POSTED: Mar 31, 2014 10:04 AM ET
Thanks to words from a trusted assistant coach, Kevin Durant became a better leader in OKC this season.
Kevin Durant was mad. More than mad, but I can't type that in a family Morning Tip.
This was just a few weeks ago, right after All-Star weekend. The Thunder entered the break having won 15 of 17 games. But when OKC came out of the break, its defense was, in Durant's words, "a little iffy there." Miami came into Chesapeake Energy Arena in the first game after the break and drilled the Thunder by 22. OKC then gave up 125 points to the Clippers. Then it lost at home ... to Cleveland. Three games at home, three losses. This was not a team tightening things up for the stretch run.
Durant was mad at his teammates, mad at the coaches, mad at everybody.
Brian Keefe told him to get over himself.
"That was probably one of the most realest conversations I've had with a coach, ever," Durant recalled last week. "He let me know how bad I was -- my body language, my attitude. I just decided to look at myself and self-evaluate. And he was right. I had to change how I was thinking, how I was acting toward my teammates. Everything."
Keefe is not the Thunder's coach ... that's Scott Brooks, of course. He isn't an assistant coach with two decades of NBA bench experience -- that's Rex Kalamian. He isn't an assistant coach with NBA playing experience, with whom Durant could easily relate -- that's Mark Bryant and Robert Pack. Yet Keefe, the assistant coach whose previous coaching experience came at South Florida and Division II Bryant University, can get in Kevin Durant's face and say "not good enough."
And Durant listens.
That's a big part of why the Thunder are so good.
Teams search far and wide for the secret to sustained success. Bad teams get int he lottery year after year and still don't get results. (The Cavs, for example, are still scraping near the bottom of the Eastern Conference this season despite having had the first and fourth picks in the 2011 Draft, the fourth pick of the 2012 Draft and the first pick of the 2013 Draft.)
But a big reason good teams work has always been easily found, if not easily acquired. Look at the teams whose superstar players accept coaching, be it mild suggestion or profane rant, from the gray-haired coaches or the young, coiffed ones. The Spurs work for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that Tim Duncan lets Gregg Popovich curse him out -- a lot. And he let Mike Budenholzer, Popovich's longtime assistant, do the same for 17 years, before Budenholzer left to Atlanta this season.
Yet Duncan never ran to owner Peter Holt afterward and insisted that the coaches go for their temerity.
The Bulls began to win championships once Michael Jordan listened to Phil Jackson and gave the triangle offense -- designed by assistant coach Tex Winter -- a try. Jordan didn't like it. He resisted it. But he passed the ball to John Paxson in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals, time and again, because Paxson was open and the offense dictated that's where the ball should go.
Trust between the superstar and his coaches -- that's everything. It's what breaks down the barriers between players. Yet newcomers to the Spurs are always struck dumb the first time they see Pop dropping F-bombs at his franchise players in practice.
Kia Awards: Kevin Durant
"I think it was in a drill," said Pacers guard George Hill, a rookie with the Spurs in 2008. "We were doing some little drill, and kind of messed up. [Popovich] kind of cussed out the main guys leading it. To me, it really gave me confidence, knowing that he really cared about all of us, not just his main guys."
Durant has trusted Brooks since Brooks was an assistant on P.J. Carlesimo's staff. He knows that Brooks was a gym rat who hated excuses and loved practices, and he trusted him, all the way back to when OKC went 3-29 under him out of the gate in 2008-09. Carlesimo had hired Keefe before the Thunder moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City, and Brooks kept him on after he succeeded Carlesimo.
"He was the first guy I worked out with for the team," Durant said. "We've just had a close connection since then. Every summer, he works with me. Every practice. Every game, we're together. It's just over the years, I've just gotten more and more comfortable with him. And it's hard for me to open up to people that easy, so it took a while. But he gets on me."
Unfortunately, OKC doesn't allow its assistants to speak on the record about anything (including favorite recipes, I guess). So, Keefe can't speak for himself about his relationship with Durant. But people who know Keefe aren't surprised.
GameTime: Durant For MVP
"Great kid, overachiever," said Bill Bayno, Keefe's coach at UNLV in the early 1990s, after Keefe transferred to the Runnin' Rebels from UC Irvine.
During two seasons at UNLV, Keefe played with future pros like Shawn Marion ("cool dude," Marion texted Saturday of Keefe), Keon Clark and Tyrone Nesby, shooting 41.7 percent on 3-pointers his junior season and making the all-WAC Tournament team.
"I'm real happy for him," said Bayno, now an assistant coach with the Raptors. "I'm not surprised at all he's risen this high this fast, because he's a good person, great worker, great mind for the game. He was always very studious and analytical."
Bayno is an old Five Star Camp guy, who broke into the big time as John Calipari's assistant at UMass. He worked arduously, year after year, with Greg Oden in Portland, once spending three months with Oden in Ohio during the offseason to try to get his body right. When Oden went down yet again, with a fractured kneecap in 2009, Bayno, behind the Blazers' bench, wept.
"When you develop a rapport with players, and you get dirty with them, you develop that bond and that trust, and hopefully that tough coaching doesn't get personal," Bayno says. "It's a testament to Brian that he developed that bond with Durant."
Durant Pours In 51
Brooks was there when Keefe was hired in Seattle as a player development assistant for Carlesimo.
Both Brooks and Keefe knew, early on, that they not only had a special talent in Durant, but that they had something even more valuable -- a budding star who wanted to be pushed to improve.
