Author - Brady Trantham

OKC loses third straight, falls to Rockets 118-116

Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) is guarded by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) in the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder (21-16) dropped a heart breaker to the Houston Rockets (28-9) 118-116.

Russell Westbrook was on fire throughout, scoring a game high 49 points on 16-of-34 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five assists. Westbrook even dropped a career high and an Oklahoma City Thunder record eight three pointers on 15 attempts.

After a hot start in the first quarter, the Thunder held a 14 point lead. For the remainder of the second quarter and the first 10 minutes of the third, the Rockets outscored Oklahoma City 57-30. The Thunder found themselves down as many as 18.

Westbrook never sat in the third quarter. A curious decision considering Billy Donovan’s consistency with Westbrook’s breaks. Surprisingly it paid off.

The bench, primarily Enes Kanter who finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, along with Victor Oladipo — 17 points — scratched and clawed the Thunder back into the game.

After being outscored by the Rockets 33-18 in the second quarter, the Thunder’s defense stiffened to a degree, resulting in a 33-21 advantage for the Thunder.

“We did a much better job of defending and rebounding the basketball in the second half.” Donovan told reporters. “We didn’t do a very good job defending in the first half because we sent them to the line 18 times.”

After a flurry of Westbrook layups and an Oladipo three, the game was tied at 116 with 3.7 seconds left.

James Harden — 26 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists — took advantage of a collapsing Thunder defense and found Nene rolling towards the basket where he was fouled on a dunk attempt. Nene made both free throws giving the Rockets the lead for good. A controversial play where it appeared Nene wasn’t even touched by Thunder defenders.

“I’m not saying if it was a foul or not,” Donovan said after the game “but I thought our guys fought hard to get us back into position to win.”

The final play saw the Thunder attempt a pass to Kanter for a tip in that failed to hit the goal.

On a second night of a back-to-back, the Thunder could have easily folded down 18 late in the third. It was an exciting game pitting the league’s top MVP candidates. The stars did not disappoint. Westbrook and Harden combined for 75 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds.

The Thunder now have lost four of their last five games.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Defend the three D 

The Thunder held the Rockets to 38 percent from 3 on 15-of-39 shooting. Every time the Thunder made a run, a defender would leave a shooter all alone for a back breaking three. Houston is on pace to shatter the NBA record for three point attempts and makes for a single season and Oklahoma City did little to stop both in critical moments.

Good Russ down the stretch B

Westbrook scored nine points in the fourth and assisted on the biggest shot of the quarter to tie the game. What people will remember the dribble-dribble-pull-up-jumper from three that just rimmed out for what would have been the lead with 3 seconds left. Westbrook got the Thunder back into the game but couldn’t quite finish.

Show up, Bench C

If it wasn’t for Kanter, the bench would have scored seven points. Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon didn’t help the Thunder much offensively. In a game where the Rockets played sloppy defense, the bench’s collective performance is disappointing.

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Westbrook vs Harden – MVP comparison

Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight’s NBA showdown puts Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder against the James Harden led Houston Rockets.

The Thunder are coming off two disappointing road losses to Eastern Conference foes while the Rockets are riding a five game winning streak. Not only is this a big game for the Western Conference standings — Oklahoma City is currently in the sixth seed and Houston is the third seed. — but it is an exciting matchup between the league’s top two candidates for Most Valuable Player.

36 games into the NBA season, where do we find ourselves in the MVP race? Here is a quick rundown of the seasons these two megastars are having:

