Let’s make a deal

2012 NBA Draft

By KOLBY PAXTON

The San Antonio Spurs have long been referred to as the CIA of the NBA, concealing everything from injury specifics, to draft intentions, to Greg Popovich’s dinner plans.

These days, however, the River City’s secret keeping is a trend that has followed one former employee north, into the heart of Oklahoma, and the front office of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford is the John Brennan of the Association, then Sam Presti is Michael Morell. And Presti’s secrets are never so air tight as in the month of June, in the midst of the NBA Draft.

In 2008, many assumed that the Thunder would pursue UCLA big man Kevin Love. They had the school right, but whiffed on the player. A year later, the pick figured to be Ricky Rubio or, at the very least, Tyreke Evans. Instead, the Thunder snagged some guy with a beard and an old man’s game.

A year ago, on the eve of the draft, rumors swirled that Oklahoma City was set to offer up uncle James Harden, that bearded old-ish young man, in exchange for the opportunity to select Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal at No. 3 overall. Thunder fans scoffed at the thought of losing their beloved sixth man for a prospect – any prospect, really. And the deal, itself, never happened. OKC was instead content to stand pat at No. 28 and select the best available player. That player, Perry Jones III, was, by all accounts, nothing short of grand larceny at such a late stage in the first round.

Much to the chagrin of Loud City, however, Harden would eventually be shipped out of town, and one year later, all that the Thunder has to show for him is Jeremy Lamb and the 12th pick in tonight’s draft. For that reason, and virtually that reason alone, there is significant attention being paid to that pick. More specifically, there is significant attention being paid to what exactly OKC – armed with three first round choices – does with its collection of selections.

Any of the following scenarios are in play – along with about a dozen others – as we head into this evening’s festivities:

1.) Thunder trade picks 12, 29 and 32, along with Serge Ibaka, to Cleveland for the No. 1 overall pick, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.

In a perfect world, Cleveland would be willing to swap its top selection for Oklahoma City’s first round and a prospect like Jones. In reality, the Cavs are reportedly overvaluing the top choice in a draft with no top player, asking Minnesota for Kevin Love, Portland for LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Thunder for Ibaka.

Unless Portland bites, that leaves Cleveland with only Oklahoma City with which to deal. After Ibaka’s performance – or lack thereof – in the 2013 playoffs, it’s not too awfully difficult to fathom a scenario in which Presti elects to cut ties with what is now a $12 million a year role player, in favor of adding a guy like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len.

The caveat being that the Thunder obviously wouldn’t make the trade for the pick alone. Cleveland would almost certainly have to make OKC the same offer it reportedly extended to Minnesota – an offer that includes Thompson and Waiters.

In any event, I’m not wild about overreacting to Ibaka’s month of May. You’ll surely recall a certain Houston Rocket who floundered for Oklahoma City last summer. Safe to say he rebounded from the experience.

2.) Thunder trade picks 12 and 29 in order to move into the top eight.

Without a doubt my favorite option, and without a doubt the safest option. Drafting at 12, it is highly unlikely that the Thunder come up with anything exciting. I know, I know. “The middle of the draft is deep.” Whatever. That’s just another way of saying this draft pretty much stinks. Without moving, OKC sits at 12 in an 8-10 player draft.

There are four players to keep an eye on should they fall into that 6-8 range: Len, Michigan guard Trey Burke, Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, and Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. If any of that foursome dips within reach, you could see Presti & Co. make a play to move up and grab them.

Of the four, my fingers are crossed for Burke – a true point guard that could adequately spell Russell Westbrook, play alongside Westbrook, and allow Reggie Jackson to move off the ball with that second unit.

3.) Thunder trade any picks, anywhere, so long as the deal includes Kendrick Perkins.

The Thunder could swap the 32nd pick for the first overall selection straight up and it wouldn’t make me as happy as any deal that dumps Perkins on someone else would.

There are two available centers, Al Jefferson and Andray Blatche, that could make the difference between the Western Conference Finals and an NBA title next season. Unfortunately, OKC cannot afford to pursue either of them with Perk on the books. As simple as amnestying him would seem, in theory, it wouldn’t actually make a large enough dent in practice. Trading him away is the only answer.

The problem is, not only is Perkins grossly overpaid, the rest of the league is well aware that he is grossly overpaid. If Presti were to successfully move Perk out of town, he should be awarded an enormous raise and the 2013-’14 GM of the Year on the spot. There are few things in professional sports more difficult than that task at this juncture.

In reality, the only way to move one of the worst starting centers in the NBA – complete with a $19 million price tag – is to mask the stench of his contract with draft picks. Sort of like spraying Old Spice on sweaty gym shorts.

