (3-1): Bryan Colangelo got a lot of heat in Toronto for the roster he put together and the coach he hired. That roster now has one All-Star (DeMar DeRozan) and barely missed having a second, and the coach's defense is sixth-best in the league in Defensive Rating. Colangelo can sleep well tonight.

13) Atlanta [12] (2-1): Jeff Hornacek probably has Coach of the Year wrapped up, but Mike Budenholzer is doing amazing things this season with the Hawks.

14) Washington [15] (2-1): Teasy McTeasersons (h/t Stephanie Miller) continue to tantalize, winning at Golden State and ending the Thunder's 10-game win streak Saturday, putting the Wiz, yet again, at .500 entering play Monday. Still looking to get in the black for the first time in four years.

15) Chicago [NR] (1-2): Jimmy Butler looks like he's finally starting to shake out of his season-long slump.

Dropped out: Denver [13]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Memphis (4-0): Has anyone noticed the Grizzlies have won six straight on the road, including three straight last week at Portland, Sacramento and Minnesota?

TEAM OF THE WEAK

L.A. Lakers (0-2): Dropped six straight overall -- and, incredibly, have given up more than 100 points in 14 straight games dating to Jan. 3. During that streak, they've allowed a ghastly 113.1 points per game.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Could you stand a couple more David Stern stories?

On Friday, I flew back from our TNT Thursday night game in San Francisco. When we landed, I turned on my phone, and saw a message from Lon Rosen: "Call me ASAP." Oh, Lord. Those are never good. I had quoted Rosen extensively on the Stern oral history that ran last week. I was certain I hadn't misquoted him, or run anything he'd said out of context. But, you never know. People create the most incredible reasons to get upset sometimes.

Anyway, I called Rosen back.

"You have three minutes to talk to Earvin?"

The answer to that question is, yes. You always have three minutes to talk with Magic Johnson.

Johnson wanted to talk about Stern, whose 30-year reign as commissioner ended over the weekend.

"He wouldn't just talk to me about basketball," Johnson said. "He would talk to me about how to market the players better, all of the players."

Johnson relayed a story to illustrate how responsive Stern was to his concerned. This happened in the 1980s, during All-Star weekend.

"You had a comedian up there -- I'm not going to say who," Johnson said. [I was there. I know who he's talking about.] "But he went up there, and started telling his jokes, and a few minutes later, the players and their wives started walking out. The next time I was up in New York, the Commissioner wanted to meet with me. He said, 'I have a problem. Why were all the players walking out at All-Star?' And I said, 'You've got to have talent up there that relates to the guys. You've got all these African-American players, and their wives. They don't relate to that.' "

The next year, the act at All-Star changed.

But, of course, Johnson and Stern are remembered most for their respective responses to Johnson's announcement that he was HIV positive in 1991. As has been detailed many times, Stern, after getting as much information as he could, decided that Johnson would start and play alongside the NBA's best players at the 1992 All-Star Game.

There was a lot more at work, of course, than playing in an exhibition game. Johnson soon un-retired, making a comeback, because he had been welcomed back -- literally, embraced -- by Stern.

"It meant the world," Johnson recalled. "It meant a life for me, in terms of living a long time. If the NBA had shut me out, he had shut me out, I don't know if I would be here. I don't know what the circumstances would have been without my NBA family. It meant educating the world. David Stern and the NBA made HIV OK, in the sense of it took the stigma away from the disease. People could say, OK, I can high-five a guy with HIV. I can hug a guy with HIV. He just opened the world for me, and made me feel like I was loved."

Johnson understood the chance that Stern took on his behalf.

"You had to have a man who was strong enough and smart enough to take what was coming," he said. "And look what happened. We will be linked forever, he and I, for what we did with HIV ... I tell you what, he could have a Nobel Prize, Nobel Peace Prize, for that alone. Because he did change the mindset."

Johnson pointed out one more thing: If not for Stern's insistence, there would have been no Johnson on the Olympic team, and if there had been no Johnson, it's highly unlikely Larry Bird and Michael Jordan would have played. Without those three, there would have been no Dream Team. And the Dream Team is what really ushered in the modern, worldwide era of basketball.

