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Thunder at biggest crossroad yet in Durant-Westbrook era

Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti must find the new leader and next direction for the team in the wake of it firing coach Scott Brooks

POSTED: Apr 27, 2015 10:16 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst


Once the youthful darlings of the NBA, Kevin Durant (left) and Russell Westbrook are now seasoned veterans.

In This Week's Morning Tip

  • Names to watch in OKC's coaching search
  • Atlanta Hawks take their 'vitamins', grow up fast
  • Q&A with Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez

One thing you can never accuse the Oklahoma City Thunder of is panic.

Sam Presti, their general manager, may be many things -- brilliant, secretive, meticulous and paranoid all come to mind. But he never, ever does anything on a whim. He brainstorms, convenes and challenges conventional thinking. He will ultimately decide, but it will not come before he's considered every conceivable angle.

So the notion that Presti fired coach Scott Brooks last week in some fit of pique over the Thunder not making the playoffs is as uninformed as it is laughable.

The Starters: Scott Brooks Firing in OKC

Scott Brooks is out as head coach of the Thunder -- The Starters discuss the fallout.

But, it is true: OKC has reached a crossroads in its status as an elite team. Even if the Thunder had snuck into the playoffs, no one was under the illusion that Oklahoma City had a chance this season, not with the injuries to Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka bookending those that Westbrook had earlier in the season.

Durant and Westbrook are both just 26, but they're not kids anymore. This is their NBA prime. And whether or not Presti says anything, his actions did all the talking: the Thunder had gone as far as it could go with Brooks, the coach since early in the 2008-09 season.

No one in the 405 will say anything bad publicly about Brooks, who is a very good coach that will be employed againvery soon. (I think Orlando will take a long look at him, as it should. The Magic's young roster is intriguing to Brooks, as it is to any number of coaches -- some young, some old, some former head coaches, some young assistants.)

Game Time: Brooks Firing Fallout

Nate Robinson and Mike Dunleavy join GameTime to discuss the Thunder's future after firing Scott Brooks earlier today.

But you don't fire a guy that you think is trending up, and is the coach who can take you to a championship.

Yes, the Thunder had an unreal amount of injuries this season, starting with Durant. But OKC was also 3½ games ahead of New Orleans with 10 games left to play. You blow a lead like that in baseball, they write books about it.

The Thunder has been so good for so long that some seem to have forgotten the overriding goal -- winning a championship. Durant has been with the franchise since 2007; Westbrook, 2008. Both have lost large swatches of time the last two seasons with injuries. OKC hasn't been back to The Finals since its appearance in 2012. The West isn't going to be any easier next season.

Barkley on Brooks Firing

Charles, Kenny, Shaq and E.J. discuss the firing of Thunder head Coach Scott Brooks.

If you pumped them full of truth serum, the Thunder would acknowledge that their stars had to work too hard too many times to score. No one would expect anyone other than Durant or Westbrook to take shots down the stretch of games. The issue is how they get them.

There was just too much isolation, too much one screen and pull up, not enough regular incorporation of others into the offense. That works fine in the regular season, but in the playoffs -- as the defenses got better -- the Thunder too often struggled.

Many will point to the Warriors as an example of an already good team that became even more efficient and deadly after a coaching change. That is true. Golden State went from an iso-dominant offense with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson under coach Mark Jackson to a more egalitarian system under coach Steve Kerr. Andrew Bogut gets touches now and Harrison Barnes is back in the starting lineup and the ball gets to the weak side.

Presti Admits Not Consulting Players

Sam Presti admits he made the call of firing Scott Brooks without consulting his players.

But there is another template for the Thunder, one older, but no less accurate: the Chicago Bulls, circa 1988-89.

That year, Chicago lost another playoff series to the hated Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. It was the second straight year Detroit had smashed the Bulls in the playoffs. The conventional wisdom was that Jordan, who'd won just one Most Valuable Player award at the time -- just like Durant -- was certainly the best player in the league. He had tons of endorsements and was beloved by just about everyone -- just like Durant. But, there was a criticism: Jordan didn't make his teammates better.

The Bulls had a terrific coach in Doug Collins, who'd been outstanding for three seasons in Chicago, utilizing the young Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant as defensive stalwarts alongside Jordan. The Bulls had been in the playoffs five straight postseasons, going from first-round fodder to one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. But they couldn't get over the hump.

Sam Presti News Conference

Thunder Executive VP & General Manager Sam Presti talks to the media about firing Scott Brooks.

Chicago bit the bullet, firing Collins after the 1988-89 season. The Bulls' choice to replace him was already on their bench -- a mercurial assistant coach, Phil Jackson, who'd been brought in by general manager Jerry Krause two years earlier, his only previous head coaching experience coming with the Albany Patroons of the CBA.