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

  • Currently averaging a triple-double — (league high) 30.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game.
  • The deepest into the season that a player has averaged a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season.
  • Westbrook leads the league in clutch time points scored — fourth quarter or overtime with less than five minutes to go and neither team is ahead by more than five points — Westbrook has scored 134 points, Isaiah Thomas is second with 98 points.
  • According to NBAMiner.com, Westbrook is fourth in the league in “And-1” plays with 32 and seventh in the league in completed “And-1” plays with 23 made free throws.
  • Westbrook’s assists have accounted for 41.5 percent of the Thunder’s made three-point shots.
  • Per 36 minutes, Westbrook leads the league with 32.2 points per game.
  • Westbrook leads the league with 10.7 free throw attempts per game, shooting 82 percent.
  • Westbrook has five games this season with over 40 points scored, including a season high 51 points. Of those five games, Westbrook achieved three triple-doubles. The 51 point effort included 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
  • Westbrook has a seven game triple-double streak, second longest in NBA history.
  • Out of 36 games, Westbrook has been held under 20 points only three times. He has not been held to single digits.
  • Season high 51 points, season low 14 points.
  • Westbrook has the season high for assists in a single game with 22 against Phoenix on December 17, 2016.
  • Westbrook has eclipsed the 15 assist mark seven times this season.
  • Westbrook has eclipsed the 15 rebound mark five times this season — three games with 17 rebounds (season highs).
  • Westbrook is 11th in the league in rebounding. The only point guard in the top 40. Rajon Rondo is second among point guards with 6.5 rebounds. If you stretch it out to point guards and shooting guards, Westbrook still leads — Harden is second with 8.2 rebounds.
  • Westbrook has 16 triple-doubles on the season, second most has nine. Oklahoma City is 13-3 when Westbrook gets a triple-double.
  • Points, rebounds and assists thus far are the highest for Westbrook’s career.

JAMES HARDEN

  • Currently averaging 28.4 points, (league high) 11.9 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game.
  • Harden’s league high 11.9 assists is by far the most by a shooting guard. Nicolas Batum is second with 5.9 assists
  • According to NBAMiner.com, Harden leads the league in assists leading to made three-point baskets with 5.2 three-point baskets per game.
  • Harden is second to Westbrook in free throw attempts per game with 10.3 but leads Westbrook in free throw percentage at 85 percent.
  • Harden boasts the highest scoring triple-double of the season when he earned 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on December 31, 2016.
  • Harden is second in the NBA in triple-doubles. The Rockets are 8-1 in games where Harden earns a triple-double.
  • Harden is currently on a three game triple-double streak.
  • Harden has three triple-doubles against the top two teams in the West — two against San Antonio and one against Golden State — Houston went 2-1 in those games.
  • Harden leads the league in 15+ assist games with nine.
  • Out of 36 games, Harden has been held under 20 points only four times. He has not been held to single digits.
  • Season high 53 points, season low 13 points.
  • Harden’s season average totals in assists and rebounds are the highest for his career.
  • Harden has two 40+ scoring games, including the 53 point game.
  • Harden has eight games where he was perfect from the charity stripe — including and 18-for-18 performance against Boston on December 5, 2016.
  • Harden has made at least five three-pointers in a single game six times, including a nine made three-pointers performance.
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With each game Sabonis shows improvement

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Legacy is an integral part of the NBA. For some players, the desire is to create a foundation of memories and amazing play. Championships, records and accolades are the fuel for this particular drive.

For others, the desire stems from continuing a legacy.

Domantas Sabonis is no stranger to the latter. The challenge for the former Gonzaga Wildcat is attempting to balance the expectations that are inherent with star lineage and the patience that is needed for a rookie lottery pick.

Through the first six games of the season, Sabonis has shown glimpses of what made Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti pull the trigger on the Serge Ibaka trade. While the focus of that player transfer was Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, many around the NBA applauded Presti for adding Sabonis to the deal.

The Thunder as a franchise is in a pseudo-rebuilding mode after the departure of Kevin Durant. A luxury considering Russell Westbrook is fully entrenched for the foreseeable future. Other than Westbrook, the starters are all under 25 years old.

Sabonis is an integral part to the Thunder equation. If Oklahoma City is going find sustained success in the post-Durant era, Sabonis will have a lot to say about it.

So far in this young NBA season, Sabonis has given the Thunder reason for optimism.

In the first three games, Sabonis struggled. Of course, any rookie will have their lapses. Foul trouble and unfamiliarity with the increase in competition plagued Sabonis.

“There maybe some nights where he will get into foul trouble, he got some early fouls against (Blake) Griffin,” Billy Donovan told reporters during the early Sunday morning practice. “It’s going to be a process, anytime you’re young like that, there will be ebbs and flows.”