"We both knew, early on, being around KD, he's coachable," Brooks said Sunday. "We were able to help mold him. He was 19 years old and the canvas was wide open. He wanted to be better every day. Coach [Keefe] and KD, they grew together, and the growth started with what they started together. Kevin didn't really know what the NBA was about but he saw the success he started having when he worked with him."
If you think it's hard for coaches to connect with great ones, imagine how hard it is for a young assistant coach, just trying to find his voice and establish his authority. Sometimes, the mix is right. Jeff Van Gundy began as the third assistant in New York, a guy that almost no one save Stu Jackson, who hired him in 1989, had heard of. Van Gundy was the workout guy for Knicks' stars like Patrick Ewing and John Starks, shagging practice shot after shot, year after year.
But the rapport he established with them over the years created a bond, one that made him the unusual yet ultimately correct hire to replace Don Nelson as coach in 1996. And Van Gundy flourished.
It doesn't always work out that way, though.
Nightly Notable: Kevin Durant
"When you first come in the league, you've really got to navigate those waters," Bayno said. "Every player's different. You've got to tread lightly. A lot of these players don't want to be coached. I've always been a big believer in getting personal with the guys, spending time with them, and getting in the gym and sweating with them, and being in the film room with them. When they see you're ready to work as hard as they do, you're able to coach them the way you want to coach them."
Keefe came into the NBA the modern way: he started, as seemingly every coach and/or executive does these days, with San Antonio, beginning as a video coordinator. It was Budenholzer, who had met Keefe at a Tim Grgurich camp, who recommended him.
Keefe's first two years with the Thunder were as a workout guy -- Durant's workout guy. But he became more.
"He spends every day with him and he lives and dies by every workout with him," Brooks said. "That's what successful organizations do. They find self-motivated players that have high character and are great talents, like Kevin is, and they have organizations that help develop them."
The assistant coach isn't the only one dancing a delicate dance. Coaches have to be secure enough to let their assistants coach, too. Many are not. They fear their assistants will get too close to the stars to shift the balance of power. The most paranoid coaches often fear their assistants are spies for management. (By the way -- just because they're paranoid doesn't mean they're always wrong.)
Part of why the Spurs were fearful about this season wasn't the supposed Finals hangover that they'd have (a theory to which Yours Truly subscribed), but the assistant brain drain of losing Budenholzer to Atlanta and Brett Brown to Philadelphia in their first coaching gigs.
In OKC, Keefe, Kalamian and Bryant have each been on the bench seven years, with Pack joining this season after Maurice Cheeks went to Detroit for his ill-fated coaching stint.
Kevin Durant's MVP Case
"When I was an assistant coach, I had some very good mentors that gave me a voice," Brooks said. "When I became a head coach, I knew how I wanted to operate the dynamics of the staff. I wanted coaches who have ownership in everything we do. I don't have coaches assigned -- you're gonna strictly do defense; you're gonna strictly do offense.' We're all in this together. It's better for our team that everybody be integrated in everything ... it works for us. I'm not saying it's the best way, but it works for us."
And it worked after Keefe got all up in Durant's business.
OKC was integrating Russell Westbrook back from his third surgery when it started losing, and it had just lost starters Kendrick Perkins (strained groin) and Thabo Sefolosha (strained calf). The Thunder were also working newly signed Caron Butler into the rotation, while depending on rookies Steven Adams and Andre Roberson to pick up the slack.
But Durant didn't want to hear about injuries or inexperience.
"We really rely on those guys defensively, but we have a system in place," Durant said, "where we plug another guy in who's supposed to do the same things. We practice with them every day. It's just a matter of us. Sometimes we weren't in the right spots. That kind of stuff just snowballs throughout a game. Just one or two possessions can cost you that momentum on defense. That's what we were going through. But we knew what we were doing."
Durant took Keefe's words to heart, though. He hides it well, but he has a healthy ego, too, like all great players.
"I'm a guy who, as a leader, the team looks at me," he said. "If I'm having an off day mentally, my mind's not in the right place, I'm thinking about the wrong things, selfish thoughts, how many shots I'm getting -- which is normal for any player -- I think the whole team follows it."
Durant pulled himself out of the dive, scoring 37 in a big win over Memphis, and he's followed that up with electrifying performances -- 42 against Houston, 35 against Chicago, 51 against Toronto, including the game-winning 3-pointer from the airport -- that have him in sight of his first MVP . As well, the Thunder are on an 11-4 run after Sunday's dispatching of Utah.
Delegating allows Brooks the freedom to tweak the Thunder's offense. He's already put a lot of isolation sets in for Butler, who still is getting into game shape after languishing in dry dock in Milwaukee most of the season. That's the kind of simplicity a newcomer appreciates.
"This is probably the most comfortable I've been, the fastest," Butler said. "I go in at night, and in the morning, working on certain things, getting back to my feel of the game and what I like doing. Coach is really putting a lot of trust in me and letting me play."
In his second season, Butler played with Dwyane Wade in Miami. The next season, he played with Kobe Bryant in L.A. Then he played 4 ½ seasons with Gilbert Arenas in Washington, a season with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and two seasons with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with the Clippers.
Butler knows how stars flow. Now, he's with Durant.
"I think he's the best unselfish super-duper star in the game," Butler said. "He can score 40, 45, 50 every night. But he still finds a way to get other guys involved. His work ethic is just relentless, man, right there on par with Kobe and some of the things I used to see from Kobe on a night-to-night basis.