The Pistons beat the Bulls one last time in the playoffs -- the 1990 East finals -- before, well, you know the rest.

And like the Bulls, the Thunder isn't looking for a name to replace Brooks. College, pro, former head coach, current assistant -- all types will be in play. The hope is that a new voice can get even more out of KD and Westbrook, just as Jackson was able to maximize the skills of Jordan, Pippen and Grant, along with Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, into an efficient offensive team and an exceptional defensive one. (Obviously, the new coach will have to embrace the advanced statistics philosophy the Thunder hold dear.)

OKC Love

Win or lose, Thunder fans show their support for their team.

It was a decision clearly laid out to and accepted by Durant and Westbrook, who were extremely close to and protective of Brooks. He'd been their guy since before he was coach, someone they trusted and someone they believed had their back as they had his. And if either had expressed a significant reservation, Brooks would still be the coach.

By firing Brooks now, the Thunder also hope to have more continuity going into 2016, when Durant becomes a free agent. If they'd waited until after next season to fire Brooks, they would have taken the risk of bringing in a new coach at the exact moment that Durant was making his decision on whether to stay or go.

1 on 1 With Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook sits down with Ahmad Rashād and talks about playing without Kevin Durant and drive it took to become a leader.

By then, the new man will have had a year to put in his system, and show Durant why he can win big playing it.

But is there a different choice out there, not one of the college coaching stars who've already been linked to the job? Someone whose ability to teach and challenge would be compelling for the Thunder's now-younger roster, with Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters and Steven Adams now core pieces going forward, along with Serge Ibaka and Anthony Morrow?

A few suggestions, in no particular order:

David Vanterpool, assistant coach, Portland Trail Blazers: The 42-year-old played around the world and in the NBA before getting on the coaching track. He's well-known within the Thunder family, having spent two seasons there as an advance scout. He's respected around the league as able to speak directly to anyone without being viewed poorly.

Durant Addresses the Media

Thunder forward Kevin Durant talks with reporters following the Thunder's 2014-15.

Jay Larranaga, assistant coach, Boston Celtics: The son of Jim Larranaga, the coach at the University of Miami, Jay Larranaga, 39, is always one of the "next" names mentioned as future NBA coach material. He's been in Boston since 2012, where he began under then-coach Doc Rivers after spending two years as the coach of the Erie Bayahwks in the NBA D-League.

Ettore Messina, assistant coach, San Antonio Spurs: The legendary European coach, who's won four Euroleague titles (two at Bologna; two at CSKA Moscow), was brought in by the Spurs last season to help with the brain drain brought about by the departures of Mike Budenholzer to Atlanta and Brett Brown to Philadelphia in the last couple of years. reported last week that the Thunder would consider the 55-year-old Messina for the job, which makes sense given his coaching chops and reputation as an offensive innovator.

David Fizdale, associate head coach, Miami Heat: The 40-year-old has been at the heart of the Heat's player development program for years under Erik Spoelstra, and has as strong a voice within the Miami organization as anyone. He's been an NBA assistant since 2003, with previous stints with the Golden State Warriors and Hawks.

Presti has had to make tough calls before. He has never shied from them. The original sin among his critics was trading James Harden in 2012 to the Rockets, for a package that included Kevin Martin (who played one season in OKC before leaving) and Jeremy Lamb (now out of the player rotation). (Not mentioned is the 2013 first-rounder the Thunder received from Houston, which became Adams.)

They will debate forever in OKC whether the Thunder should have held onto Harden for 2012-13, taken a shot at winning the title with the team that had been to The 2012 Finals, and then dealt him in the summer of '13. But I thought then, and think now, that making the trade when the Thunder did was the right time. The deal may not have worked out, but that doesn't mean the timing was bad.

But even the Harden trade takes a back seat to what the next 15 or 16 months will mean to the franchise.

Presti has had two aces in his back pocket for seven years, the ultimate trump cards. He has been in the back room, where the big fish play poker, for a long time, and has never gone bust. Now is the time he must put all his cards on the table. Everything will ride on the flop, turn and river he's got, the cards that only he sees.


(Last week's playoff record in parentheses; previous ranking in brackets)

Warriors vs. Pelicans Game 4

Stephen Curry scores 39 points, grabs eight rebounds and hands out nine assists to lead the Warriors to a series-clinching victory over the Pelicans, 109-98.

1) Golden State (3-0) [1]: Warriors dispatch Pelicans in four, with Draymond Green showing his value: per the San Jose Mercury News, Green was a +77 in the series.

2) Cleveland (3-0) [3]: I'm pretty sure J.R. Smith won't be with the fellas at the Q when the Bulls series begins.

3) Atlanta (2-1) [2]: Maybe it's the size edge, maybe it's the nicks to Paul Millsap and Al Horford -- and maybe it's the Nets. But the Hawks' offense hasn't fired at near the efficiency it did in the regular season in the first three playoff games against Brooklyn.