4.) Thunder don’t budge, make a selection at No. 12.

This could go one of two ways. At No. 12, the only two big men worth having, Noel and Len, will be long gone. If OKC still insists on going with a center, they’ll be selecting Cody Zeller, Kelly Olynyk or Steven Adams in this spot. Olynyk, despite consistently being ranked below the others, is the lesser of three evils. Zeller and Adams are busts before they ever even lace up their Nikes. Just another annual serving of Patrick O’Bryant and Byron Mullens and some other guy named Zeller – yet no one ever seems to catch on.

Taking either of them in this spot would be the most disappointing possible outcome for the Thunder.

On the other hand, there are three players, none of them Americans, who could potentially be there at No. 12, each of whom could prove to be another foreign homerun for the NBA GM most renowned for such things.

Sergey Karasev, a 6-7 Russian sharpshooter, has been penciled in for whoever ends up drafting in place of Dallas in most recent mock drafts. With Kevin Martin almost certainly gone, adding a gunner can only help. Karasev can play right away, given considerable seasoning at a high level of play over in Russia.

German point guard Dennis Schroeder is another option, provided Presti wants to insure his backcourt without giving up the pieces necessary to move up and snag Burke or Carter-Williams.

Perhaps most intriguing of the foreign crop of players is 18-year-old Greek forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is one of the hotter names in the draft right now, but he’s old news to Presti, who was flying overseas to watch him as far back as last winter. Though it may sound blasphemous, and, admittedly, my own personal assessment is based purely upon grainy YouTube highlights, the NBA player that Antetokounmpo most reminds me of is Oklahoma City’s own Kevin Durant.

Truthfully, I don’t have the slightest idea what to expect from Presti and the Thunder, and I’m not going to act as if I do. The inherent unknown, in and of itself, is what makes this particular draft must-see-TV.

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Thunder playoff coverage (4/19-5/14)

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The following is a collection of my Thunder Wrap-Up columns from the 2013 NBA Playoffs – brief as it was for OKC.

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Thunder primed to take final step

(4/19)

Allow me, if I may, to revisit a day that will live in infamy within the pan-shaped border of the Sooner State for at least eight more weeks: Oct. 27, 2012.

It began like many autumn days in Oklahoma, sunny and beautiful, with mid-day temperatures edging 70 degrees. By nightfall, however, bystanders beyond the walls of Owen Field, previously pre-occupied with the pigskin, were suffocated beneath the unforgiving chill of a seemingly insurmountable loss — and I’m not talking about the Sooners 30-13 defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish.

The news spread like wildfire, from Twitter and Facebook, to friends and acquaintances, to neighboring tailgates and random passers by. Soon, collegiate gridiron shortcomings were an afterthought. James Harden had been traded.

Traded.

In return, the Thunder were receiving a rail-thin rookie named Jeremy Lamb along with “K-Mart” — and no fewer than one-in-three thought the “K” stood for Kenyon. The walls were closing in. Oklahoma City’s dynasty was destroyed. Forget multiple championships. OKC would be fortunate to sniff the conference finals. Ah, woe, the distress was overwhelming.

Sixty wins, a third consecutive Northwest Division Championship, and a top playoff seed later, and perhaps, just maybe, Greater Loud City overreacted just a bit.

The Thunder, not the Heat, find themselves squarely atop the final Hollinger Power Rankings (109.22) and its plus-9.21 margin of victory is the sixth-highest figure since the introduction of the three-point line. Oh, and as for the five teams with higher victory margins? Each of them won championships.

In what can only be described as a convenient twist of fate, conference rival San Antonio practically conceded the top seed to the Thunder with a month left in the regular season — in an attempt to avoid the eighth-seeded Lakers, it would seem — while the once middle-of-the-pack Rockets dropped four of their final six contests to slip to the Western Conference caboose.

As a result, the Spurs must battle a suddenly resurgent group of Lakers, while Oklahoma City will enjoy a brief reunion with its former sixth-man and a team versus which the Thunder averaged 121 points per contest during the regular season.

Upon dispatching Houston in no more than five games, the degree of difficulty will increase for the Thunder in the conference semifinals, where it will find either the Clippers or Grizzlies. Los Angeles would appear to present a greater impediment, what with the services of a slew of shooters, Blake Griffin, and the best point guard in basketball, yet Oklahoma City swept the season series. Memphis has long been a thorn in the side of the Thunder, but the Grizz are shorter on talent than the team that took OKC to the brink in 2011.