"And then, his preparation, going right back to the next challenge. Like tonight, and tomorrow, two-a-days, all that, getting ready for [the next game]. He does the same thing. Seriously. Working. That's no bluff. He's the real deal."
When Brooks played, he thought the ideal was to be able to work with and against teammates in practice, and then put all that work to the test the next day against an opponent. He and Keefe are fortunate they've come along to orbit next to someone who believes the same things, yet has talent about which they could never dream to go alongside it.
"If I'm out there just not making the right rotations, not keeping my man in front of me, I can't talk to Jeremy Lamb or Steven Adams or Reggie Jackson," Durant said. "I wasn't out there performing at the level I thought I should have been performing at the defensive end for those games .... I had to look myself in the mirror and figure out what I was doing wrong first before I could get on anybody else."
Uneasy lies the head that wants to wear the crown.
Surging Cavaliers Stun Pacers
If you thought Indiana's win over Miami last Wednesday restored order among the Pacers, got them out of their latest post All-Star break funk, got them pointed back in the right direction, you had to wait only 48 hours before the Pacers marched into the wall again.
"Some selfish dudes in here," Roy Hibbert muttered Friday night, after getting eight shots in the Pacers' loss to the Wizards. "Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."
After getting spanked by the Cavaliers in Cleveland Sunday, the Pacers have dropped five of seven games overall -- though the two wins were over Chicago and Miami -- and five straight road games. Their offensive issues are front and center again and a growing concern for this title contender.
It's been a problem for Indiana since February, and while no one will specify a name, it's obvious that the person in question is All-Star Paul George. While Lance Stephenson occasionally pounds the ball, nobody handles or hoists the rock as much as George does. It is not a problem every night, though, and that is part of the problem.
Wizards Make Pacers Disappear
When the Pacers play against really good defenses like Miami and Chicago, the ball moves from side to side, inside-out, and the Pacers look like the championship contender they are. But when they play against less celebrated defenses, the ball too often sticks. And George, too often, is believed to be the main culprit.
"We know we can't beat Miami playing that way, so we don't play that way," said forward David West -- who also didn't single anyone out individually. "We know what the margin for error is. I think everybody, to a man in this locker room, just feels like we've got to figure out a way to play better, have a better approach to the way we play offensive basketball. It's just not good for us."
For his part, George thought the shots taken against the Wizards Friday were good ones.
"We get up for the high games, and we kind of maintain in games we think we should win," he said.
Through Friday, George had taken 1,249 shots this season, 439 more than Indiana's next-highest shooter, Stephenson. Given his emergence and development over the last two seasons, it can be argued that George should get more looks than others. He's probably the only Pacer who can consistently create looks for himself and teammates.
But the frustrations in the locker room are real. They stem from the belief that the Pacers have gotten away from being an inside-out power team last season into a perimeter-oriented team this season.
"When I first got here, it was a perimeter team with [Mike] Dunleavy, Granger -- Danny, and Troy Murphy," Hibbert said. "Then, we got D-West. We were gonna be a power post team, wear guys out. But that's how things are in the NBA. Things change. It is what it is."
Again, it seems to depend on who Indiana is playing.
Against Miami, the Pacers started the game feeding Hibbert, who scored 17 of his 21 points in the first half. George took 19 shots, Hibbert 15, Stephenson 12, West 11. Against Washington, George took 22 shots, Stephenson 13, West 10, Hibbert 8. To be fair, Hibbert got in early foul trouble and didn't play much of the first half. But he never got into any kind of rhythm, scoring just eight.
"We play hard, but we've got to move the ball," Hibbert said. "Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know. We've been talking about it for a month. I'm not handling the rock. I don't know. I've made suggestions before and we do it for, like, one game, and then we revert back to what we are. I don't know. I'm not the one to answer that question. It directly affects me and the bigs. We're just out there and it makes us look bad."
The Starters: Heat-Pacers
Through Friday, Indiana was tied with Utah for the third-fewest total assists in the league, at 1,460, more than 300 behind league-leading San Antonio (1,834). Any stat in a vacuum is meaningless. After all, Indy still has the East's best record, with the league's best defense. That's how the Pacers win games.
Just a couple of weeks ago, though, Hibbert indicated that he'd made peace with the notion that he wouldn't get as many touches this season, that he would concentrate on rebounding and defending as the Pacers get ready for the playoffs.
"I was letting the lack of touches on offense really affect my defense," he said. "So I came to the conclusion, I said, if I [only] get one or two shots a game, I'm just going to get back on track for Defensive Player of the Year ... and not worry about offense, let Paul and Lance and David take over the helm in terms of scoring."
The Pacers had a players' only meeting following a bad loss to the Rockets March 7, and followed that up with a starters' only meeting with Coach Frank Vogel. Everyone said the issues had been squashed, and the Pacers soon ripped off four straight wins.
But that hasn't held. Even as Indiana has beaten Chicago and Miami, the old concerns have been just below the surface.
GameTime: Heat vs. Pacers
"I just don't know if we're handling success and being out front the right way," West said. "When we don't share the ball, we have 10, 15 possessions where we don't make a single pass, and you've got four guys, or nine guys on the floor watching one guy, watching two guys, it's on us...we've had that same sort of conversation over the last month and a half or so. We just haven't been able to apply that on the basketball court, particularly on the road."