Inside the NBA: Clippers-Spurs Discussion

The guys discuss Chris Paul's performance and Charles believes San Antonio won't win another game in Los Angeles this postseason.

4) San Antonio (2-1) [4]: The one thing the Spurs have worried about all season is whether Patty Mills could return to his Finals form after his offseason shoulder surgery. He's 9 of 18 on 3-pointers in the first four games against the Clippers.

5) L.A. Clippers (1-2) [5]: Chris Paul played like an MVP Sunday in San Antonio, leading his team to a desperately needed victory after a horrible performance in Game 3 Friday.

6) Houston (2-1) [6]: Corey Brewer is still a blur in the open court.

Conley Will Miss Game 4

Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (facial injury) will return to Memphis, miss Monday's Game 4 in Portland.

7) Memphis (2-0) [8]: Grizz get a huge performance Saturday from Nick Calathes, who's been in and out of the rotation all season, in place of the injured Mike Conley and Beno Udrih in crucial Game 3 win at Portland.

8) Washington (3-0) [12]: Wizards' small lineup destroyed the Raptors, with Otto Porter at the three and Paul Pierce in at the four.

9) Dallas (1-2) [9]: With the season on the line, Al-Faroqu Aminu comes up huge for the Mavs, staying in front of James Harden just enough in Game 4.

10) Chicago (2-1) [10]: Jimmy Butler's agent has got to feel like Jerry Maguire did after Rod Tidwell's performance against the Cowboys on Monday Night Football.

11) Portland (0-2) [7]: Starting to get a bad feeling about LaMarcus Aldridge's future in the Rose City. Hope I'm wrong.

GameTime: Bulls-Bucks Analysis

The GameTime Crew discuss Derrick Rose's sloppy play down the stretch that cost the Bulls a game 4 victory.

12) Milwaukee (1-2) [13]: Bucks are one really good shooter -- okay, maybe a shooter and a healthy Jabari Parker -- from taking a huge leap in the East next season.

13) Toronto (0-3) [11]: There will be difficult days ahead for the Raptors. When you finish the regular season as poorly as Toronto did, and then get smoked in the playoffs the was the Raptors were, you have to take a long, hard look at everything.

14) Brooklyn (1-2) [NR]: Deron Williams struggling mightily against the Hawks: 7 of 26 (26.9 percent) from the floor in the first three games of the Nets' first-round series.

15) New Orleans (0-3) [15]: Season complete. Pelicans made a great run at the end of the regular season to get in. But they need to improve the roster with at least a couple of deadeye shooters who can space the floor and give Anthony Davis the room he needs to operate.

Dropped out: Oklahoma City (14).

Team of the Week

Golden State (3-0): Continues to set the standard this season. The Warriors got contributions up and down the roster against the Pelicans, and when New Orleans didn't know how to close out Game 3, Golden State shut the door on the series.

Team of the Weak

Boston (0-3): A Weak TOTW, to be fair; the Celtics played hard and gave all they could in their series with Cleveland. But a sweep is a sweep. The Celtics now know exactly what they need personnel-wise to hang better with elite teams in the playoffs.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

What's your daily dose of vitamins?

Jeff Teague knew the characteristics of a good basketball player. Or so he thought.

Teague Finds His Niche

Check out Jeff Teague on the Atlanta Hawks as he talks about his strategy and how he prepares himself for games.

"At one time in my career, I thought you were a good player if you had stats," Teague said last week. "If you had nine assists, 10, or 20 points, whatever. But now I view a good player in a different role. Like, Kyle Korver's stats are not crazy. But he's one of the best players I've played with, because of what he can do on the floor. When you're not thinking about numbers, it's easy to get numbers."

Throughout this, the best regular season in franchise history, the Hawks have been viewed as a "sum of the parts" team by many (including me). It wasn't an insult. Although the Hawks had four All-Stars this season, none would be viewed as an MVP candidate on his own.

But on the ground, in the bowels of the Highlight Factory (aka Philips Arena), where the Hawks practice and lift, the hard work is done, day after day. If you don't have a superstar, take what you do have and make it better.

Inside Stuff: Jeff Teague

Kristen Ledlow and All-Star point guard Jeff Teague of the streaking Atlanta Hawks take a trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

Player development is not an adjunct to Xs and Os in Atlanta. It drives the Hawks' Xs and Os.

It makes Korver adds a runner to his 3-point stripes. It means Paul Millsap becomes a playmaker, and takes 3-pointers with the confidence borne of endless work, his release point high. It means Teague moves the ball, now confident he'll get it back. It means Mike Scott loses weight and Dennis Schroder slows down.

The sum of the parts keeps going higher.