Better yet, Durant & Co. will avoid a second round series with George Karl’s Nuggets. Denver took the regular season series from Oklahoma City with back-to-back victories in January and March. What’s more, the Nuggets, void of a “star,” pose a very real threat to upend San Antonio on the opposite side of the left bracket. Many will point to the loss of Danilo Gallinari as evidence of a weakened state, but consider this: The Nuggets have outscored opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions when Wilson Chandler — not Gallinari — joins Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer on the wings.

That trio, bookended by a point guard and JaVale McGee or Kenneth Faried, has thrived defensively, forcing a turnover on 18.8 percent of opponent possessions. If Ty Lawson returns at even 80 percent, the Thunder will be seeing Denver, not San Antonio, in the Western Conference Finals.

In any event, Oklahoma City — particularly with four games inside of the nuthouse that is Chesapeake Energy Arena — is simply too much. Be it the Spurs or the Nuggets, the opposition will likely find itself in a hole from the outset. Karl and Gregg Popovich will provide a coaching advantage over Scott Brooks, but it won’t be stark enough to offset Durant, Russell Westbrook and 18,203 maniacs in blue T-shirts.

It’s back the Finals for OKC, who will find a familiar foe anxiously awaiting their arrival: the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets, led by the hot shooting of Joe Johnson, will have stormed into June…

Just kidding.

Miami may well skip through the Eastern Conference bracket unblemished, giving LeBron James and his colorful cast of sidekicks plenty of time to brush up on Thunder 101. James has loaded up the trophy case in the past year, collecting championships, medals, MVP awards, virtually everything short of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Heat didn’t lose a game for two months, closed the regular season on a 37-2 surge, and raced to the best record in the Association.

All of that is wonderful, but history favors inclement weather in this case. The league’s superior regular season squad has hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy just once in the past nine seasons, and Oklahoma City is about to make it 1-for-10.

Brooks, for all of his South Beach stubbornness, will finally accept a fact of life that the rest of us arrived at more than 10 months ago: Kendrick Perkins need not play versus the Heat, a team without a center. Using Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka to cover the more versatile Chris Bosh, OKC will eliminate Miami’s lone advantage. Durant will outplay James, Westbrook will outplay Dwyane Wade, and the Thunder will ascend to the ‘Peake of the mountain.

No, seriously.

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Three pointer

(4/25)

1.) Harden vs. Ibaka – literally.

Kevin McHale had a bright idea at some point between Sunday and Wednesday: He decided to match James Harden, a 6-5 guard, up with Serge Ibaka, a 6-10 forward.

The idea, obviously, was to give Harden a break from chasing Russell Westbrook around for 48 minutes. A concept that meant Ibaka would, in turn, be free to collect a lion’s share of offensive rebounds (in theory), but would also allow Harden to take advantage of Ibaka off the dribble on the other end.

Unless, of course, Brooks refused to take the bait.

Is there a rule that I am unaware of? One that requires a coach to accept the opposing preference for defensive match-ups? There’s not, right? And is it really so difficult to switch the matchup on the way back down the floor? High school teams do it. College teams do it. While we’re at it, here’s a list of NBA coaches that would have rejected McHale’s desperation move: Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, George Karl, Mark Jackson, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Adelman, Mike Woodson and Gregg Popovich. At minimum. You can probably toss in Lionel Hollins and Frank Vogel. Maybe even Rick Carlisle and P.J. Carlesimo.

In doing so, Brooks would have ruined the concept by giving the Thunder an advantage at both ends. Instead, he subscribed to Houston’s hail mary, and Harden erupted for 35 points on (approximately) a kazillion lay-ins – single-handedly keeping the Rockets afloat.

2.) Is Brooks in over his head?

I realize that in-state media has apparently taken up some oath to remain supportive of everyone associated with Oklahoma City’s professional basketball squad, but someone has to ask, right?

Is Brooks the eight best coach in the NBA? The 10th best? Could Maurice Cheeks do his job just as well? Could he do it better?

Brooks inherited Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He has the best general manager in basketball. All he has to do is not screw it up. But I have serious questions regarding his ability to lead OKC to a championship.

He is routinely out-coached – last night, by a guy who isn’t exactly thought of as the next Red Auerbach. He sticks with players like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher, even when it makes absolutely zero sense (See: ’12 NBA Finals), and he does nothing to rein in the oft-erratic Russell Westbrook – perhaps even stunting his growth as a point guard in the process.