That trend continued Sunday in Cleveland. Indiana had beaten the Cavs nine straight times and 15 out of the last 16 times before Sunday. But the Pacers got their doors blown off by the Kyrie Irving-less Cavs, who lost Anderson Varejao for the second half with a shoulder injury. Jarrett Jack and Tristan Thompson still carved Indy up inside and outside, and even though they tried to get Hibbert going, the Pacers lost for the 10th time in their last 12 road games, their lead over Miami down to a game.
They looked nothing like a team that could beat the Heat four times in seven games. That team is still in the Pacers' locker room somewhere. Whether it's allowed to come out again will go a long way in determining how far the Pacers get in the playoffs.
"We've got too much on the line," West had said Friday. "This game is about rhythm, flow. We play a bad brand of basketball at times. As good as our record is, at times we're a team, well you tell young people, 'you watch them play -- don't play like that.' And that's a shame. Because this is something that's just happened to us over the last month and a half, with the All-Star break and things like that. We just haven't been able to put a cap on it."
(Last week's record in parentheses; March 17 rankings in brackets)
Belinelli Leads Spurs Past Pelicans
1) San Antonio  (4-0): If ever a team wished it didn't have to play the last two-plus weeks of the regular season and could go straight to the playoffs, it's the Spurs. Approximately 420 hours of breath-holding that there's no injury to Team Geriatric before April 19.
2) L.A. Clippers  (3-1): Clips' franchise makes the postseason for the third straight season -- first time that's happened since it was in Buffalo in 1973-76.
3) Oklahoma City  (3-1): Thabo Sefolosha doing work with trainers, but not yet cleared to resume practice. Thunder still think/hope he could return before the end of the regular season.
4) Houston  (2-1): Devastating blow if Patrick Beverley is lost for the season. The Rockets are a different team, especially on defense, without him.
5) Miami  (3-1): The Michael Beasley Experiment has been put on hiatus for the time being.
6) Indiana  (1-3): A hot mess right now.
7) Golden State  (1-1): Warriors have played .700 ball (14-6) since the All-Star break, but what's the deal with Mark Jackson and Brian Scalabrine?
Bulls topple Celtics 107-102
8) Chicago  (2-1): Doesn't help the Bulls, obviously, but it's good to hear that Derrick Rose seems on time for a return for the World Cup in Spain in late August/early September.
9) Portland  (3-2): Blazers might be -- might be -- pulling out of the nosedive just in time.
10) Dallas  (2-1): Tense times in Big D if they don't make the playoffs for a second season in a row. They'll have cap room yet again this summer, but does anyone think they have a real shot at LeBron or Carmelo?
11) Toronto  (3-1): Raps expecting Patrick Patterson (elbow) back this week, perhaps as soon as tonight against Miami after missing the last 13 games. The stretch four spreads the floor, provides rim protection, opens driving lanes for guards and a bunch of other good stuff for the Raptors
12) Brooklyn  (2-2): Tied the franchise record with 13th straight win at home Sunday night against Minnesota.
12) Washington  (2-1): Wizards will clinch their first playoff spot since 2008 with their next win or Knicks loss.
14) Phoenix  (3-1): Six-game win streak snapped Sunday night against Lakers, but Suns have looked like their old-new selves again with Eric Bledsoe's return again helping to create mismatches all over the floor.
15) Memphis  (2-2) : Big losses against Golden State and Portland, teams that the Grizzlies were chasing in Western Conference playoff positioning, to start their five-game road trip -- with a brutal back-to-backer in Denver tonight.
San Antonio (4-0): Slightly Surprising Department: At 57-16 and on a 17-game win streak with nine regular season games remaining, the Spurs are poised for what will be only their fourth 60-win season of the Tim Duncan era. I thought they'd done that many more times than three since '97.
Detroit (1-3): Lose by 32 to a Miami team resting many of its key players -- on a night you honor the '89 Pistons championship team -- and lose the next night by 25 to a 76ers team that was sitting on a 26-game losing streak? The season can't end soon enough for the Pistons.
Are athletes really allowed to speak their minds?
Kobe Bryant Interview
Kobe Bryant got into hot water last week when excerpts from an interview he gave to The New Yorker magazine were disclosed. During the interview, which covered any number of topics over a few weeks' worth of reporting, Bryant said he felt no compunction to support the Miami Heat players' decision last year to all wear hoodies and have a picture taken with their faces down. The hoodies, of course, were a symbolic sign of solidarity with the late Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was gunned down in Florida in 2012 -- on his way to watch the NBA All-Star Game -- by George Zimmerman, who had gotten into an altercation with Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot.
The author, Ben McGrath, spent weeks with Bryant in various places, but not all at once, as is often the case with a long magazine piece. They talked about a lot of different things, from Bryant's children to ex-teammate Shaquille O'Neal to the current state of the Lakers, from Bryant's injuries to his sitting in on classes at Boston College during a road trip. And, yes, racial matters.
Bryant's remarks were ripped, from fairly benign criticism from media types like ESPN's Jemele Hill to others who called for African-Americans to boycott products Bryant endorses. Others, like ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, defended Bryant, who took to Twitter later in the week to say that he thought Martin was "wronged" and welcomed discussion on the issue.
Context in any discussion of race is crucial. Bryant's remarks were among several he made in response to questions and/or assertions McGrath made. It's not like Bryant said, 'Let me tell you what I think about Trayvon,' and went off on a tangent. The full exchange allows a more nuanced view of what Bryant was saying. Note that I did not say you had to agree, or disagree, with what Bryant said. That's your decision. But you should have the full exchange.
