Westbrook’s 40 points lead Thunder to blowout Game 4 win over Spurs

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In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs demolished the Thunder with precision execution on the offensive end of the floor, and enough defense against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to force them into low-efficiency performances.

Serge Ibaka returned in Game 3, and so did Oklahoma City’s collective swagger. But in Game 4, it was Durant and especially Westbrook who took control, and ensured the Thunder would even the series at two games apiece.

Behind an incredible 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, Westbrook produced a statistical line matched only by Michael Jordan over the past 30 years in leading OKC to a 105-92 victory that wasn’t at all that close.

“Russell’s defensive toughness really set the tone in this game I thought,” said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks afterward. And as monstrous as Westbrook was offensively — playing efficiently and under control, while distributing to his teammates at the same time — his defensive intensity was what really made the biggest difference.

The Thunder have beaten the Spurs seven straight times with Ibaka in the lineup, and while he was fine in this one with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, this game was about Westbrook on both ends of the floor, and Durant picking his spots.

This season’s MVP wasn’t exactly invisible in finishing with 31 points, and did most of his damage in the second quarter where he scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in just nine minutes of action. But Westbrook was everywhere, disrupting the Spurs offense by getting into the passing lanes and then making largely smart decisions offensively.

There’s a “let Westbrook be Westbrook” mantra chanted by his supporters, which essentially means that his frenetic style of play is bound to produce some frustrating sequences, and that you need to accept the good with the bad in order to truly embrace the Thunder guard’s brilliance.

But that’s utter nonsense.

When Westbrook is just playing with speed and without thinking, his shot selection is destructive more than it is helpful. He showed how his energy can be properly utilized in this one, however, and if the Thunder can somehow get these types of performances out of him consistently — not in terms of the raw numbers, but in terms of the defensive effort and the efficiency — they will be very difficult to stop.

San Antonio trailed by as many as 27 points in the third quarter, before the bench was emptied and the reserves were left to clean up the mess. The likes of Boris Diaw, Corey Joseph and Matt Bonner made enough of a run to force the Thunder to play their starters to close things out, but the Spurs were never close enough to warrant putting the starters back in.

That might bode well for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili heading into Game 5, but the rest will only help so much. San Antonio needs to figure out a way to slow the Thunder down enough to turn around a 21-0 deficit in fast break points that the team faced in this one, while reverting back to the style of play that enabled the Spurs to get out to the 2-0 lead in the series that has now completely vanished.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

image

Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

image

Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Kawhi Leonard has ‘F U symbol’ on championship ring to remember which finger to put it on

Kawhi Leonard
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Following the great tradition of Shane Battier and Andrew Bogut, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard – who got his Raptors championship ring last night – had a special finger picked for it.

TSN:

Leonard:

I have a logo in there, and it’s on my middle finger. So, it reminds me to put it on my middle finger. So, I have like an F U symbol on there.

Leonard’s hand is filling up. He already earned a championship ring with the Spurs in 2014.

I suspect this ring is also for San Antonio.

Timberwolves’ Jarrett Culver on brother scoring 100 points in college game: ‘It felt like I was dreaming’

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Timberwolves rookie Jarrett Culver, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, was the biggest basketball star of his family.

Emphasis on “was.”

Culver’s younger brother, J.J. Culver, scored 100 points in a game for Wayland Baptist University (Plainview, Texas) on Tuesday.

Jarrett, via Kent Youngblood of the Minneapolis StarTribune:

“I left the gym and my phone just blew up,” Jarrett said. “Everyone is texting me, ‘Your brother, your brother.’ So I FaceTimed him. I was like, ‘No way!’ I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. It felt like I was dreaming.”

“I feel like I dropped 100 the way I was celebrating with him. I was super-excited for him. He deserves it.”

J.J. shot:

  • 22-of-29 on 2-pointers
  • 12-of-33 on 3-pointers
  • 20-of-27 on free throws

Obviously, it’s unconventional for a single player to take 62 of his team’s 77 shots. But it doesn’t seem this was designed in advance. Nor does it seem Wayland Baptist runs a wild scheme. J.J. just got hot early, and his teammates then decided to keep feeding him. Obviously, by the end, he was gunning for records.

How will Jarrett one-up his brother now?

Celtics’ Kemba Walker flips over-shoulder pass to Jaylen Brown, who finishes with spinning dunk

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The Lakers aren’t Showtime 2.

Are the Celtics?

Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown ran one flashy fastbreak last night.

NBC Sports Boston:

Though Walker scored 44 points, Boston fell to the Pacers, 122-117.