He’s a hell of a nice guy, which – I assume – is part of the reason local journalists leave him alone. But nice only goes so far before you’re just soft. Brooks is soft. The Thunder fell apart in the fourth quarter because nothing Brooks ever says in a timeout matters. At all. I mean, ever. Listen to him. He sounds like my mother trying to fire people up. He might as well just say, “Listen guys, I have no idea how to stop the bleeding. Please, for the love of God, Kevin, will you just bail me out again?”

A 21-2 run, Scott. 21 to 2. Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons just dropping bombs on your head.

3.) A special shout out to Serge Ibaka.

Hey, Serge. You’re 6-foot-10, 270-something pounds. You have the wingspan of a 747. You like to come from the weak side and block shots and you have a really nice stroke from about 18 feet.

That’s cool.

You know what’s not cool? The fact that Presti chose you over Harden is not cool. Not cool at all. “Why isn’t that cool,” you ask? It’s not cool because you have what has become more than just a bad habit of completely disappearing for vast stretches of time.

Where are you?

You spent 30-plus minutes being covered by a shooting guard five inches shorter than you, and you amassed 12 points (on a whopping six shot attempts) and 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, Harden and Erik freaking Beverly combined to haul in 23 misses. Erik Beverly.

But, hey, thanks for finally confirming that you still have a pulse at the the 31-second mark of the fourth quarter.

And 1.) Thunder grab a 2-0 series lead.

You wouldn’t know it from the previous 600 words, but Oklahoma City eventually held off Houston to take control of the series. Unfortunately for the Thunder, an effort like the one it turned in last night will get them booted from the conference semi-finals rather emphatically.

It was over when… Kevin Durant did Kevin Durant things with the game in the balance. First, he answered a James Harden lay-up with a deep three, and on the following possession (with a little help from Kendrick Perkins) KD found a wide open Thabo Sefalosha who, in turn, buried a triple of his own to push the OKC advantage back to four with a minute remaining.

Quote of the night: “It’s obvious what Perkins did. He grabbed me with two hands and I couldn’t go out there and contest Sefalosha.” – Chandler Parsons

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Three pointer

(4/30)

Full disclosure: I no-showed in this spot on Saturday night and if you follow me on Twitter than you know that it wasn’t an accident. There was no technical difficulty, no faulty internet connection, no power outage. I just couldn’t do it. Blowing a 26-point lead made me really thirsty.

When Durant’s now infamous three-point bucket caromed a fourth time, died, and rolled gently into the cylinder, I had nothing left to offer; nothing printable, anyway.

I’ll never be any good at writing from the sterile, unemotional (see: dispassionate?) perspective routinely embraced by my peers. It just doesn’t suit me and, frankly, I have no interest in being disingenuous for the sake of professionalism or objectivity. I write to entertain, not to gain the approval of self-appointed hall monitors, and listening to the same person complain about the same things every few days is not entertaining – it’s redundant and annoying.

I care about Oklahoma City basketball more than most, and the way the Thunder has played in these playoffs leaves me without much positivity. I’m tired of watching Sefalosha and Martin stand next to each other on the wing. I’m tired of watching Reggie Jackson and/or DeAndre Liggins sit on the bench. I’m tired of wondering if Serge Ibaka still plays for the Thunder, while James Harden continually reminds us that he is a Rocket.

1.) Most of all, I’m tired of the runs.

Not those runs, these runs: In Game 2, OKC led by 15 in the fourth quarter before allowing the Rockets to outscore them 21-2 down the stretch. In Game 3, the Thunder led by 26 (26!) only to allow Houston to rally and take the lead late. In Game 4, the Thunder once again led by double digits just before halftime,  and promptly handed the Rockets a 15-0 run to eliminate the advantage.

In every case, the only thing resembling a tourniquet was the shooting of Kevin Durant.

I’m really trying to talk myself off of the “Scott Brooks is killing us” ledge, but the evidence is damning. With Westbrook out and his rotation blown, Brooks is getting out-foxed by Kevin McHale on a nightly basis. If/when the Thunder advance, the same will likely be said for Lionel Hollins/Vinny Del Negro, and that trio won’t be getting their respective domes chiseled into the Mount Rushmore of coaching any time soon.

Not only is Brooks seemingly defenseless against an annual redemptive barrage from the likes of Carlos Delfino and Patrick Beverley, but he’s actually inciting the Houston rally cry to some degree.

Take last night for example.

Kendrick Perkins starts, doesn’t fit, and the Rockets begin the game on a 13-4 run. Brooks does something uncharacteristically brilliant and brings in DeAndre Liggins in place of Perk. Oklahoma City dominates the remainder of the first half with Liggins on the floor – including a 36-24 advantage in the second quarter – to grab seven-point halftime lead.

