Game Notes: Thunder at Clippers
Young, fun, ready to run.
by Graham Flashner
The Oklahoma City Thunder are likely a big man away from being a force to be reckoned with in playoffs to come. That said, this is one of the most exciting, fun teams I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. And it’s not just because every team that plays the Clippers looks fun by comparison. The Thunder are a home-grown bunch, largely built through the draft, who run like gazelles and get after the ball on D. They outran, out-shot, and out-hustled the Clippers in their 104-87 win, and before you snicker, remember this was a Clipper team that had knocked off Utah at the beginning of the week.
This was OC’s 37th win, and, even more impressive for such a young team, their 18th on the road. Consider that a year ago, they won all of eight games on the road, and you can see how far this team has come.
There’s not much left to say about the Clippers season. They have a draft lottery to look forward to, and another first-round draft pick; they’ve got players to audition (Drew Gooden) for next season, and, with Blake Griffin’s hopeful debut next year, they can only hope to follow the Thunder’s game plan and build from within.
Both teams are coming off atrocious Wednesday night losses — the Clippers pounded at home by the Suns; the Thunder humiliated at Denver.
Kim Hughes is 4-8 since taking over the coaching reins from Mike Dunleavy. He’s a nice man and a straight shooter. He will very likely not be coach next season, when the Clippers hope to entice a marquee free agent and usher in the Blake Griffin era. I asked Hughes if being head coach was everything he thought it would be. “I was surprised at how fatigued and emotionally draining I get during the game,” he said, and as coach of the Clippers, you have to figure that would be enough to kill anybody.
His favorite parts of the job: substitution patterns, and watching guys respond to his teaching. Least favorite, surprise surprise: losing.
“I take the losses very personally,” he says. “Winning isn’t so much a celebration as it is a sense of relief — just happy we got the job done.”
In the Clippers locker room, I catch Griffin hanging by his stall, surprisingly accessible. Wasn’t prepared to talk to him, since I didn’t think he’d be around. Griffin doesn’t know it, but he’s the first player interviewed on my brand-new Kodak Zi8 flip cam, which has sent my digital tape recorder into early retirement.
SLAM: I’m sure you’ve only been asked this about 150 times, but – how’s rehab going?
Blake Griffin: I’m doing about 2/12 hours every morning; doing a lot more strengthening exercises. And making the next steps to getting back on the court. It’s going really well, actually – I’m a little ahead of schedule. I’m not going to push it; I’ve got all summer to get ready.
SLAM: Any idea when you might be able to pick up a basketball again for real?
BG: I don’t know. It depends on how I feel after exercises. I check in with my doctor every couple of weeks.
SLAM: How tough has the mental part been, having to sit out your entire first season?
BG: It’s been tough, but at the same time, it’s something I can learn from. I’ve been at the arena every day, at practice every day, seeing how guys handle situations, getting a first-hand look.
SLAM: Have any of your teammates served as mentors?
BG: Chris Kaman has talked to me a lot; everyone’s been good about it. No one guy in particular; the whole team’s been talking to me.
SLAM: When you look at how young and talented Oklahoma City, do you see a little bit of what the Clippers could be next year?
BG: Just gotta get more pieces; we have a lot of great talent; good big men, good guards; just a matter of putting it all together. Whoever’s on the team next year, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to getting out there.
Down the hall, Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who at 44 looks almost as boyish as some of his players, holds court outside the locker room. He says he could care less about Durant winning a scoring title; he’d much rather his team continue to improve on their defense and transition. This is Brooks’s first season as a coach, and I’ve never seen a guy so happy to be here.
“I’m thrilled to be coaching in this league,” he says. “I’ve had the two best jobs in this world: number one was playing (Brooks played for six teams in a 10-year NBA career).” Number two is coaching. Number three” – and here he points at veteran Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler – “is writing and talking about it. We’re all blessed to be here.”
OK, so I’ve got the third best job in the world. Feeling lighter on my feet, I follow the pack inside, where Durant waits. Imagine this: A guy Kim Hughes has already touted as the fourth best player in the league—behind only LeBron, Kobe, and DWade – a prodigy at 21, second only to the King in scoring, is not only available pre-game, but sits for some 20 minutes, answering questions politely and thoughtfully. Every time I left and came back, he was still chatting. Some highlights:
On whether he expected to score as much as he has this season: “No, I expected to score as much as I did last year, but my teammates have done a great job of always trusting me and getting me the ball, and encouraging me to score.”
On whether he expected to improve this much, this quickly: “This was all part of my plan, growing up. I didn’t know it would happen this quickly, but I knew it would happen. If I can keep working every day and keep getting better, being a student of the game, sky’s the limit for our team.”
On whether he would take less money to stay with the Thunder next year, rather than go the highest bidder: “That’s something I really don’t know too much about right now. I’m not ready to talk about that; I don’t want to take any focus off the team, so that’s the last thing I worry about.”
On how much winning a scoring title would influence his contract next year: “I just want to win a championship. The last thing I’m worried about is how much money I’m going to make.”
On whether his historic scoring streak (25 points, 29 consecutive games) changed the way teams key on him: “It’s been happening since my rookie season. Of course teams have adjusted me to me. My teammates do a great job of finding me and getting me easy baskets. It’s all about me not forcing and continuing to be a student of the game.”