"Kyle got better last year," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "And Paul obviously got a lot better. And I think our veteran players and our young players are all working to get better. That's one thing: our entire staff makes player development a priority. Our entire staff works with player development, from the youngest to the oldest ... I wouldn't say there was one project. I feel like there's 15 projects."

Inside Stuff: Paul Millsap

Paul Millsap of the red hot Atlanta Hawks takes us through his workout and spends a little time with us at his home.

Atlanta's staff of assistant coaches -- Atkinson, Darvin Ham, Ben Sullivan, Taylor Jenkins, Charles Lee and Neven Spahija -- all work with the whole roster. There are no "big man" coaches in Atlanta, no "shot doctors" that only concentrate on form. Everyone does everything with everybody.

"Individually, you get the attention," said Millsap, who has blossomed in Atlanta and made consecutive All-Star appearances. "Normally you come in in groups, get group drills. But here, you actually got a spot. You actually get time. They show you attention."

The Hawks use the term "vitamins" to describe the various work stations that players are prescribed to visit on a daily basis. Their routines vary, as does the rotation of coaches. Sullivan and Lee organize the players' schedules the night before, after the staff and Budenholzer meet. On non-game days, players may get 30 minutes of on-court work with Atkinson. On game days, it may be 20 minutes of film with Sullivan. "Or it could be just sitting a guy down and saying 'hey, you're looking down a little bit; what's going on? Everything all right?,' " Ham said.

After losing a playoff game, most teams would spend two or three hours watching film of the loss, dissecting every play. On Sunday, after losing Game 3 to the Nets in a dismal offensive performance, the Hawks went back to basics.

Coach Budenholzer Feature

NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer sits down with Mike Fratello.

"We had the discussion (Saturday) night -- what are we going to do today?," Atkinson said Sunday. "We came up with working on vitamins today instead of practice. Because it's about the individual getting better ... we're not going to do shell drills and go over eight of their plays. That's kind of who we are. And that's what's great about Bud. He trusts that. He trusts us, trusts the vitamins, trusts player development."

The Hawks are not reinventing the wheel. Most coaching staffs try to give their players individual attention. The Dallas Mavericks brought in multiple assistants for individual work early during Mark Cuban's tenure as owner. But they are maximizing the abilities of the players they have better than most teams.

The template, as most everything these days in the NBA, comes from the San Antonio Spurs. Players come and go. Front office people get promotions to run other teams after meteoric rises though the Spurs' organization. But coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have moved hammer and tong for almost a decade to keep assistants Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier in the organization.

Like, Kyle Korver's stats are not crazy. But he's one of the best players I've played with, because of what he can do on the floor. When you're not thinking about numbers, it's easy to get numbers.

– Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague

The duo have been primary forces in the development and improvement of many of the Spurs' key players, from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili a decade ago to Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills today. And throughout the league, that emphasis has grown, accelerated by the amount of former Spurs now running their own shows -- in Utah (GM Dennis Lindsey and Coach Quin Snyder), Oklahoma City (GM Sam Presti) and Atlanta, where now-exiled GM Danny Ferry and Budenholzer put almost all of the current roster together.

Budenholzer was famous in San Antonio for having strong opinions behind closed doors, which is the way the Spurs have done things for a generation. Popovich and Buford do not tolerate shrinking violets in the organization. Though Budenholzer, as ever, deflected talk about his role in the Spurs' success through his 19 years in the organization ("maybe I started talking around year 18," he said Saturday), he's brought that philosophy to the Hawks.

Atkinson was a very good point guard back in the day for Richmond -- I know, having watched his Spiders dispatch my beloved American University Eagles throughout much of my time at AU in the '80s. ("He still tries to play right now, relieve those moments," Teague said.)

And Atkinson, known as the team curmudgeon, brings that court vision to the coach's meetings.

GameTime: Hawks-Nets Analysis

Mike Malone and Rick Fox analyze how the Nets won Game 3 over the Hawks.

"Kenny has very strong opinions about a lot of things," Budenholzer says.

"You can't kiss his ass," Atkinson said. "He won't let you. He wants, he told me, 'I want more. Disagree with me more. Tell me what we're doing more.' I think he coaxes it from us. And that's not comfortable. It's uncomfortable. I also tell him when he's doing things great. But I'm not afraid."

Ham says he and Budenholzer have had "heated" arguments in the coaches' meetings about players and the best way to utilize them.

"But at the end of the day, we wink at each other," Ham said. "The bro love is there."

Millsap tinkered with his game before signing with Atlanta in 2013. He'd worked with Aubrey McCreary, a player development coach with more than 30 years experience as a high school, college and NBA and D-League coach, since before the Jazz took him 47th overall in the 2006 Draft. But the Hawks have taken that individual work to another level.

"First, it put coach McCreary out of a job a little bit," Millsap said with a chuckle last week.

