Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Clippers

Kevin Durant delivers daggers as the Thunder roll over the Clippers


In a big road test against the Los Angeles Clippers for Western Conference supremacy, Kevin Durant was unproductive and almost non-existent to start the game. Those aren’t words you typically use to describe Durant at any point, but it was inexplicably true. The league’s leading scorer was quiet throughout the first quarter, scoring only one lonely bucket.

The slow start spurred a few lines of thought. Maybe the Clippers really did have Durant’s number. Did it make any sense? No, but how do the Bobcats have an all-time series advantage over the Lakers? These things don’t always have to make sense. And after all, Durant had shot just 21-for-58 (36 percent) and turned it over 13 times in his last three games against the Clippers. Maybe something was going on here.

As it turned out, the perfect storm wasn’t brewing for the Clippers — it was just the calm before the storm for Durant, who turned it on late in an impressive 109-97 victory.

While there are many things that contribute to a team’s greatness, the ability to compensate for a star player’s off night ranks high on the list. With most of the action early on taking place in the restricted circle, Thunder guard Kevin Martin broke the game out in a big way. Martin rattled off three straight 3-pointers without a miss between the first and second quarters, capping off a 17-2 Thunder run with a steal and breakaway dunk.

The Clippers will go bench against bench with any team, but Martin’s barrage put them on their heels. Jamal Crawford’s struggles (6-for-18) were a symptom of a greater problem. The bench struggled to outplay the Thunder as a whole, and that’s a main avenue to victory for the Clippers on most nights.

But this wasn’t like most nights for more than a few reasons. Without Chris Paul in the lineup, the steady diet of open looks didn’t come quite as spoon-fed. While Blake Griffin was incredible around the rim with 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, there was a lot of standing and watching him offensively. With the length of Oklahoma City’s defenders on the perimeter, that usually spells trouble.

Still, it wasn’t the Clippers’ offense that doomed them in this one, and even though the Thunder shot 52.6 percent from the field, it’s hard to degrade the defense either.  With Durant scoring just 8 points in the first half, Oklahoma City received unexpected perimeter performances from Thabo Sefolosha (3-for-5 from deep) and Russell Westbrook (3-for-6). Most defenses will gladly live with that instead of Durant, but the Clippers wouldn’t live for long.

After cutting Oklahoma City’s lead to eight about halfway through the fourth quarter, Durant finally made some real noise. After banking in a 3-pointer minutes earlier, Durant touched nothing but net on his next 3-point attempt. That one felt so nice that the very next time down the floor, Durant pulled up from the left wing and did it again. Nylon.

It was right about this time that you figured the Clippers were done. The life was understandably sucked out of the crowd, there was no Chris Paul to break in case of emergency, and 14 points is an awful lot to make up in half a quarter.

But who knows? Maybe they could have, if only Durant’s flair for the dagger wasn’t contagious. Out of the timeout, as he faked a pull-up and penetrated, Durant kicked it to a wide-open Serge Ibaka in the corner for 3. Forget that Ibaka has made exactly 9 shots form behind the arc in his career — it fell in like it was from Durant’s hands himself.

If there were a referee more of the Mills Lane variety than the Joey Crawford type, he would have called the fight right then and there. But after a Matt Barnes 3-pointer on the other end to answer Ibaka’s, Durant made extra sure to drive the point home with an emphatic spike right down the heart of the defense.

That finally did it. The Clippers never stopped playing, but Durant had an answer for everything, and that answer was usually a 3-pointer. Durant finished 5-of-6 from behind the arc, while Oklahoma City finished a ridiculous 15-of-27. And after what looked like a slow night, a quiet night, a night where the Clippers could beat the best team in the league without Chris Paul, Durant finished with 32 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists on 12-for-19 shooting.

It may have seemed for a fleeting moment that the Clippers had Kevin Durant’s number, but in the end, like he usually does, Durant got his.

51Q: Can Billy Donovan or Fred Hoiberg repeat Steve Kerr’s success?

Billly Donovan
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can Billy Donovan or Fred Hoiberg repeat Steve Kerr’s success?

Has any first-year NBA head coach ever walked into a more “win now” situation than Billy Donovan?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are have been considered title contenders ever since they stepped on the court in the 2012 Finals. However, they have yet to return to that stage due to a combination of personnel moves and injuries. Next summer their superstar Kevin Durant is a free agent and he’s the kind of franchise-changing player who will draw 29 other suitors. If OKC is going to keep him they have to prove to Durant he can win it all without having to change addresses. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie NBA coach.

Maybe the guy who can best relate is Fred Holberg, who was brought in from Iowa State to take over a Chicago Bulls team that has not lived up to expectations the past several seasons. He takes over for an innovative coach, but with with a mandate from management to rest guys more, modernize the offense, and lift a team known for physically breaking down up to challenge Cleveland.

That’s setting the bar ridiculously high.