The second half begins with Perkins back on the court and Liggins back on the bench, and to the surprise of perhaps no one but Brooks, Houston outscores Oklahoma City by 14 in the period to flip the differential. Brooks sticks with Perkins for the first seven minutes of the third quarter, and Liggins doesn’t see action again until the :54 second mark – with the Rockets in front by 13 – at which point the Thunder close the quarter with a 7-1 spurt.

Liggins and Nick Collison combined to post a plus/minus of (+20) despite just 14 minutes of action a piece. Meanwhile, Perkins and Thabo Sefalosha collaborated for a plus/minus of (-36) while combining for nearly 40 minutes of burn.

Brooks has never been one to overreact (react at all) to in-game/in-series developments, but it’s starting to get ridiculous. His reluctance to adapt got the Thunder beat a year ago, and it will get a lesser team blown out of the conference semi-finals this time around.

2.) Why is Durant playing point forward?

He turns it over in the back court at least twice a game, not to mention every time he attempts to split defenders in the front court. Not because he isn’t a good ball handler – he has great handles – but because physics intervenes when you’re eight feet tall. That’s a lot of distance for the basketball to travel. When Durant does clear the timeline the offense is stagnant.

I’m all for KD getting a lion’s share of shots up, but I want him to do that through the flow of the offense, not in some forced ball stopping role. Free him up for catch and shoot opportunities (when he’s at his best) and get him iso’d when he’s not being doubled (when he’s at his second best). Reggie Jackson is good enough to run the offense as the point guard. Derek Fisher is capable enough to spell him. There’s no reason to change the entire complexion of the offense to focus on Durant. He’s naturally the focal point.

3.) Breaking up is the hardest part

I pulled for James Harden all season, remained a fan of his in spite of the fact that he signed his own ticket out of town last fall. I watched the Rockets every chance I got and truly enjoyed the fact that Harden was free to play the role of alpha dog without being forced to defer.

And then this series started. And then Beverley took out Westbrook. And then Harden called Durant’s Game 3 clincher “a lucky shot.”

It’s funny the flaws you find in a person post-break-up. Last year, I routinely gushed about Harden, hoped to buy his jersey, lamented the trade that sent him packing. Now? I find him obnoxiously arrogant. I think his beard looks ridiculous. I loathe his tendency to flop all over the floor and cry on the exceedingly rare occasion that he does not get a call.

I’ve untagged our photos together on Facebook, tossed his leftover belongings in the trash, deleted his number from my phone.

Even without Westbrook, and even with all of the shortcomings being displayed by Durant’s supporting cast, this series isn’t going back to Houston. The Rockets are walking into a hornet’s nest on Wednesday, a nest of 18,000 mad Okies intent on imposing their collective will.

There is no longer love lost over Harden and his new team needs to be reminded of their place.

It was over when… Serge Ibaka appropriately short-armed a put-back attempt on the end of a Jackson miss as time expired.

Quote of the Night: “I hate it. I hate the way they’re playing. Kevin Durant is not a point forward.” – Charles Barkley

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Three pointer

(5/2)

Growing up in Springdale, Ark., back when the town had but one public high school, our most heated rivalry was with Fayetteville High. Regardless of the sport, our games against those guys were always chippy.

We were far better at football, in particular, but it didn’t matter. Every time we played, the games were tight. They always brought something extra, trash-talked, got in our heads, hit a little harder and for a little longer than we were expecting. On paper, they never belonged on the same field as us, but paper was irrelevant. It was personal, and it was as if someone forgot to mention that they weren’t supposed to win.

Right now, the Rockets are to the Thunder as Fayetteville was to Springdale.

It’s funny, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with Russell Westbrook’s intensity, always wished he would just calm down a little. Never again. With Westbrook out, not only is OKC down one of the 10 best players in the world, but the Thunder is without the source of its swagger and emotion.

I made the comment a few days ago that this series was over. As soon as the action resumed in Oklahoma City, the crowd and intensity would overwhelm Houston, I surmised. I surmised wrong. The Thunder were timid, flat and dispassionate. So much so, that the vaunted fans of Chesapeake Energy Arena slipped into a lull of their own, failing to have any noticeable affect on the road squad.

1. So, what now?

I really don’t know. I have little reason to expect an inspired effort from anyone not named Durant, Jackson, Liggins or Fisher, and the Rockets have proven emphatically that what those four have to offer is not enough to beat the youngest team in the NBA.

My double or nothing Vegas wager would, if executed objectively, ride with Harden and his running mates.