McGrath broached several race-based topics with Bryant. It began not with basketball, but with the Seahawks' Richard Sherman, and the Rorschach-like reaction people had to his postgame interview following the NFC Championship Game. Bryant expressed admiration for Sherman's postgame comments, saying it showed "the truth of athletes at the highest, highest, highest level." Bryant compared it favorably with Michael Jordan's infamous Hall of Fame induction speech -- which he acknowledged both made others uncomfortable while displaying the true essence of Jordan's hypercompetitive, no-holds-barred mentality.
As for Sherman, Bryant said, 'This is why he's the best at what he does, because that's how he feels. Now, when other people see that, it scares the [bleep] out of 'em, right? But for people who understand that -- like, I see him, I'm all 'Yeah, oh I think that every day.' "
GameTime: Shaq on Kobe's Frustration
McGrath then wrote, "Given the questionable frequency with which white commentators had used the word "thug" to describe Sherman, in the aftermath of the interview, I suggested that part of what had scared people was the idea of an angry black man, with dreadlocks. But Bryant was unconvinced. 'Even if it's a white athlete that exploded like that,' he began, and mentioned Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback who is expected to be picked high in the first round of the NFL draft, in May. 'The kid's mercurial. If he did something like that, he'd get a lot of [bleep], too,' Bryant laughed. 'That's the ugliness of greatness. That's what that is to me.' "
McGrath then details Bryant's youth growing up in Italy, and the assimilating he had to do when he came to the States and lived in suburban Philadelphia as a teenager. He notes that Bryant, who spoke [and speaks] fluent Italian, said once in another interview that he had to get used to American blacks "having their own way of talking," and in essence had to learn two languages, adding that "kids are cruel. It's always been hard."
But Bryant then tells McGrath the experience has allowed him incredible opportunities in life. He then says:
"There is a bigger issue in terms of being an African-American athlete, and the box people try to put you in because of it," he told me [McGrath]. "And it is always a struggle to step outside of that." When I brought up LeBron James posting online a photo of the Heat players dressed in hoodies, with their heads bowed, in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, as a political expression, Bryant seemed nonplussed. "I won't react to something just because I'm supposed to, because I'm an African-American," he said. "That argument doesn't make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we've progressed as a society? Well, we've progressed as a society, then don't jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won't assert myself."
McGrath then notes that Jim Brown, months earlier -- before this story was published -- had said on the Arsenio Hall Show that he thought Bryant was "confused about culture, because he grew up in another country," which led to Bryant's Twitter response "A 'Global' African American is an inferior shade to 'American' African Americans?? #hmm, that doesn't sound very #Mandela or #DrKing sir".
GameTime: Kobe Out for the Season
Bryant has been sharply criticized by numerous African-American commentators, columnists and Tweeters ever since. He felt compelled to seek out TVOne's Roland Martin, host of the daily show NewsOne Now, who had taken Bryant to task -- not for what he said, but for not noting that the reason many African-Americans initially were protesting the Martin case was that there was no case being pursued against Zimmerman until activists and citizens expressed their collective outrage. (Bryant and Martin agreed that they had a civil and honest discussion about things.)
What I am about to say requires you not to think reflexively. It requires you to think about several things at once, some of which may contradict one another.
Kobe Bryant is right. In one sense.
Black people do not, and should not, have a monolithic point of view on anything. Every African-American reading this has arrived at a respective point in life through an individual experience. Part of the civil rights movement's legacy is that the near-universal experience of most black folks -- of, say, my parents' generation -- was shattered. African Americans born after 1964 and '65 did not live with codified, federally enforced segregation as national policy. That is not, it should go without saying, the same as living without racism.
The economic improvements that some African American families have enjoyed in the last five decades have allowed some blacks to have a lifestyle and/or worldview very different from others. With money comes greater opportunity and access -- to housing, education, employment. A black person from a two-parent family of working mothers and fathers, who lives in a single-family home in the 'burbs, whose parents can afford to send him or her to college, is likely to have a different outcome than a black person from a one-parent family living with an extended family in the 'hood. And that almost certainly means different opinions about everything -- including racial matters.
GameTime: Kobe Bryant
This has created a now decades-old row in the black community: Whose experience is the so-called "legitimate" or "real" African-American experience? Sadly, "everyone's" does not seem to be an acceptable answer. There are those who seem to believe the only "real" black experience is one steeped in poverty, as if African-Americans are not allowed to have successes and joys as they try to help others do the same. (This is, to me, among the saddest byproducts of the struggle.)
But Kobe Bryant is wrong. In one sense.
He didn't seem to make a distinction between those who were angry with the verdict in the Martin case and those who were angry that there had to be so much public pressure put on the law enforcement community in Florida to even put on a case against the man who shot him. That was what the Heat players who wore hoodies were protesting. This continues, sadly, to be a pattern in many cases in which black youths are killed under odd circumstances: nothing is done for a very long while until people complain, and then local and state law enforcement finally get going.
And those who criticized Bryant for what seemed a drive-by reaction to an extremely complicated case were entitled to do so as well. We go nowhere as a society when we demand unanimity of thought on anything from any group, but when it comes to the death of a child -- any child -- those who would pass comment or judgment should be in full possession of all the facts. In this case, Bryant seemed to be reacting rather than thinking. But that doesn't mean he's not "really" black. I don't go for litmus or loyalty tests. My love for my people doesn't need to be "tested."
