Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks - Game Two

NBA Playoffs: Westbrook sits, maturity level now tested


Russell Westbrook was emotional, he was hot when taken out in the third quarter. The plays that the Thunder were supposed to be running nobody was executing so he was left solo, and that led to some ugliness. He was yelling and we’re guessing they were words on George Carlin’s list. He was hot enough that assistant coach Mo Cheeks had to come down the bench and calm him down. He stayed out of team huddles. Then Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter.

And none of that matters. Not if the Thunder are about winning. Not if Westbrook is mature. The question isn’t why it happened, because it has happened to a lot of guards.

The question that matters is does it bother Westbrook going forward?

He said all the right things after the game, saying when the team is winning — and the bench unit, including backup point guard Eric Maynor with Kevin Durant was playing more cohesive basketball than the Thunder starters — then go with the hot hand. It worked; the Thunder beat the Mavericks 106-100 and evened the Western Conference finals at a game apiece.

“I know you all want to ask the same question and I’m going to give you all the same answer: We were winning,” Westbrook said in a locker room interview broadcast on ESPN.

Westbrook now joins a long line of great point guards who sat for the fourth quarter of big playoff games. Chuck Daly once sat in-his-prime Isiah Thomas in the fourth quarter of a Game 5 against the Bulls because Vinny Johnson and Joe Dumars had it going. That’s just the top of a long list. (Thomas dropped 33 in Game 6.)

“I’ve done it a few times during the year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of sitting Westbrook after the game in a news conference broadcast on NBA-TV. “Doesn’t happen often, Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done and his time was to come out then I stayed with Eric.”

The guess here is Westbrook was over this by the time he hit the bus.

Westbrook is not a guy that comes to the NBA as a super-pampered player. He didn’t start in high school until he was a junior, and he went to Leuzinger in the greater Los Angeles area (Lawndale), not exactly a basketball powerhouse. At all. Then he went to UCLA where Ben Howland sat him. Then, when he was getting some good run, he benched himself for a stretch. He dealt with all of it and came out better on the other end.

Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the constant questions he will be asked about this leading up to Game 3 on Saturday will wear on him. Maybe this will be a clubhouse issue, but I doubt it. There are few clubhouses with teammates as tight together as OKC. It’s something that will be discussed for the next few days to no end.

But Westbrook (who had 18 points and played pretty well) and the Thunder have probably already moved on. They better if they plan on winning this series.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.