2. Done with Ibaka and Friends.

Robin goes down and all anyone wants to do is stand and stare at Batman. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. DeAndre Liggins and Reggie Jackson are doing what they can. Derek Fisher is doing 38-year old Derek Fisher things. But Serge Ibaka? The guy we chose over Harden? He’s invisible. Kevin Martin? The guy we traded Harden for? He’s been awful. Thabo Sefalosha? Kendrick Perkins? What’s a word for worse than awful?

I’m not Sam Presti — nor will I ever be — but if I was, I’d be shipping Ibaka out of town the first chance I got. That’s an enormous waste of money, and one that already cost the franchise arguably the best shooting guard in the NBA. The inability to create your own shot is one thing. Blake Griffin can’t create his own shot. LaMarcus Aldridge can’t create his own shot. But that doesn’t keep them from scoring. More importantly, offensive ineptitude of any degree never stops them from rebounding.

I mention Griffin and Aldridge because, like them, Ibaka will deposit in excess of $12 million next season.

You may think I’m overreacting, but what else do you need to see? The longer the Thunder hang on to Ibaka the less valuable he becomes on the open market. If Facebook taught me anything, it’s that there’s no sense in hanging onto a stock once you realize the IPO was inflated when you bought it. Cut your losses. As for the “friends” I mentioned? See you later, Martin. Enjoy the final year of your contract, Thabo. Look up the word amnesty, Perk.

3. Fun with numbers

Harden outscored Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb 31-3. Meanwhile, Perkins managed to post a plus/minus of minus-13 despite playing just 15 minutes. In games four and five, OKC lost 1.25 points per every minute that Perkins was on the floor.

It was over when… Scott Brooks chose to have his players repeatedly foul Omer Asik, a 56 percent foul shooter, only to watch as Asik went 13-of-19 from the stripe.

Quote(s) of the Night: Brooks blew up Twitter with his hack-a-Asik gimmick. Here’s a sampling:

“@BillSimmons: Scott Brooks is making a strong run at Vinny Del Negro’s “Worst Coach Of Round One” with Hack Asik. Don’t do that crap when you’re a 1-seed.”

“@TJPerry10: I’m not a Thunder fan and I’m embarrassed to watch this hack a asik. This is a joke and bush league. #brooksucks”

“@notthefakeSVP (Scott Van Pelt): Beyond the question of if fouling was sporting or cowardly – it didn’t work. At all.”

“@SamuelLJackson: C’mon OKC! This ain’t ballin! It’s BULLSHIT! Lost all respect!”

“@billbarnwell: How many free throws does Asik have to hit before the Thunder abandon this strategy? Another example of hero coaching from Scotty Brooks, no?”

“@jadande: Here’s the thing with that fouling garbage: I’ve seen it produce a W about .02 % of the time. Sure didn’t help OKC tonight.”

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Three pointer

(5/8)

I give myself the same pep talk before every Thunder playoff game.

“I’m not going to get upset. Everything will work itself out. I’m just going to relax and enjoy the game. Yelling at my television isn’t going to change anything anyway, you know?”

It never works.

I think I’d have more success if Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka didn’t play for Oklahoma City, but they do, so it doesn’t. I don’t get upset when my team loses, mind you. I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. That sort of thing has little affect on my mental stability. No, what drives me absolutely stark raving mad is that I have to sit here and watch the exact same things happen over and over and over and over and over… and over.

And then I get to try — and fail — to find a fresh, interesting way to say the same things that I have said 1,000 times before.

1. By the way, where’d all you “Perk brings toughness” guys go?

I had to laugh a little last night as social media erupted with variations of “Perkins stinks.” Most of y’all are about a year late to the party. A couple of my brother’s co-workers, both of whom read this spot, told him that he just “didn’t understand basketball” when he aired our collective disdain for the Thunder center this time a year ago.

This isn’t a new development. Perkins has been a train wreck of a basketball player from day one. We just spent several years trying to talk ourselves into the whole idea that toughness and leadership was somehow worth $9 million per year — or even a spot in the starting lineup, for that matter.

Without exaggerating, Kendrick Perkins is the worst starter in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Leadership? Perkins whines and cries around like a 12-year old. If I had a nickel for every time Fisher or Durant has to pull him away from an official, I’d have a lot of nickels. Toughness? What, because he’ll go nose-to-nose with Francisco Garcia? Because he’ll put a hard screen on Patrick Beverley? Cool. You know what’d be really neat, though? If Perkins was “tough” while the ball was in play. Tough on the boards. Tough on Marc Gasol.