You would hope that athletes would not be dissuaded from speaking their minds in the wake of this. I remain adamant that we need athletes to speak out on the issues of the day, wherever they fall on the political/religious/social spectrum. An invigorated debate on things is the only way we grow as a society. When we all hide behind and among like-minded people, we become sheep. A good non-electric prod to the dome every once in a while is good for all of us.
Dante's Inferno. From Chuck Cohen:
I watch the HS all-star games in April, and usually the quickest players will stand out. I had never heard of Exum last year but he was the best on the court, by far, getting wherever he wanted and blowing by everyone. Plus, they will not have to invent a position for him, a large consideration. It has been obvious that this year's crop has been ridiculously overhyped, with not a future superstar among them although Wiggins might. Smart is a man and his stroke needs refinement but it can be done...
Last, what we saw again this year as well as last is how tough it is to dominate as a freshman, and makes Anthony Davis' year at KY really shine through. Isn't he surreal? Almost on the levels as LBJ and KD, and was a point guard 4 years ago. I have maintained that there has never been anyone like him, a hybrid of Bill Russell and KD, and just 21. Mature, together, a leader, better under pressure and humble.
We won't know if the '14 class is overhyped until they're in the league and playing, Chuck. They certainly have a lot to live up to, I'll agree with you on that. And I also agree on Davis. He's a special player.
Unclear on the concept. From Michal Arceusz:
I simply cannot comprehend how could you compare an ankle injury to mental illness.
It is not the same thing.
An ankle injury that "happens" in morning shootaround is something that all in all does not happen all that often, while you have to deal with mental illness all the time, every hour of every day, every trip, every game.
And if Royce White is unable to fly over to LA to play a game and then fly back to play another game, that means he is not suited to play professional basketball. That is a disability that prevents him from doing so.
P.S. Even if we followed your way of thinking, then we should prepare special programs for people with Down Syndrome or people that can't see, because it's just another type of injury.
You -- and others -- continue to make this about travel with Royce White, when that is not the issue. The issue is who decides whether a player is capable of playing on a given day? Right now, it's a team doctor, in consultation with the team's athletic trainers. White is arguing that an independent doctor, not affiliated with the team, would be better qualified to make a determination about players with mental illness issues. And, no, we do not need to prepare programs for people who can't see, because they would not be able to play basketball on a high enough level to have a chance to play as pros. Royce White can.
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(weekly averages in parentheses)
1) Kevin Durant (32.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 7.3 apg, .597 FG, .969 FT): Streak of games with 25 points or more is at 38, two short of Michael Jordan's record 40 straight games. Is this where I mention that Durant will next be in action Thursday night against the Spurs on TNT? Right here?
2) LeBron James (25 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6 apg, .554 FG, .800 FT): Posted his 37th career triple-double in Friday's rout of the Pistons.
3) Blake Griffin (18.3 ppg, 9 rpg, 3.5 apg, .531 FG, .700 FT): Day to day after suffering back spasms in Saturday's road win over the Rockets.
4) Tim Duncan (20 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, .625 FG, .625 FT): The 76ers just ended a 26-game losing streak. The longest losing streak of the Duncan era in San Antonio, dating back to 1997? Six games. It happened once, in the 2010-11 season.
5) Dwight Howard (13.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2 bpg, .667 FG, .538 FT): Even though Howard missed Saturday's game against the Clippers with a sprained ankle, he makes his MVP watch debut, on the strength of his superior play the last few weeks for surging Houston.
Dropped out: LaMarcus Aldridge
15 -- Number of active players with 17,000 or more career points, after Brooklyn's Joe Johnson joined the club during the Nets' win Sunday over Minnesota.
1,000 -- Regular season victories for the Magic franchise after Saturday's overtime win over Charlotte, in Orlando's 25th season in the NBA. Despite having all the Shaqs and Pennys and Dwights rolling through town over the years, the Magic's collective record during its quarter century in the league is barely above .500 (1,000-994).
24,997 -- Signatories needed for a change.org petition that demands Commissioner Adam Silver scotch the idea of putting corporate ads on player jerseys or resign immediately. The petition requires 25,000 signatures before it will be forwarded to Silver.
Young, Sixers Snap 26-Game Losing Streak
1) And just when they had hit the big time! Congrats, I guess, 76ers. But everyone has a one-game winning streak. What's the novelty in that?
2) Swear to God, I had no idea the Knicks were just a game behind the Hawks for the last playoff spot in the East until they beat Golden State Sunday night. Wouldn't that make things interesting for GM Phil Jackson if coach Mike Woodson somehow gets this team into the postseason?
3) You don't hear much these days about how wildly the Bobcats overpaid for Al Jefferson, do you?
4) Every spring, we hear the bleating about how college basketball has become a grotesque deformity because of the one and done rule, and how the amateur game is doomed. And then you have games like UVA-Michigan State, Wichita State-Kentucky and Kentucky-Louisville, and Kentucky-Michigan, and you realize that the sky may not yet be falling. And that Kentucky's having a heck of a tournament run.
1) Could you imagine something worse than people thinking you're dead, when you weren't? And in our Twitter society, it took about a tenth of a second for thousands of people to think Quinton Ross, who'd played in the NBA for the Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Wizards and Nets, was dead. Unfortunately, a man named Quinton Ross was murdered in Far Rockaway, N.Y., last week. But it wasn't the Quinton Ross who played professional basketball. The New York Post, however, said it was, and reported it, creating a horrifying few hours before retracting the report. The error, of course, was already halfway around the world.