NBA Action: Banner Seasons

The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors led their respective conferences posting the best records, NBA Action takes you inside.

"Our player development is great," Millsap said. "It's game-situational stuff. It's not just our players working on handles, this and that. It's actually game like, game passes, game shots, game ball-handling drills. To me, it's one of the elite player development (programs) in the country."

Working with McCreary, who's also worked with ex-Utah players Deron Williams and Derek Fisher (now the Knicks' coach), Millsap started improving his form as a shooter. But he still didn't feel comfortable doing it in games.

"It has a lot to do with confidence," he said. "From grade school on up to the pros, confidence does a lot. And it's not just you having confidence in yourself, it's other people having confidence in you, too."

In his first four years in the league, with Utah, Millsap only attempted 20 3-pointers. Part of the reason was that was what Jerry Sloan, a Hall of Fame Coach, asked of Millsap, who'd led the country in rebounding three straight seasons at Louisiana Tech.

But Millsap was already remaking himself. He started sticking his metaphorical toes behind the 3-point line during the 2010-11 season with the Jazz, attempting 23 threes. The following two Utah seasons, he shot 7-for-31 and 13-for-39 on 3-poitners.

From grade school on up to the pros, confidence does a lot. And it's not just you having confidence in yourself, it's other people having confidence in you, too.

– Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap

The Hawks, though, thought he could do a lot more on offense. With the Jazz in rebuild mode, Millsap signed a two-year, $19 million deal with Atlanta. He wasn't going to be a role player. He wasn't going to just attack the glass. He was brought to Atlanta to play the entire game, from ballhandling to passing to shooting.

"No disrespect to any other coaches out there, but they never tapped into it," Ham said. "They kept him in one box -- rebounder, low-post scorer. The guy has unbelievable touch, with both hands. He's an unbelievable passer. He can put the ball on the floor and get something done in two or three dribbles."

Millsap says he was fine with what Utah wanted from him earlier in his career.

"Two different coaches," Millsap said. "Coach Sloan was more motivational. He wanted me to go out there and just work hard. That's where I gained my work ethic from. Bringing that lunch pail to work every day. With Coach Bud, he wants me to expand my game. He wants me to shoot the basketball. Coach Sloan wanted me to expand my game, but it wasn't spoken out. It was 'get better, get better. If you get out there and shoot it, I'm not mad at you.' But here, coach is going to get mad at you if you don't shoot the ball."

One game in his first season with the Hawks, against the Wizards in Washington, drove the point home.

"I was open a few times, pump-faked, drove to the line, went to the basket, and didn't get nothing from it," Millsap said. "Coach Bud called me in the huddle and pretty much yelled at me, told me to shoot the ball. After that I think I came out and made three or four 3-point shots, and my confidence continued to grow."

Last season, Millsap shot 212 threes. This season, he shot 216. But that's not all that's gone up; he's also had his two highest assist seasons with the Hawks, as the floor spacing created by everyone being a threat has opened up driving lanes for him -- lanes he can now exploit.

Inside Stuff: Al Horford

Inside Stuff spends the day inspiring the youth, and talks Atlanta ball with the Hawks' All-Star Al Horford.

"That's the thing that separates Atlanta from other places," Millsap said. "They want you to develop a game. They want you to shoot the basketball, no matter who it is. I think that helps players out a lot."

Teague was a different project. The current staff inherited him.

He'd been anointed the Hawks' point guard of the future ever since he'd was a first-round Draft pick in 2009. And in his first two seasons as the starter, he was a solid, if unspectacular, player. But the book on Teague around the league was that he was a guy that liked to pound the ball.

"It was an adjustment for me, coming from a system where there was a lot of iso basketball, and one-on-one or whatever," Teague said. "It took me a period to remember to cut, move without the ball and things like that. But when I got the hang of it, it's been all good."

The Milwaukee Bucks forced Atlanta's hand in 2013 by giving Teague an offer sheet for four years and $32 million. Many -- Teague included -- thought the Hawks, who'd taken Schroder in the first round of that year's Draft, would let Teague walk. But they didn't hesitate to match the sheet and keep him.

Once he was back in the fold, the Hawks went to work.

I was one of those guys that liked to bang, bang the ball, 'cause that was the system I was used to. Now I trust the pass.

– Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague

"They just wanted me to play harder -- harder and longer," Teague said. "They said I played hard in bursts, and they wanted me to play longer. And they showed me film. And that's all they had to do. We knew we were going to put the work in. Kenny Atkinson and the coaching staff, they're going to make you put the work in."

Again, Teague did his own work in the offseason. He worked on his individual game. He got up hundreds of shots. He worked on his ballhandling. But the Hawks needed him to incorporate what he could do within the system they ran. Maybe he isn't the greatest passer in the world. But he had to make the pocket pass to Al Horford and Millsap to make the offense work.