Donovan and Hoiberg can thank Steve Kerr for that — he cleared that bar his rookie season. Kerr came in and made the right personnel changes — starting Draymond Green over the higher-paid David Lee, for example — and pushed the right buttons all season long to lift the Warriors to the level of champions.

Can Donovan or Hoiberg match that success?

It would take a lot of luck — Kerr and the Warriors caught breaks on the injury front — but Kerr laid out a blueprint for how to do it.

The first step was admitting what he didn’t know — Kerr went out and hired top-flight NBA assistant coaches (Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams). The Warriors paid to bring in the experience Kerr lacked.

Donovan has followed that well — Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks and Thunder are assistant coaches. Both are well-respected former NBA head coaches who can help Donovan with the details, plus help him avoid stepping in some steaming piles of trouble along the way.

Hoiberg and the Bulls didn’t go for the big names, which isn’t to say they don’t have experience and these are not good coaches, it’s just a different tactic. Hoiberg hired Randy Brown — the Bulls’ assistant general manager the past six seasons — and Charlie Henry, who was with Holberg at Iowa State. The Bulls also retained Mike Wilhelm on staff.

The second step for Kerr was to take the time to talk to each and every player over the summer, get to know them, and sell them on his vision. He didn’t disparage the popular coach he was replacing; rather he sold the players on his vision.

Hoiberg and Donovan both did this. What’s more, both are considered very good communicators — their college players love them to this day. Both of these guys realized that they may have left college but they didn’t stop recruiting.

The third thing on Kerr’s list was the primary reason both Donovan and Hoiberg were hired — modernize the offense.

This doesn’t mean changing who gets shots — if you’re Donovan you want Durant and Russell Westbrook to take a lot of shots. But where they get them on the floor and how they come about getting them is going to change — less isolation is a good thing. Westbrook has already said he feels more space to operate in Donovan’s offense. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

“The thing that makes Donovan so appealing from an NBA perspective is that his coaching style will fit in well at the professional level,” CollegeBasketballTalk’s Rob Dauster told PBT right after the hire. “At Florida, he ran a ball-screen motion offense built around floor-spacing, which are offensive concepts that are quite prevalent in the NBA. Not all college coaches will fit in well at the professional level. Donovan will.”

Hoiberg is doing the same thing in Chicago, where the offense under Tom Thibodeau was predictable. Hoiberg is also going to trust his bench more and get guys like Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol more rest in the regular season, so they are fresh come the postseason.

The fourth and final thing Kerr did brilliantly was keep the team focused on the finish line. To use the coaching cliché, trust the process. It was not about wins and losses in December, it was about getting better, staying healthy, and peaking when the playoffs hit. This may have been what Kerr did best — and considering he played for Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, you see where he got it.

Donovan and Hoiberg understand this, but the NBA regular season presents twice as many games as their college teams ever played in a season — and it’s after that things get serious. It’s easy to talk about focusing on the big picture, but both of these men need to walk the walk.

I think Donovan, if everything goes right and guys stay healthy, has a shot to replicate what Kerr did. That is a contending team he takes over, if they can just not devolve into a M*A*S*H* unit again there’s a chance. I think Hoiberg will be a good coach, but I’m not sure there’s enough left in the roster he was given to get out of the Eastern Conference.

But Kerr may have set the bar impossibly high even for two excellent coaches.

Stan Van Gundy rips ‘selfish’ Pistons

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The Pistons had just 19 assists – to 22 turnovers – in their 93-83 loss to the Nets last night.

Stan Van Gundy was none too pleased.

On offensive problems:

I told them in there – that was the first thing – we’re not playing together at all. I thought it was a very selfish performance, and guys wouldn’t just pass the ball to open men. They wanted to see if they could take one more dribble to get their own shot, so the passing angles were gone. I just thought we forced play after play after play. We’re not willing to move the ball

On Reggie Jackson, who scored seven points on 3-of-10 shooting with six assists and six turnovers, and was coming off Achilles soreness:

He was not good at all. He was forcing everything.

On injuries to point guards – Jackson, Brandon Jennings and Steve Blake – hindering the team’s flow in practice and that carrying over to the game:

We could probably make a lot of excuses for our guys, but we were selfish.

Van Gundy is clearly trying to send a message, and the preseason is the best time to do it.

But it’s somewhat troubling he had to do it after this game.

Eight of the 10 Pistons who played against Brooklyn project to make the regular-season rotation. Joel Anthony played over Aron Baynes, and once healthy, Blake could challenge Spencer Dinwiddie to become back up point guard – at least until Jennings is ready. Otherwise, Detroit – with Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova, Andre Drummond, Jodie Meeks, Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver – looked similar to its opening-night lineup.

Van Gundy is blunt, but he doesn’t tell the media things he hasn’t already directly told his players. They appreciate that.

He’d appreciate them getting this message.