The West Coast back-to-back was the business trip the rookie needed. Prior to the Clippers’ game, Sabonis averaged four points, 2 rebounds and no blocks or assists. From the Clippers’ game since, his averages have seen a steady increase: eight points, four rebounds, one block and three assists.

The crowning moment was the big three-point shot Sabonis hit late in the fourth against the Clippers. It was a shot that finally gave the Thunder the lead, which it never surrendered. It was a shot that common rookies are hesitant to attempt.

“Coming out of the California trip and this last game (against Minnesota), he’s had three games where we’ve seen improvement, hopefully that can keep happening,” Donovan added at practice.

Statistics are just one part of the process. Like Donovan said, there will be ebbs and flows with young players. The box score will be all over the map as the season marches on. For Sabonis, it is all about consistency.

The team respects Sabonis’ game. Veterans like Nick Collison have taken it upon themselves to help mold the former lottery pick. Similar to the improvement from Steven Adams’ rookie campaign going into his current play, Collison understands the ability Sabonis’ possesses.

“He’s got a good feel on how to play already, he’s very skilled,” Collison shared at Sunday’s practice. “He has a good feel for everything that goes on on the court, he’s an impressive guy to be doing it at that age.”

While team expectations overall have been tempered to an extent, the improvement Sabonis has made in a few short weeks has given the franchise the optimism necessary to continue to play the rookie even through some tough stretches. Once the game slows down and Sabonis understands the way the game is officiated, you can expect the rookie to be vital to the Thunder’s success.

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For Oladipo its only a matter of time

Victor Oladipo arrived to the media stand yesterday morning at the Thunder practice facility a very soft-spoken man. His voice was quiet. The rest of his teammates were on the court shooting buckets. It was simply hard to hear the newly extended-Oladipo.

Over the first games, at times, it has been hard to hear Oladipo as well. The scoring has been there. The fourth-year player is even scoring more than his 15.0 points per game average. What has disappointed a vocal minority of Thunder fans is his shooting percentage — a measly 34 percent to go along with a 25 percent from beyond the arc.

Because of the lackluster shooting, that same vocal minority has begun to question if the four-year, $84 million extension was worth it for Oklahoma City. How can you invest in a player that isn’t a consistent shooter in today’s NBA. As the Thunder are constructed currently, shooting is the most glaring need.

Pump the breaks.

On Wednesday night, the former lottery-pick will playing only his fourth game with Oklahoma City. A roster featuring seasoned, battle-hardened players like Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams. Players like Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson who have gained trust in their teammates to perform at a high level. This is real basketball in fact. You can not just plug-and-chug players and statistics onto teams and expect a seamless transition.

But yet, fans want more. You can somewhat blame Oladipo’s career trajectory for that.

For Oladipo’s first three seasons, he was the man for the Magic. The future of the franchise. His exciting play to go along with his athleticism was seen to be the foundation to be built upon. Despite the optimism, the Magic as a team made minimal leaps in improvement. The roster was disjointed and Orlando suffered from an identity crisis.

For all of the Magic’s misfortune, Oladipo was a consistent bright-spot. A 43 percent shooter from the floor as well as an athletic defender, the former Indiana Hoosier appeared to be a few teammates — or even a different team — away from making that next step into the NBA hierarchy of shooting guards. Something Oladipo claimed he was capable of being earlier at Thunder Media Day in September.

Now with Oklahoma City, Oladipo is being asked to find a new role. A role where he is no longer looked upon to be the alpha-dog. That title falls squarely on the shoulders of his walking triple-double of a teammate.

This new role will take time to adjust too. Knowing where his teammates will be in certain situations. Knowing which teammates are confident in particular spots. Add to the fact that the Thunder look for him to score, and you find yourself a recipe for a relatively slow start.

Has Oladipo hit a wall with finding this new role? He, as well as his coach don’t believe so.

“I feel there is so much more I can accomplish,” Oladipo said. “I feel there is so much more I can bring to the table.”

If you have only followed Oladipo’s career through his highlight reels, it is easy to take him at his word.

“I just have to improve on the little things,” Oladipo said.