And if everyone is doing their job, the system can create as many shots for the Hawks as Teague can. Korver talks about "the Hawks" scoring as much as himself. "We stay away from the singular -- everything is plural over here," Ham said. "We use words like 'us, we, our.' Not 'my, I, me.' We stay away from that."

Teague now believes. The trust between teammates, that wasn't there last season, is there now.

"I was one of those guys that liked to bang, bang the ball, 'cause that was the system I was used to," he said. "Now I trust the pass. I know if the guys make plays, I'll get out and run the break a little more, instead of having the ball in my hands so much.

"You see guys put in the work. I've seen DeMarre Carroll all year, all summer he was here the whole summer, just working on his skills. He was working on his ballhandling, things like that. You see things like that, it's like, I know he can do it (in games). I watched him. Last year, we didn't know each other like that. You revert to what you know. And I knew me getting the ball, I knew what to do with it. But now I believe in these guys, and I know they can make plays, and I think they feel the same way about me."

Schroder played seven minutes in the playoffs last year. He was mad at Budenholzer all year, and stayed mad. But he finally started to see what was going on on the floor. This season, he's been one of the league's most lethal reserves.

"He was really hard on me," Schroder said. "But now I recognize that it really helped me."

Ham was known for busting backboards in college, the creator of the "Ham Slamwich" through eight NBA seasons. But he learned defensive concepts from coach Mike Brown, then offensive philosophy from coach Mike D'Antoni while a Lakers assistant. He learned about how to get more out of players so they could play in any system while coaching in the D League.

And Budenholzer is teaching him how to be a coach. It's why he turned down a chance to be on Utah's bench this season with Snyder, who's doing much the same thing in Salt Lake City with the Jazz.

"Coach Bud has given me a voice," Ham began. "And I had some great coaches, man ... But Coach Bud brought it all together for me. And seeing what we had, and the sustainability he had coming from San Antonio, made me want to be a part of it. And Quin Snyder and I are great friends. I consider him a brother within the game. Love him. He's going to do a phenomenal job. But I want to see this through."

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

Unlike Pam's "Dream Season" at Southfork Ranch, this actually happened. From Samaral Jackson:

What is the true story on Rondo, in Dallas? What really happened?

Rajon Rondo and Rick Carlisle are two very smart, and very stubborn, people. Both have won NBA championships because of that very intelligence and stubbornness. And they just didn't get along. I really don't think it was anything more than that. Carlisle demands things be done a certain way for his offense to work at peak efficiency. But Rondo has always gone his own way on the court, figuring that he'll find a better way to accomplish the team's goals. And it was clear that Dallas' offense ran better without Rondo than with him.

Inside the NBA: Rondo, Mavs Should Part Ways

Charles and Kenny believe the Dallas Mavericks should part ways with Rajon Rondo.

Yet another word from our sponsors. From Mitchell Sachs:

I have been a huge NBA fan since I was able to pick up a basketball, and it continues to be my favorite professional sport. One thing about watching the game continues to bug me -- the ridiculous amounts of timeouts at ends of games which cause the last minute/two minutes to last 30. How can the NBA fix this? Along these lines is the fact that in each overtime (a 5 minute period) each team gets an additional 3 timeouts. That is absolutely unnecessary and is becoming close to ruining the experience of watching a game on TV. Part of the problem is the fact that the program jumps to a commercial break almost every timeout, but I think an easy fix would be to reduce the number of timeouts to 4 for the whole game, and only give teams one additional timeout per overtime. Is there a realistic possibility of this happening?

I agree with you, Mitchell, but I don't see that happening. Coaches want those timeouts at the ends of games to draw up plays and set up defenses, and given that they're ultimately judged on wins and losses, I can't see them giving up something that can help them win -- or at least avoiding a loss -- without a great fight.

Fourteen Feet of Hope. From Drew Shaner:

Forgive me for looking so far ahead but I'm a Sixers fan...What do you think of the Sixers using Joel Embiid in the Summer League this offseason? Should they play Nerlens Noel as well to get some level of chemistry for those two?

If Embiid is healthy, he'll play both in the Utah Jazz Summer League in Salt Lake City, and at the Vegas Summer League. And I'm sure the Sixers will encourage Noel to play again. In speaking with him a couple of weeks ago, he's as excited about playing with Embiid as Philly fans are.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and advanced cloning technologies so I never -- ever -- have to miss events such as this again while covering playoff games in the same city to If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP Watch

(last week's averages in parentheses)

1) James Harden. (30 ppg, 5 rpg, 6.7 apg, .482 FG, 1.000 FT): Mavericks hold off sweep of Mavs Sunday nigh. And that outfit, Beard.