"It happened again at the Olympics," Johnson said. "When Australia or whoever complained, he said, 'My guy is playing.' And look what happened. We changed the world again."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Do we have to explain the Transitive Property yet again? From Michael Meehan:

Regarding the 'Top of the World Ma' heading.... You seem to be agreeing this week that it came from 'White Heat' ... But I could have sworn you said, on a previous morning tip, that it came from Kevin Garnett after the Celtics 2008 championship! Pointless I know, but I always thought that and it always made me feel warm inside as a Celtics and Garnett fan.

Two things can be true at the same time, Michael. Kevin Garnett's famous, "Anything is possible!" postgame stream of consciousness interview after the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 Finals indeed included him exclaiming "Top of the World!" as he dedicated the title to everyone he'd seemingly ever known. And KG no doubt got that from the ending of "White Heat", just before Jimmy Cagney blew himself sky high.

Shop and compare. From Amufal Bernal:

I have heard from many fans, experts, and my own opinion that Paul George's game is very similar to Scottie Pippen's. Do you think PG's career is a reflection of what it could have been for Pippen if he didn't have Jordan?

Honestly, no -- at least not yet. Paul, though very good, isn't the on-ball disruptive force on defense that Scottie was. In turn, Scottie wasn't the shot-making, offensive force Paul has shown he can be. Scottie was also a great playmaker, something Paul is just evolving into.

Actually, the wife thinks rom-coms are kinda stupid. From Dimitar Kazmarov:

A lot was written about the measures for preventing teams from tanking recently (well, not so recently, but I didn`t exactly have time to write earlier). And I can tell this: let them tank!

The NBA is like watching a movie with your wife -- there are different storylines in it and the different viewers each pick one. For example, you root for the tough guy Al Pacino plays and your wife roots for his romantic relationship.

Just like this one may find the building of a franchise from scratch with the smarts of a GM and the tough work from the coach and players more interesting than having close games each and every time (although if you check closely, maybe there are more blowout losses by teams, that are not officially tanking than the contrary). For example, the Detroit Pistons were way more interesting to follow last year (when they were officially tanking) than this year (when they are off to the races, or were supposed to be, to say the least). Same goes to Cleveland.

Even with rules against tanking, you can never have 30 teams that are equally strong. Bad luck, management and more play a way bigger role than deliberately losing. And for all of us hardcore game fans, give us the alternative story lines.

Last but not least: don't change a system that's already in place and is doing a good job for something questionable, to say it kindly. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is already doing a great job of keeping the competitive balance, (was worth the lockout), we don't need more. By the way, as we are on this topic -- [Raptors GM] Masai [Ujiri], blow that thing up!

I think we agree on one main thing: tanking is not nearly the issue many seem to think it is (injuries are a much more definitive cause of winning and losing in a given season) -- and even if it is, the teams that actively engage in it under the current system usually aren't rewarded as they hoped. I don't think you have to worry about the Raptors stripping their team down to the frame, either.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and 50th anniversary gifts for Paul and Ringo to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(weekly averages in parentheses)

1) Kevin Durant (31.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6 apg, .556 FG, .923 FT): Averaged 35.9 per game in January. Shot 54.9 percent in January. Shot 43.6 percent on threes in January. Thunder won 10 straight to end January. I think Durant's got a good shot at Player of the Month for January.

2) LeBron James (32 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5 apg, .595 FG, .800 FT): This will be one great second half of a regular season for LBJ, it says here. This isn't manufactured stuff; he's got a legitimate rival to his crown as the best player in the league in Kevin Durant. How will he respond?

3) LaMarcus Aldridge (27 ppg, 15.5 rpg, 1 bpg, .422 FG, .762 FT): Takes third place on the Blazers' all-time scoring list last week, passing Cliff Robinson. Cousin L.A. now only trails Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter.

4) Paul George (15.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .281 FG, .647 FT): Only shot better than 50 percent in four of his last 17 games, dating to the end of December.

5) Stephen Curry (29.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 5 apg, ,508 FG, .882 FT): Guarantee you Mark Jackson liked the two turnovers Curry committed in 38 minutes at Utah Friday a lot more than he liked the 44 points Curry scored.

BY THE NUMBERS

$1,000,000 -- Bonus that Suns guard Goran Dragic will reportedly receive, per the Arizona Republic, if he made the All-Star team. Dragic was left off as a Western Conference reserve in a vote by the conference's coaches. It is unknown at the moment whether he'd get the bonus if he were named as a replacement for an injured player like Kobe Bryant, who is not likely to recover from his broken leg in time for the Feb. 16 game.