"I was calling around, trying to let everybody that knew him know what happened," said Wizards forward Drew Gooden, who played with Ross in Dallas. "It was like, 'I just saw Q last week!' And then I got a text message back that it was the wrong Quinton Ross. That was a scary situation. I played with Lorenzen Wright [the late Grizzlies forward who was murdered in 2010], in a similar situation that we thought was the story. Thank God it wasn't him."
Ross told the Associated Press that he was sleeping when his phone began going off and off, and that he had to take to Facebook to let people know he was alive. And he told Slam Magazine Friday that he had yet to get an apology from the Post.
2) It is fair to point out that the elite players in Major League Baseball are now making more than $25 million per year -- and Miguel Cabrera's 10-year, $292 million contract will pay him, with some vested years added at the back end, more than $30 million per year. It is fair to point out that, after this season, the top NBA player's salary will be the $24 million per year that Kobe Bryant will make in 2014-15 and 2015-16. It is fair, if you're an NBA player, to wonder, while baseball's players' union gets its guys humongous deals, why your union can't get past picking an executive director to succeed Billy Hunter.
3) He's not mad, SI. He just noticed.
4) Bob Knight is entitled to his opinion regarding whether the NBA has harmed college basketball with the one and done rule. But he has to stop with the rape analogies -- especially considering he's used them before and gotten into trouble. There's nothing "analogous" to rape. Nothing. Stop it.
5) When the NCAA tournament is over, I hope that means seeing those fast food restaurant commercials with the two inane guys sitting in their car gorging themselves on junk as they prattle on is over, too. I've seen enough of both of them for quite a while.
Holger came early this year. Holger Geschwinder always makes the pilgrimage to Dallas just before the playoffs, to visit and work with his longtime basketball pupil, Dirk Nowitzki.
Durant vs. Nowitzki
Their relationship goes way beyond shot doctor/patient; Geschwinder also negotiates Nowitzki's contracts, such as they are -- Nowitzki never has had a difficult negotiation with the Mavs since Don Nelson maneuvered to acquire Nowitzki from Milwaukee on Draft Night 1999 (for the late Robert "Tractor" Traylor).
But Geschwinder was in Dallas last week, maybe because the Mavs are fighting for their playoff lives, and his 35-year-old client needs a familiar face for the stretch drive. The Diggler had just shot a ghastly 2 of 12 in a bad home loss to Brooklyn last week, continuing a string of up and down performances. The inconsistency led Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to offer rare public criticism of Nowitzki, saying he had to pick up his defense. To be fair, Nowitzki isn't as lethal as he once was, but he's still plenty good, averaging 21.4 points and playing every game this season after missing extensive time last season following arthroscopic knee surgery. But Dallas is still in a dogfight with Memphis and Phoenix for the last two spots in the west playoff race. That was not what Nowitzki had counted on as he enters the last few years of his career.
A free agent at the end of the season, he's already said he plans to sign a deal with the Mavericks that will allow him to retire in Dallas. But he wants one last shot at a title, and Nowitzki's patience while Dallas' front office has swung and missed at difference-making free agents like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard the last two summers is not limitless. He wants one last run at a championship, not eighth place in the West.
Me: Why the ups and downs this season?
Dirk Nowitzki: Well, sometimes I think we're not good enough defensively. We knew, obviously, coming into the season, that we would be challenged on the defensive end with the lineups that we have. So we've got to do it collectively. We've got to have five guys help each other and bring it every night. And if we don't, we can score. There's been plenty of nights when we've scored enough points. But we've ended up losing at home because we've given up 110 or whatever. So if we play defense and rotate for each other, and rebound, I think that's been a big key for us. If we do those two things, we usually end up on the winning side.
GameTime: Dirk Nowitzki
Me: I imagine Rick is just a barrel of laughs after those really poor defensive nights.
DN: Yeah, we've watched our fair amount of film this year, trying to get prepared. That's where it's at for us. It's not about shotmaking. That comes and goes. And we've got plenty of guys who can make plays. But if we hold other teams down, we should be good.
Me: What was your reaction when you'd heard Mark had called you out?
DN: I was actually a little surprised. We were kind of playing well at the time; I think we had beaten two or three teams in a row. And what happened was, I think he was in the Caymans on Spring Break and watched the games on TV. I don't know what he was looking at. But, we get along so great, I didn't really have a problem with it. Just the timing of it was a little weird for me. But he can say whatever he wants. I give him little jabs all the time in the media about his Shark Tank [show]. So, I think we're good.
Me: But when he says that you need to play better defense, do you take it to heart or say 'that's just Mark?'
DN: Well, what I think what he's trying to say is we're going down the stretch here, and we need everybody to play better, play a little more or help each other more. We're in a dogfight. If you look at it, Phoenix now has [Eric] Bledsoe back, they're playing really well. They're athletic. Memphis now has [Marc] Gasol back the last couple of months, they're playing well. We're trying to make the playoffs. So I think he's trying to push everybody, trying to motivate everybody to give it their all the last 11, 12 games, and hopefully make the playoffs. That's our big goal. We missed the playoffs last year, and that was disappointing, frustrating. Hopefully we can make this push in the last couple of games.
Me: I know you don't want to think about not making the playoffs, but how devastating would that be for you to miss out two years in a row?
DN: That would be tough. That was our goal coming in, after a rough year last year, with eight or nine one-year deals, with me needing surgery and missing two months. It was tough just being at home watching the playoffs after [it] being a part of this franchise for 11, 12 years straight. So that was a different experience, and not one we necessarily liked. We'd love to go back there. It's just competing at the highest level. If you're a competitor, you love to be in the playoffs, whether you're a one or an eight seed. Just the thrill, the hype around it, the fun games, the competitiveness. I guess you just want to be a part of it.