2) Stephen Curry (33.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 8 apg, .429 FG, .926 FT): There are no words to describe this. It's like saying, "describe how chocolate ice cream tastes." Let's enjoy the moment rather than talking over it.

3) LeBron James (29.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 6.3 apg, .472 FG, .739 FT): Per AP: James's teams are 22-2 in their last 24 first-round games, after Cleveland completed its sweep of the Celtics Sunday.

4) Anthony Davis (30.3 ppg, 12 rpg, 2.7 bpg, .515 FG, .885 FT): "The Brow's" average for his first postseason series: 31.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists -- against the league's best team. Rumble, young man, rumble.

5) Russell Westbrook: Season complete.

By The Numbers

2 -- Fourth-quarter deficits, according to, that have been overcome in the playoffs that were larger than the 20-point deficit Golden State wiped out against the Pelicans in Game 3 last week before winning in overtime. The Celtics (2002) and Clippers (2012) each trailed by 21 entering the fourth quarter of their respective postseason games against the Nets and Grizzlies before rallying to win.

20 -- Points in the first quarter of Game 3 of the Wizards-Raptors series by Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan, a franchise record for points in one quarter of a postseason game.

$25,000 -- Fine for Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle after he criticized the officials in Game 3 of the Dallas-Houston first round series. Unfortunately for Carlisle, very little happened that could be construed as unfair to the Mavs -- unless you consider Dwight Howard dominating them as he has throughout the whole series unfair.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) I think Doc and Austin Rivers had a pretty good flight home Sunday night.

GameTime: Kawhi Leonard

Vince Cellini speaks with the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, the Kia Defensive Player of the Year.

2) R.C. Buford, the Spurs' GM, said last week at Kawhi Leonard's Kia Defensive Player of the Year news conference that Leonard had given the franchise a lift that now allows it to again compete for championships. That is all you need to know about how good Leonard is and how important he is to the future of the Spurs.

3) John Wall was -- no other word suffices -- sensational against the Toronto Raptors. He completely controlled the series from start to finish.

4) Congrats to my TNT/NBA TV colleague Grant Hill, who partnered with billionaire Tony Ressler, Spanx founder Sara Blakely, entrepreneur and Marquis Jet co-founder Jesse Itzler and other investors to buy the Hawks last week for $850 million. Grant will do great in whatever role he has with the organization.

5) This is incredible work, Part MCMXVIII.

Not Feelin' ...

1) Prayers to Nepal for help and comfort. You can help here.

Warriors vs. Pelicans Game 4

Stephen Curry scores 39 points, grabs eight rebounds and hands out nine assists to lead the Warriors to a series-clinching victory over the Pelicans, 109-98.

2) In the long run, blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead Thursday to the Warriors, and subsequently getting swept by Golden State in the first round, may be a blessing for the Pelicans. If they harbored any ideas that the supporting cast for Anthony Davis was anywhere near good enough to contend annually in the west, the mental mistakes and physical errors they committed down the stretch should wake them up. And, Davis should redouble his efforts as well, for he made some mistakes, too.

3) One year ago, Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano introduced themselves to the world. The world still gets the dry heaves just thinking about it.

4) Life has not been fair to Kevin Love this season.

5) I'm glad Bruce Jenner was able to publicly discuss the transition to becoming a woman. The interview with Diane Sawyer was done in good taste, and if Jenner's disclosure can help anyone suffering with identity issues, it's worth it. But the fact that Jenner said she'll be taking part in a reality TV show takes some of the meaning out of her announcement for me. Given Jenner's past appearances on the swill of Kardashian Television, I have little hope that a show focused on her will be more meaningful. This is a serious deal for the transgender community, and it shouldn't be the subject of weekly fake drama.

Q & A: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez and "orthodox" do not go together. Throughout his seven NBA seasons, he has defied pigeonholing. A massive 7-footer, he does not play in the traditional manner of a low-post behemoth. Nor is he a stretch five, shooting three after three. His game is an odd mixture of duck-ins, mid-range jumpers and the strangest floaters you've ever seen a man his size shoot. Yet through the second half of this season, it was Lopez that was the anchor for Brooklyn's unexpected surge that got the Nets to the playoffs.

After the All-Star break -- and after trade rumors that had Lopez going to the Thunder for Reggie Jackson finally subsided -- he averaged 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds, shooting 52.5 percent from the floor. His offensive rating increased from 98.9 to 107.3 as he got into a great rhythm with Deron Williams, slipping screens to receive Williams' pocket passes.

Kia Nominee: Brook Lopez

The Net's Brook Lopez is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

Most importantly, coach Lionel Hollins learned to let Lopez do what he does. But what does the rest of the league think about the 27-year-old, who has missed so many games over the years with injuries? Lopez could find out this summer, when he could opt out of the last year of his deal in Brooklyn and explore free agency. For now, he'll continue to battle Atlanta's smaller but quicker frontcourt, as he did in Game 3 Saturday, to the tune of 22 points and 13 rebounds in the Nets' victory. And he'll continue to have to answer for his brother Robin, the Blazers' center, who has continued his season-long and quite disturbing feuds with mascots around the league.