1223 -- Total number of victories amassed in the playoffs and regular season in Utah by ex-Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. A banner with that number was raised to the EnergySolutions Arena rafters on Friday.

37.5 -- Percentage drop of viewers watching the Lakers on Time Warner Cable SportsNet this season compared to a comparable period last season, according to the Los Angeles Times.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) The league is in very good hands with Adam Silver in control. The secret to the relatively painless negotiations between the NFL and its players' union was that there was so much money to divide up. The challenge for Silver is to grow the NBA pie, currently at $5.5 million in annual revenues, and close the gap between his league and the NFL's $9 billion annual take.

2). For purely parochial reasons, I am happy that Toronto is coming on in the Atlantic Division. Haven't been up there in years, and it's high time to dust off the passport for a trip up to one of my favorite cities.

3) Not much of a Super Bowl, but I'm happy for the people in Seattle, who have waited 35 years for a championship team, since the Sonics won the NBA title in '79. Hopefully, Silver will solve the conundrum of how to get the NBA back in town before too much of his commissionership passes.

4) Does it surprise me in the least that Larry Brown, at age 73, has SMU rolling at 17-5, undefeated (11-0) at home, selling out a building that hasn't had more than one sellout in a season in 29 years? No, it does not surprise me in the least. "Pound for Pound" is the best four or five guys ever who does what he does for a living -- college, pro, high school, CYO, whatever.

5) You stand a better chance of beating up a hurricane than you do messin' with Cantore.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) A lot of nice people said a lot of nice things about the oral history on David Stern. But a few people had issues with a couple of things -- and, at least in one case, upon reflection, they're correct. I should have figured out a way to include the Seattle move to Oklahoma City in the piece. I wrestled with that. It obviously was a major event in NBA history, and I know that many in Seattle blame Stern for, at best, seeming indifferent to the team's fate -- and, at worst, playing an active hand in its relocation. The issue, as I saw it, was that I couldn't go back and look at the Sonics' move and not also examine the Grizzlies' move from Vancouver, and the Hornets' move from Charlotte -- or, for that matter, the Clippers' move from San Diego in 1984, Stern's first year at the helm, and the Kings' move from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985. Those cities had loyal fans as well. I didn't think I could boil all that down. But I didn't want to just write a sentence or two, because that would be giving short shrift to something that was obviously emotional for a lot of people. So I didn't write anything. I've explained why, but I don't particularly like that I didn't. The bottom line is, I kicked it. The people and fans of Seattle deserved to be included in the Stern Years, because they were obviously and clearly impacted by the decisions Stern and the league made about them. And it was my job to figure out how to do so, and I failed at that job. I'll try to do better.

2) Tough, tough break for Nate Robinson. Hope he can bounce back next season. Talk about a self-made man. (BTW, you'd think Robinson's ACL tear would almost certainly take Andre Miller off of the trading block, or force prospective teams to send Denver a guard back in return -- and, if that's the case, what would the point be?)

3) Notwithstanding the above, hearing the Nuggets are indeed looking to make a move before the deadline, along with Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis.

4) RIP, Tom Gola. One of the best ever to come out of the Illadelph, and a Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain idolized growing up.

5) Hearing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was just 46 when he died over the weekend is an additional blow to the gut that supplements the incredible sense of loss at such an incredibly talented actor. He truly seemed to inhabit each of the characters he portrayed, so that you were watching these people as actual, three-dimensional people, not an actor giving a performance.

Q AND A: STEPHEN CURRY

He does not appear to hold grudges, 12 months after most people thought he would make his first All-Star team. A year deferred, the Warriors' Stephen Curry has done nothing but play better, rocketing to the top of the list of point guards in the league -- and making the Warriors one of the most prescient organizations in the NBA by extending him last year for a paltry $44 million over four years.

The Warriors have been at both ends of the spectrum this season, ripping off 10 straight wins earlier this season and winning six of seven road games on an East coast trip, including dismantling the Heat in Miami. But the Warriors also have fallen into funks, one due mostly to Andre Iguodala's absence following a hamstring injury, the more recent more inexplicable. Golden State dropped five of seven late last month, coming perilously close to falling out of the top eight in the ultra-competitive west.