Memphis outrebounded the Thunder 43 to 34. Marc Gasol led the Grizzlies with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Shot 62 percent from the floor. He was “defended” — sort of — by a guy that made $23,637 for every point he scored this season.

2. The $12 million man

Of course, poor rebounding and post defending isn’t all Perk’s fault. Serge Ibaka is floating around out there somewhere, or so I’ve been told.

It’s one thing to shrink away from the prospect of playing the role of Kevin Durant’s wingman. Not everyone is built for the spotlight, I suppose. But Ibaka isn’t even fulfilling his responsibility as OKC’s third best player. Not even close. Offensively, Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher have been forced to supplement Durant’s scoring while Ibaka fires blanks from what seems like a mile from the basket. His insistence on playing along the perimeter doesn’t help much on the glass, either, obviously.

Meanwhile, in this series as well as the last, Ibaka is a non-factor on defense save for a few blocks. Randolph is destroying him in the post, humiliating a physically superior player. Why? Because Ibaka wants no part of the physicality that playoff basketball demands. He just wants to shoot jumpers and block the shots of players who cannot see him coming.

Absolutely pathetic.

And, speaking of redundancy: Perkins and Ibaka could (See: should) be Jeff Green and James Harden.

3. Tantalizingly close

Even without any contribution from the front court, and even without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are shockingly close to being good enough to advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs looked extremely beatable on Monday night before the Warriors did what the Warriors do. The Bulls exposed Miami a little bit. Russell Westbrook would be six weeks removed from a a torn meniscus when the Finals rolled around — which would seem to suggest that he could return.

See what I did there?

All of that makes this the weirdest month of playoff basketball that I can remember. I have no idea what to think or how to feel. The only thing I do know with any certainty is that Kevin Durant is cold blooded. Just carrying 11 guys and a half-wit coach on his shoulders as if they were stuffed in his backpack.

It was over when… Thabo Sefalosha got beat (again) by Mike Conley who drilled his 11th bucket of the game to put Memphis up four with just under a minute to play.

Quote of the Night: “So, uh, why would you have Perkins on the floor to receive an inbounds pass when you’re down by five with 20 seconds left?” – Me

Because Scott Brooks. Good job, good effort, OKC.

____________________________________________________

Three pointer

(5/14)

I know I usually begin with a short story to get you warmed up, but I really don’t have one that is in any way related to Thunder hoops. You’d think I would come back with a vengeance after skipping Game 3, but, much like Derrick Rose, I’m just not too fired up about competing this time around.

Speaking of Game 3, though, did you guys miss me? Saturday was graduation day at the University of Arkansas. I had particular interest in watching a lovely little psychology major collect her bachelor’s degree. I checked scores and monitored Twitter to some degree, but bearing witness to Groundhog Day at the Grindhouse just wasn’t very high on my list of priorities.

Needless to say, OKC wasn’t in much mood to party in the aftermath of the day’s events, but we were. Katie’s siblings were both in town, along with her sister’s fiance’ and my brother; a rare assimilation of the home team’s entire starting lineup. In fact, it was the first time that the six of us have ever gone out together, and the difference was evident. I never say no to Dickson Street, but I’m not always working with a championship caliber supporting cast if you catch my drift.

Saturday was different. If I’m the Kevin Durant of pub crawls then my kid brother is Russell Westbrook. Adding him into the mix with shooters on the wings made for a formidable combination. Crazy what a difference one player can make, no?

1. Nice of Serge to join us.

I received three Thunder-related text messages during Game 3. Two of them read, “Serge Isucka” and “Ibaka = awful.” The third also included a less than endearing assessment of Ibaka’s performance, but, censored appropriately, would read much like a 2 Chainz song sounds on the radio.

Finally, finally, Serge woke up and delivered exactly the type of performance the Thunder needs from him sans Westbrook. Unfortunately, he only sustained it for one quarter.

2. Not to pile on, but…

Reggie Jackson guarded Mike Conley nearly exclusively in Game 3, correct? And Conley managed just three field goals, am I right? So… Why make the unnecessary and unwarranted decision to switch Thabo Sefolosha onto Conley for Game 4? I realize Sefolosha made a career as a premier perimeter defender, but it’s pretty apparent to everyone not wearing a suit on the Thunder bench that his best days are behind him.

James Harden torched Sefolosha. Chandler Parsons torched Sefolosha. As for Conley? You guessed it. I guarded him with more success in the Springdale Youth Center league than Thabo did last night — particularly early — as all 24 of his points came with No. 2 in blue attempting to mark him.