Little things: knowledge of role, spacing, team stamina. This is what’s causing the struggles of the talented shooting guard.

It is hard not to believe him. In his short stint with Oklahoma City, Oladipo has shown flashes of brilliance as well as lapses in shooting or general play. This is to be expected when a player changes teams as well as roles. The athleticism and ability are all there, it will just take time and more games for it to come to fruition.

The excitement garnered when the Thunder acquired Oladipo mainly focused on the possibility of seeing the most exciting, deadly back-court duo in the league. The world knows how crazy an athlete Westbrook is. While many may not be too familiar with Oladipo’s ability, NBA people are aware of his capability. Anytime you pair a player like Westbrook with a talent like Oladipo, it will be a lightning rod of excitement.

But its not just Westbrook he needs to gel with. Head Coach Billy Donovan said as much this morning at practice.

“I think everyone looks at the backcourt with him and Russ, but its also Domas (Sabonis),” Donovan said. “You know its getting comfortable with him, the pick-and-roll with him. Victor has to get connected with everybody, and not just those two (Westbrook and Oladipo).”

When your starting five consists of a rookie power forward, a one-way small forward and a top five player, it is going to take some time for a talented scorer/defender like Oladipo to find his way. Each game has seen an improvement in some category.

By season’s end, the Thunder will obviously look much different than in November. Oladipo will certainly look much different as he becomes more comfortable with his new teammates and role. Until then, patience is the key.

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Billy Donovan’s humility a guiding light for OKC

After sending the Toronto Raptors back to extinction two nights ago and dropping a meaningless game last night against Detroit, the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves the winners of eight of the last nine – a complete turn around  from the rough patch after the All-Star game. Seven of these eight wins have been against playoff teams;  three of those victories earned on the road.

Kevin Durant has improved his passing and has routinely flirted with having a triple-double; improving his passing, forsaken the ISO-heavy play that resulted in a plethora of turnovers while improving his already efficient scoring. Where as Durant has flirted with the triple-double, Russell Westbrook has become the definition of the statistic.

Add into the equation that the Thunder’s role players in Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter and friends have all similarly raised their games and you have the Oklahoma City fans expected during the preseason. The key in all of this however lies with the head man, Billy Donovan.

Throughout the season, there have been times when the disconnect between the players and Donovan’s philosophy he was trying to sell them was visible. Nights like blowing a 22-point lead in Los Angeles against the Clippers. A Sunday afternoon dud against LeBron James and the Cavaliers or a complete head scratcher against Minnesota. Not to mention the Thunder’s rivals in Golden State and San Antonio are playing at a historic NBA pace above them.

All of this made quite the recipe for Thunder Nation impatience.

Routinely throughout these blown leads and embarrassing losses, Donovan remained true and never wavered.

“There have been times where we haven’t finished well but still made enough plays to eek out a win, because of that the light wasn’t shining on the things we needed to improve on,” Donovan said after the aforementioned loss to the Clippers earlier in March. “I think the best thing for this team is adversity. It needs adversity.”

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

At the time, many fans thought this was a silly thing to say. It is easy to be caught in the moment and rely heavily on the latest game instead of seeing the 82 game season as a whole. Donovan knew all along this team could sneeze its way to a 50-plus win season. What he wanted was improvement on the tendencies that got the Thunder beat in the past – iso-heavy play, turnovers, defensive lapses, etc.

Earlier this morning, Donovan appeared on the Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix. In it he reaffirmed his stance and philosophy as the head coach of the Thunder.

“I really enjoy being apart of something bigger than myself,” Donovan told Mannix. “I’m going to be consistent, I’m going to be myself and I’m going to coach the way I coach.”

Donovan’s humility shines through in his interviews. His attitude and optimistic outlook during the low points of the season have helped steer Oklahoma City towards peaking at possibly the best time.

Donovan’s self-described “democratic,” view on the Thunder may bring Oklahoma City to heights not seen before. From the staggering of Durant and Westbrook “At the beginning of the season, Kevin was comfortable playing the first 12 minutes, we had some problems, and finally Kevin said ‘Coach let’s try it.’” to remaining true to himself and his message after numerous let-downs this year, Donovan has remained a constant for the Thunder.