But, following their pattern, the Warriors came back with wins over the Clippers and Utah -- with Curry going for 44 points in the victory in Salt Lake City. Curry has taken it upon himself to find a way to get the Warriors up the charts and in better playoff position, continuing to learn to master the position that some thought he wouldn't be able to play as a pro. And, yes, he's an All-Star, going to New Orleans with the most votes of all Western Conference guards.

Me: What the hell is going on with your squad?

Stephen Curry: We're in a little tough spot right now. Obviously, playing at home, you feel like you should be playing better. I don't know, man. We've tried to address some issues on how to start the games better, so we're not digging ourselves a huge hole to start games. We accomplished that for one game and then kind of fell right back into that trend. We've got some guys that are trying to pay attention to detail, trying to get back to playing Warriors basketball and how we started the year.

Me: I would imagine part of the frustration is that it seems like it's always something different breaking down -- one game it's turnovers, another it's the defense, another it's the offense.

SC: That's frustrating for sure, when you feel like from game to game you make an adjustment of how to play better, and then another detail of the game comes back to stop you from winning the game. We have to try to put together complete games. When you look around the league and see the teams that are playing well, they're able to weather the storms throughout the game and keep that resiliency, and not let one part of the game affect another part. You're turning the ball over and not having good possessions [but] your defense keeps you in the game. That helps you get through tough spots, and that's where we're at right now.

Me: Is this part of a young team just learning how to win?

SC: I mean, it is a different situation. We obviously know that our ceiling's pretty high this year. Dealing with that, dealing with that expectation in our locker room, it's a new experience for a lot of the guys. We understand that it's a process to get to the goals we want to get to, when it comes to winning a championship. And you can't lose sight of that. Right now, obviously it's a frustrating time. But we haven't lost much ground, so if we figure out a way to get back to that brand of basketball that we're accustomed to, we'll be okay.

Me: What were you doing during the 10-game win streak that you're not doing now?

SC: It was defensively. You look at three of our last five losses, we scored 115, 120 points, and end up losing the game. You never had a game like that during the streak, where we tried to outscore somebody. It was all about our defense showing up, rebounding the basketball, being a physical team. Whether we made shots or not, we felt like we had a chance to win. And I think we kind of got away from that the last week, and it's been a struggle to get that momentum back on both ends of the floor at the same time. And you're playing good teams, so it's not going to be easy. Nothing in this league is. We're finding out it's hard to win consistently in this league, especially when teams have a target on you. You have to find a way to get it done.

Me: What are teams doing specifically to you defensively?

SC: In the pick and roll, [they're] just trying to get the ball out of my hand when I come off the screens. Obviously we run a lot of them, and usually run them pretty quickly, so sometimes they don't have time to react. But in the halfcourt offense, just trying to get the ball out of my hands, which is fine as long as I'm able to draw a double team and get an advantage on the backside where my guys can make plays. That's good offense for us, and I trust them to make plays. They're a confident group. But I think that, and just trying to take away the 3-point shot as much as possible. Two of my strengths, trying to get to that (3-point) line when I have a good look and have confidence to make it, but also being able to distribute to my other teammates. They're trying to press up and try to take some of that away.

Me: More emphasis on chasing you off the line, or getting the ball out of your hands by jumping the screen-roll?

SC: Well, in transition, that's the one part where I know the way we play up-tempo, and how fast we play, is where we can attack. If we get stops and we're pushing it, guys like Klay [Thompson] and Andre [Iguodala] can toe up on that line, or I can come down in transition and pull up. That's good offense for us, taking rhythm shots. So they're trying to be aware of that. But when we have that pick and roll situation with me and D Lee, me and [Andrew] Bogut, it's tough to guard, and I think they'd rather that ball be swung two or three times rather than that first option that we look for be the one that kills them.

Me: Who is vocal in the locker room at times like this?

SC: We got a lot of guys: myself. We've got some young guys with some fiery [attitudes]. Draymond Green is a guy that's been a winner since day one in college, probably in high school. And he has that motor about him. And he's not afraid to step up, even at this point of his career, say how he feels. And we respect that throughout the whole locker room. Guys might see things differently. You want to make sure everybody's on the same page. Some of those conversations aren't fun. Obviously, you're trying to figure out why things aren't going our way. But it's healthy for a team to go through those struggles, to work it out, trust each other, not be afraid to call each other out to make each other. Because we really do care about each other. We're trying to win, and we understand that's a part of it.