3. “I Got You Babe”

You know that scene in “Groundhog Day” when Bill Murray finally just concedes his fate? Rather than fight it, he just embraces his circumstances, content to simply accept the bizarre hand of which he’s been dealt. It perfectly captures my approach to this team in these playoffs.

Durant is going to carry the team, garnering sporadic contributions from some combination of Derek Fisher, Jackson and/or Kevin Martin. Ibaka is going to disappear for vast stretches of time. The opponent will make a run. Durant will run out of gas. Perkins will fumble and stumble and foul and growl. Eventually, without Westbrook there to assert himself, OKC will run out of options and run out of time. Rinse, repeat.

It was over when… Fisher tossed an inbounds pass to Tony Allen — who does not play on Fisher’s team — with 21.1 seconds left. Gasol extended the lead with a freebie, Durant missed a desperation three, and Sonny and Cher rang out once more as the alarm clock struck 6:00.

Stat of the night: In games three and four, Durant has shot 55 percent in quarters 1-3, but just 3-for-17 in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Quote of the night: “The variation of what Oklahoma City and Scott Brooks are doing in late game situations has not changed. So all of a sudden they’re easy and they get predictable. And they’re making it difficult for (Kevin Durant)” — Kenny Smith.

More than a game

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By KOLBY PAXTON

Late into the evening of Nov. 26, 2004, on a patch of grass in the heart of Little Rock, Ark., I began to cry uncontrollably.

I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to be strong, even stoic. What I wanted didn’t matter, though, because my heart was overpowering my pride. Minutes earlier, the clock abruptly struck zero on my high school football career and the finality of it all was overwhelming.

It wasn’t that I wouldn’t play the game again. I would, and I knew that I would. Rather, my lack of composure was a byproduct of the realization that I would never again play for this team, with these guys and those coaches.

I turned away from the playing field and latched onto a diminutive fullback named Brock Posey. Brock and I had been friends and teammates since the eighth grade. We shared a locker at Southwest Junior High and spent countless nights smuggling beers and girls back into the barn behind his parents house on the fringe of east Springdale.

Brock’s dad passed away in August of that year. He got the news just before we scrimmaged Conway, and by “just before,” I mean literally moments before we were scheduled to leave the locker room for stretch lines. Brock didn’t leave, though. Instead, he simply asked me say a prayer for him. So, clutching my friend, huddled beneath a sea of red jerseys, I prayed that God would offer comfort and shield him from grief.

The prayer was answered before I could finish. You see, Brock stayed with us, his brothers, because with us, underneath that helmet, was the one such place in which comfort and the avoidance of grief were possible.

On the evening of May 20, 2013, standing before the television in my apartment, I cried again.

I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to be strong, even stubborn. Once again, however, what I wanted didn’t matter. My heart was filled with sorrow and helplessness for an area that I consider my second home.

My cousin, the one you’ve heard me repeatedly refer to as my sister, did her student teaching at Plaza Towers Elementary. I taught as a substitute at Briarwood. One of her favorite students, now a sophomore at Moore High School, lost his home. A friend of mine and her husband, newlyweds, couldn’t even find the street they used to live on.

Children, parents and family pets, gone; the city of Moore reduced to a vast wasteland. Tornadoes aren’t new to Oklahomans – not by a long shot. Hell, we notice more when there’s not a storm watch in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. But, this. This was different. This was earth shattering and horrifying and catastrophic. Storms aren’t supposed to be sinister.

Twenty-two members of the Southmoore High School football team lost their homes. One player lost his “buddy,” a husky-mix, named Koda. Freshman Taylor Neely lost his mother. That sort of loss, this magnitude of destruction and the enormous task of rebuilding the broken, is virtually unfathomable.

Yet, no more than a few days after the storm, Southmoore players were already asking their head coach, Jeff Brickman, when the Sabercats could get back to football.

Now, you might think a game would be trivial and forgotten under these circumstances, but you’d be very much mistaken. It isn’t that football is somehow larger than life, or life’s tragedies, mind you. Football is a sanctuary. It’s a place to forget the world away from the turf and the stripes.

More pointedly, a football team is almost never a team, but a family; brothers and fathers. More than any other sport, the gridiron breeds solidarity. It teaches discipline and perseverance. Above all else, it instills passion and compassion for your comrades, accountability for often uncontrollable circumstances, and a sense of responsibility for picking a man up when he’s fallen.

These young Sabercats, residents of that Moore, Oklahoma, will rise to meet this challenge, just as they will rise to meet future challenges. They will do so, partially, because they’re Okies and that’s what Okies do. But, also, because they’re a team, a band of brothers, and just as their home state is so much more than lines on a map, their sport is far more than a sport.