Me: How difficult does Atlanta's spacing make them to defend?

Brook Lopez: It's amazingly difficult. They move the ball so well. They all can shoot it from beyond the arc. It definitely keeps teams honest. And that combination is really deadly.

Me: How did things pick up for you after the All-Star break?

BL: Throughout the season, we'd have lots of points where we've won two or three in a row, and we're like, fine, we've finally jelled together. But the floor would fall from underneath us. We just kept working at it. We never gave up. The All-Star break, things finally started clicking. We were playing more together, making that extra pass, getting the hockey assist, and moving the ball a lot. And really trusting each other and trusting the system, as we hadn't before earlier in the season. It's made a world of difference for us.

Me: How did you and Deron improve on the pocket pass?

Hawks vs. Nets Game 3

Brook Lopez scores 22 points and grabs 13 rebounds as the Nets drop the Hawks at Barclays Center.

BL: We've always had good chemistry since he got to New Jersey, and now Brooklyn. It's just that we haven't been able to play together that much in four or five seasons. We're really hitting our stride right now. We're getting back to the way we were playing together before, but it kept improving from the time we've been able to have together on the court.

Me: You have always been able to shoot the ball, but it seems like you're finding shots all over the floor now. What is your comfort level?

BL: I'm extremely comfortable. I know where a lot of the shots are coming from through our offense, playing with D-Will, Joe (Johnson), guys like that, whatever two-man game we're in. Again, just playing beneath the defense and when guys make that extra pass, I get easy buckets.

Me: What do you think is the genesis of Robin's mascot hatred?

BL: You know, I don't know. It's interesting. 'Cause going to games growing up, we enjoyed hanging out with the mascots, always seeing them, stuff like that. You'd go to Disney and you'd see Mickey and everything, and he'd get along (with them) great. I guess somewhere along the line -- I'm going to defend my brother -- I'm going to say he didn't take first blood. It must've been some mascot hazing in his direction. Maybe when he was a rookie, I don't know what went down. And I think he might be a bit affected by that. It's too soon to talk about it, seven years into the league. But I think it's something we really need to look into. Maybe, perhaps some sort of exclusive to get to the bottom of this.

Inside Stuff: Lopez vs. Harry the Hawk

Portland's Robin Lopez has a history of scrapping with team mascots and Kristen Ledlow was on hand in Atlanta to report on his confrontation with Harry the Hawk

Me: Maybe a 60 Minutes-type thing.

RL: Yeah, 60 Minutes. Serious stuff.

Me: I know you're a comic book guy as well. So, if you could have any super hero super power, what would it be?

RL: Flight is always the easy one to go to. I think time travel. But that also, I'd be a bit too nervous to actually use it, because I wouldn't want to change anything too much. So I don't know.

Me: It's that whole, one ripple in a pond could cause a flood or something --

RL: Exactly.

Me: We might have three heads or something if you went back in time.

RL: Exactly, yeah. I've thought about it before, and paradoxes scare me. My trainer and I were actually talking about this about a month ago. It's possible that in the future, this thing's already been built, but they're too scared to come back. I don't know ... wouldn't they have come back already otherwise?

Me: Maybe they came back already and we don't know it.

You could go deep, deep, deep on this.

RL: Yeah. 60 Minutes, Nova. We've covered it all.

Tweet of the Week

-- Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (@JCrossover), Tuesday, 11:25 p.m., going over the finer points of his game with his biggest fan.

They Said It

"I've gone back and forth. I've sat in meetings with some of the greatest players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird who said that players should learn to make their free throws and it's part of the game. At the same time, it doesn't make for great television, so I'm on the fence right now."

-- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, during an appearance with members of the Associated Press Sports Editors, with his opinion on "Hack-a-(fill in the blank)."

"Al Gore won the popular vote and didn't get elected president, so I'm not going to sit here and kill myself over not winning Defensive Player of the Year."

-- Golden State's Draymond Green, who finished second to San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard for the Kia DPOY award, even though Green had more first-place votes (45) than Leonard (37). Leonard won because he got more second and third-place votes (points are awarded on a sliding scale) than Green, who was left completely off the ballots of 42 voters.

"I put that all on me. I wasn't paying attention. I don't feel bad for myself, I feel bad for my teammates. Knowing that we could've forced overtime. I messed things up, but I swear I'm good for it."

-- Derrick Rose, after watching the paint dry and getting caught napping on the Bucks' last-second game-winning layup by Jerryd Bayless in Milwaukee's 92-90 Game 3 victory over Chicago Saturday.

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.