Of course, the NBA post-season is a different animal and will present a challenge to the rookie head coach. After nearly one season of experience, Donovan has shown adaptability, a desire to improve upon negative traits and had a democratic relationship with his two star players and team. These are three things any NBA fan would want in their head coach.

In recent seasons, the Thunder has suffered through inconsistency. Not so much in the results on the floor but mainly with untimely injuries, a coaching change and constant shake-ups in the roster or rotations. As we head closer to the playoffs, Donovan’s humility and attitude are beginning to show themselves more frequently. With players like Durant and Westbrook, a voice and mind like Donovan’s can work wonders possibly for OKC.

If you would like to listen to the Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix interview with Donovan you can find it here. The Vertical with Chris Mannix feat. Billy Donovan.

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Russell Westbrook is a misunderstood flower

A player with the skill of Russell Westbrook demands respect. Respect, of course is earned through a number of ways, notably play on the court. With Russ, it has never been an issue. Westbrook is a top 5 player in the NBA today. His speed, strength and ability to defend and score in bunches puts him up there with LeBron and Kevin Durant.

His reputation has been the most…’controversial’ if you could call it that.

At first glance, Russell is a true enigma. His flamboyant clothing and lifestyle coupled with his sheer pissed-off ferocity on the court doesn’t seem to correlate. A guy who’s recently played list is dominated by Taylor Swift’s 1989 album does not also steal an opposing player’s soul with a destructive dunk and then proceed to give the unfortunate player the patented “Russ Glare.” Many players from afar seem to think the player on the court is angry based on the glare and passionate play.

Even his own new teammates like Steve Novak and Cameron Payne commented earlier at Thunder Media Day how Russell completely proved their prior opinions of him wrong.

“He was one of the players that watching from a distance and now seeing him in the locker room I was wrong about” Novak said “Angry Russell – he’s angry at the media, he’s angry on the court but its just what fuels him.”

That’s coming from a veteran who understands different player personalities, but what about a green rookie who only knows NBA players by ESPN and NBA 2k16?

“You think he’s a series guy, but he cracks jokes and has a good time. He knows when to get serious.” Cameron Payne told reporters. Obviously, Russ knows how to compartmentalize game mode and life mode.

Thunder fans have been claiming this for years now. Russell is not what the media and opposing fan bases portray him as. When all you see is the 100 mph, wild whirling dervish point guard during the game, it is easy to paint that picture that outsiders have produced.

Russell’s reputation across the country compared to Oklahoma is vastly different, yes. That is why people laugh at his Thunder program picture where he has the biggest ‘I’m a nice guy’ smile. Apparently people expect him to give the stiff upper lip, snarl that he has grown so famous for. But that is off the court Russ. Off the court Russ is the one who wears overalls with a *insert French stylist here* shirt, or the one who sits at home and plays “Shake it Off” on his guitar. On the court Russ – or as Novak calls him, “Angry Russell” – is the one the world gets to see constantly.

I, for one, welcome our Angry Russell overlord. Without that chip on his shoulder, Russell could not function on the court. He would probably be the first person to tell you that. He is fueled by the aggression and passion that makes him one of the most exciting players in the world. He is the perfect Yin to Kevin Durant’s Yang. In interviews, popular questions that national media pundits like to ask Russell is something along the lines of “What kind of person are you off the court?” Russell always says the same thing, that he is a nice guy, always with a smile.

Is it best that other fan bases and the national media continue to trumpet the Angry Russell narrative? YES.

Sam Presti recently was quoted as saying that Russell is getting to a point where he is so good at everything that it is almost impossible for him to improve. Quite the compliment from the boss. But if he can’t improve on a particular skill, what is the renewable resource that can’t be extinguished? A good old fashioned chip on Russell’s shoulder. Every night, Russ storms onto the court knowing the world is against him and expecting him to fail, with that, he becomes a super hero.

Novak and Payne have admitted their first impressions of Russell to be false. A great player, leader and teammate. He is the guy you want in a foxhole with you.

The season is upon us, people. Watch out NBA, Angry Russell is coming for you.

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