Nowitzki, Elllis Lead Mavericks over Kings
Me: If you get in, do you think you can do some damage?
DN: Well, you know, depending on these last 11 games. We've got to leave it all out there. Like I said, Phoenix is playing well now, and we've got them one more time here at the house [April 12], which could be a big game, which is a tiebreaker, because we're split so far, 1 and 1. We've got a very tough schedule. We've got a lot of tough games. But if we stick together, like I said, and then help each other defensively, then I like our chances.
Me: Curious about this. In looking at your shot chart, as great a shooter as you are, you rarely take corner threes -- which is the easiest 3-point shot to make. I know you're great at the elbows and the top of the key, but are there no sets that get you in the short corner?
DN: Well, I think my first couple of years, that's all I was shooting. 'Cause we used to post Fin [Michael Finley] up. He used to get double teams because he was a lot bigger than most twos. And we'd just swing the ball right over in the corner, and that's all I was shooting. Now, over the years, since I'm like one of the best shooters, they put me more at the arcs, to spread the floor. I'm more high, more on the wings. So I'm really not in the corner much, in any of the plays. I can only remember one or two plays where I'm spotted in the corner. Other than that, I'm usually high. It does make a huge difference for other guys from the corner to the top arc. I'm usually the better shooter of the two, so you would spot the less better shooter in the corner, which is closer. That's why I'm usually not down there that often.
Me: You've been on offensive rolls before in your career. Can you imagine scoring 25 points in game nearly 40 games in a row, as Kevin Durant is doing?
DN: I mean, he's amazing. He really is. You can watch all the film on KD you want. I don't think he has a weakness in his game. He can post up. He can go both ways. When you double team him, he's fast enough off the dribble where he can just beat the double team around. He goes to his spots, where he's so long, he can shoot over you. So you've just got to try to make it tough for him. We did a decent job when we beat him, just push up and hope he misses some shots. It sounds stupid, but it's simple as that. You've got to try to make his catches hard, mix up the coverages on him, like on any great player. You can't give him a steady dose of any one thing.
Me: We all know you've committed to re-signing with Dallas this summer as a free agent, and to finishing your career as a Maverick. But even if that's the case, why not explore free agency this summer, just to see what it's like, to be courted by other teams?
DN: Well, I think the first time I was a free agent was in 2010. Other than that, I always extended early. I didn't even like it. I hated the unknown. Even listening to other teams, I just wasn't interested. I wanted to be here. My heart's here. I've been here for 16 years now. My family's here, friends. I'd love to retire here. I think everybody knows that. So hopefully we compete my last couple of years, make the playoffs every year. I think that's important. And just compete at the highest level. And then, slowly, riding into the sunset. It's been a great ride here. I can't even imagine wearing a different uniform. I don't want to live in a different city. I can't even imagine it.
Me: So, do you like the direction that the team went in last summer, bringing in Monta and Jose on long-term contracts?
DN: Well, I think we still have to prove it. That's the question. It's another big summer for us. We won the 'ship in '11, and then the lockout came, and we had to make some business decisions. We couldn't keep some of our warriors we won the championship with, and we had to make some tough decisions for our team, and for our fans. We moved on, and we tried to get some big free agents. Didn't work out, and that's part of the business. What you try to do is steady the ship and keep getting better. If it's not going to be another superstar this summer, then another couple of good players, like we did last year. That whole eight one-year deal [concept] didn't work, so that's why we went in a different direction. We brought in the steady backcourt duo in Monta [and Calderon]. They're going to be here a while. So if you can't get a superstar player, you try to get a bunch of good players, and they like playing with each other, and you go from there.
Money is a powerful thing. Losing family and friends over it. I didn't sign up for this
-- James Harden (JHarden13), Friday, 9:41 p.m. Indeed, mo' money, mo' problems.
"It's just like another win. It's the NBA. You all are talking about the pressure. We weren't worried about a streak. We were just trying to get better every day."
-- 76ers guard Tony Wroten, achieving new heights of whistling past the graveyard, after Philadelphia ended its 26-game losing streak Saturday with a win over Detroit.
"I heard a baby in his room. There was somebody or something in his room, yeah. I definitely heard something. It wasn't creepy, because I assumed it was really somebody in the room, and they gave him the wrong room. But when they told me the story the next day about calling up there and no one in the room, it's at that point you get chills. I totally agreed with him. There was a baby there, absolutely. I heard about the history of the place, and I'd rather not [stay there again]."
-- Tim Duncan, to the San Antonio Express News, vouching for teammate Jeff Ayers' assertion that there was something, um, not normal in Ayers's room at a Bay Area hotel that has been rumored to be haunted by the spirits of long-dead guests -- including, allegedly, a young girl.
"I had an interesting hallway conversation with him where I was talking about how, as the game becomes global, different cultures react in different ways, and that we've gone overboard in calling technicals when somebody celebrates. We talked a little bit about that. I said that as long as it doesn't delay the game, then it's part of the entertainment. What's wrong with it? And he said, "Well, what about taunting?" And I said, "So what? I think taunting is cool."
-- owner Vivek Ranadive, to ESPN.com, relating a conversation he had with Commissioner Adam Silver, and how Silver is at least willing to listen to new ideas and concepts with which he disagrees.
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