I just want to throw a net around this kid and protect him before he gets spoiled and corrupted.
Time to play ball.
– Durant comes out like a house afire. Rasual Butler’s guarding him, and trying to follow his coach’s pre-game instructions, which are to keep hands off Durant and not get in foul trouble. Butler does a nice job keeping his hands off Durant – and every other part of his body as well. Durant goes over, under, and around him for 15 breathtaking points, scoring on an array of floaters, fades, and jams.
– I can see why Suns coach Alvin gentry labeled Durant as “unstoppable” – he’s tall, rangy, incredibly quick, and always in motion, frisky as a thoroughbred, as capable of banging home a J as he is attacking the interior.
– At 6-6, the Thunder go on an 11-0 run. Kaman curses to himself as his backcourt pass is picked off by the fleet-footed Russell Westbrook, Durant’s facilitator and ball hound.
– 17-6 Thunder. I wouldn’t say the Clippers look dispirited, but they do look disorganized. Only the Rhino, Craig Smith, is keeping them in it, hitting five of six shots, most from around the basket. Baron Davis and Eric Gordon are off to slow starts and getting beat off the ball by the Thunder guards, Westbrook and James Harden.
– Clipper Darrell, the team’s irrepressible No. 1 fan, is on his game tonight. As Durant steps to the free-throw line, he chants, “U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi.” Darrell’s voice echoes around the quiet arena. People laugh uncertainly. Not sure it’s what I’d yell at a guy who’s eating my defenders for lunch.
– With 6 seconds left in the quarter, Durant takes it the length of the court, spins left, and throws it up falling away from the top of the key. Swish. The perfect punctuation mark to a dominant quarter. 31-21 Thunder.
– Durant sits out for the first 5:17. But the name of this quarter is, Kaman Comes Alive.
– The Clippers may be playing out the string, and Hughes may be a lame-duck coach, but he’s using these final 20 games to teach, and tonight, Kaman appears to have heeded the call to box out his man. He also scores 11 points and reminds us why he deserved to be a legit All-Star, not just a replacement for an injured player. The highlights:
– Kaman stuffed on a double team by Nick Collison but fights his way back in for a layup. Then, a beautiful pass from Travis Outlaw finds Kaman under the basket, muscling his way back up for the shot.
– Working off a nice entry pass from Steve Blake, Kaman patiently waits for two Thunder to leave their feet, then ducks under for a layup.
– Durant checks back in, but he’s cold off the bench, and not getting the open space to execute he had early on. Slowly and steady, the Clippers climbing back in it, thanks to Kaman’s grunt work, but no thanks to Baron and Gordon, who have but a few points between them on 2-12 combined shooting. Also not playing well: Drew Gooden, who’s been averaging 16 as a Clip, but has been taken out of the game by tough defense.
– The youngest team in the NBA can look it at times. Durant races ahead of the field for a layup, but his momentum has carried him too far, and he blows it. There’s Nenad Krstic waiting for the follow – and he misses a dunk.
– 53-46 Thunder at the half.
– Pretty Dr. J-like up-and-under move from Gooden, his lone highlight of the night.
– Seems like it’s been forever since someone hit a 3, but Gordon finds Butler in the corner, and he makes it 61-57.
– Off a Baron steal, Butler heads in for a dunk, but is stopped by an amazing block from a leaping Jeff Green, who slams it against the backboard.
– Another three by Butler brings the Clips to within four for the second time, at 68-64. Now it’s the Thunder looking rattled by an energetic defense that’s suddenly toughened. Two turnovers in a row, and the lethargic crowd is into it. But in classic Clipper form, they blow two golden opportunities to come within two. Blake pokes a rebound away from Durant under the basket, but can’t sink a wide-open jumper. The Rhino pulls down a great rebound in traffic, but can’t make a two-footer. On the other end, the Clippers foul, and the four-point swing puts the Thunder lead back to six.
– Then Westbrook, coming on now, sneaks up on the Rhino for a steal, one of seven on the night for the former UCLA star. Westbrook goes coast-to-coast, the lead is 12, and the Thunder have completed an 8-0 run. You can talk about the young firepower on this team offensively, but they really get after the ball defensively as well, and that will serve them well come playoff time.
– It’s game over.
All you need to know is Durant broke the 30-point mark for the 35th time this season, tying Spencer Haywood’s franchise mark with the 1972-73 Seattle SuperSonics, and the Thunder has won 24 of those games.
Revealing stat of the night: the Thunder had 18 fast-break points to the Clippers’ 2. That’s how well their defense set up their transition game. The 11 blocked shots didn’t hurt either.
– Kim Hughes summed it up pretty accurately on the Clippers side. “It’s tough to win,” he said “when your guards shoot 6-28.” That would be Baron and Gordon, who shot 5-22 and were harassed all night by the Thunder’s swarming guards.
“Durant didn’t kill us,” Hughes said, as if this were a moral victory of sorts. “But Serge Ibaka (9 points in 18 minutes) killed our bigs.” Hughes looked up with an almost pleading expression. “We have to help each other on defense.”
– On the winners’ side, Durant and Harden had some things to say as well, and you can see for yourself. As I said, this is my first time using the flip, so bear with me: there’s some framing issues, and audio is soft in a couple spots, especially from other reporters asking questions. About 2:15 into the Durant interview, he’s asked about Spencer Haywood’s influence on his development.