Me: How is Mark Jackson at times like this, when the objective is known but you're struggling to get there?

SC: He's great. He's consistent, which is what you need from a coach. You don't want the emotions of losing and failing to get to that expectation you want every single night to be all over the map. He's really steady, really consistent in his message. He's quick to call guys out, which, like I said, we respect him as a coach. We know that he has our best intentions, our best interests at heart. There's no problem that he can call a guy out for not executing at either end of the floor, myself included, from top to bottom. We need that voice, and he's been great for us. He still inspires us to find a way. It's not a defeatist attitude. We've got to find a way.

Me: How do you skate that line between 'I'm a point guard, and the position requires me to take chances with the ball,' and 'I can't turn the ball over so much?'

SC: When I'm on the court, I can't really think about making mistakes. You have to be aggressive, you have to be willing to push the envelope. Obviously, as a guy with a high IQ, you want to be able to know the situation, time and score, do we have the advantage in the fast break, should I pull it out, should we run a set, should we force the tempo? All of that is just reading the game. I'm going to have turnovers. I have the ball in my hands a lot; I have a lot of decisions to make. And it's also about cutting down the careless ones that lead to just easy layups for the other team. If I'm going to the basket, trying to get to the lane and make a play, and it gets deflected, that's a risk that Coach wants me to take. But the ones where you're just slinging it to halfcourt and they get a deflection and they dunk it before you blink your eye, those are the ones we can't have. Because it fuels their offense, one, and it takes away from our good offensive possessions, and it'll bite us, especially if it happens late in games.

Me: After last year, when so many people thought you deserved to be on the All-Star team, what kind of validation is it being voted in by the fans with the highest vote total in the Western Conference?

SC: It's a good feeling, for sure. To come back from surgery, to be able to play that point guard position, for a coach that believed in me, it's all kind of come together. Obviously, it's not just me that's changed things around here, when it comes to winning, and allowing ourselves to be put on a bigger stage each year. But to be able to represent our teammates, and kind of that stride we're trying to make, on All-Star weekend, it's a huge deal to be recognized as one of the best at your position. I'm definitely grateful for it, and hopefully that's the start of many.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

No disrespect to the west reserves but my guy ‪@AntDavis23‬‬‬ deserves to be on that squad. ‪#snubbed‬‬‬ ‪#Pelicans
-- Pelicans guard Eric Gordon (@TheOfficialEG10), Thursday, 8:43 p.m. He's right. But that's reality for a Western Conference big man these days.

THEY SAID IT

"Yes, I'm in Cleveland. I enjoy myself. I enjoy going out and competing at the highest level for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's what it's about. It's not about me and it's not about this controversy, 'Do I privately want out when my contract is up?' I'm still in my rookie contract and I'm happy to be here. And I'm pretty sure I'm going to be here for a long time."
-- Cavs guard Kyrie Irving, responding to an Internet rumor that he has told confidantes he wants to leave Cleveland. This sort of thing riles up the folks on the Cuyahoga, as you might imagine. But while you can understand their angst, to expect Irving to make an unequivocal pledge to remain there after his rookie deal is unrealistic. No one save Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowtizki can say with certainty where they're going to be playing in three years.

"I wasn't ever going to bring up the Honey Nut Cheerios incident again. But since I'm writing this book, I might as well set the record straight for good. Kevin Garnett in fact had never said that I tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios."
-- LaLa Vasquez, wife of Carmelo Anthony, in an excerpt from her soon-to-be-published book that was obtained by the New York Daily News last week. No, I never thought I'd see someone write a sentence to clarify that, in fact, they do not taste like a breakfast cereal. That's a first. Oh, and LaLa said she thinks 'Melo will "definitely" stay with the Knicks after testing free agency next summer.

"We don't have the money to throw around to bring guys in and let them sit on our bench just because somebody else wants them. I don't know who came up with that but that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
-- Larry Bird, on speculation that the Pacers signed Andrew Bynum Saturday in order to keep the Heat, who also looked at the center before balking at his price point, from getting him. Maybe, but the Pacers would have been derelict in their duty if they had let Bynum slip away to the Heat.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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