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.

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.

The days of dunking in super hero undies

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By Kolby Paxton

It might’ve been the Superman briefs, I couldn’t say definitively, but I leaped over my mother’s coffee table in a single bound, raced down the hall, tripped over a few Power Rangers, recovered, scooped up a miniature foam basketball, and unleashed a furious tomahawk jam on the basket nailed above my closet.

Moments prior to this phenomenal display of athleticism, Scotty Thurman emerged from a frantic cluster of blues and whites, free off the right wing, gathered a pass from Dwight Stewart, fired over the top of Antonio Lang with the shot clock expiring, and deposited the biggest three-point field goal in the history of Arkansas hoops – thus, triggering the aforementioned manifestation of excessive soft drink intake and uncapped adolescent enthusiasm.

The triple pushed the Razorbacks ahead of Duke 73-70 with just under 50 ticks remaining in the 1993-’94 NCAA National Championship; a game that the Hogs would win minutes later when Al Dillard sunk the second of two free throws, providing the decisive 76-72 advantage.

It has been nearly 19 years since Charlotte, N.C., temporarily morphed into Hog Heaven, and my love and understanding of Dr. James Naismith’s game of basketball has only grown. Yet, the 1994 NCAA Tournament and that Arkansas team remains, not only my fondest collegiate hoops-related memory, but also the most fun I have ever had watching a basketball game that didn’t include Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

It wasn’t the end of an era. That is not the implication, here. The ’95 Arkansas squad was equally impressive. Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith trotted out phenomenal Kentucky teams in ’96 and ’98, respectively, not to mention the ’97 edition that fell victim to Miles Simon and the glass slipper-wearing Arizona Wildcats.

A year later, Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin led a dominant UConn team to a title, followed by Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State in 2000. In 2001, Duke rolled to a championship with one of the most impressive starting fives in recent memory; a group that included Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon. Mike Krzyzewski used only a seven-man rotation versus Arizona, and who could blame him?

For more than a decade champions were crowned each spring that made you say “wow” – the lone exception, Gary Williams’s 2002 Maryland Terrapins; a group that capitalized on fifth-seeded Indiana’s upset of Oklahoma in the national semi-finals. But even that didn’t serve as a pivot of any sort, because the following year a freshman named Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse on a profound championship run.

The college game, as we previously knew it, was actually punctuated by Emeka Okafor and the 2004 Connecticut Huskies – a team that featured three future NBA All-Stars. Three months later, Okafor was the second player chosen in the NBA Draft. The first was a high school center by the name of Dwight Howard. In addition to Howard, seven other prep standouts were selected in the first round, including Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, J.R. Smith and Josh Smith.

It was at this moment, however, that hoops legislators had seen enough. The early entrance of high school players into the NBA’s pool of prospects was so egregious, levying such detrimental impact on these poor unassuming players and these poor talent-starved schools, that something had to be done. So, six weeks later, when David Stern and friends inked the association’s new collective bargaining agreement, 18-year olds were banned.

The message was equal parts simple and confounding: “Go to school for a semester, stay eligible long enough to play basketball in the spring, and then you will be allowed to play professionally in the U.S. – but only after you pretend to be a student for a few months.”

The thought, here, one can only assume, was less about saving the Leon Smiths of the world from themselves, and more about throwing college hoops a bone. The problem, however, is that the age limit rule violated an age old adage related to fixing things that are not broken.

The NBA didn’t need to lock Anthony out of its gymnasiums to force him into the Carrier Dome. By the same token, a season at Illinois would not have lessened Eddy Curry’s affinity for Big Macs any more than a pit stop at the University of Memphis prevented Dajuan Wagner of realizing an Icarian fate.

The college game was not an obligation, it was an opportunity, a choice, and it was being predominantly opted for in spite of the sensationalist spin that has, in the years since, attempted to transfix public opinion via the failures of Kwame Brown and Robert Swift. As a result, rarely were players one and done at their respective schools. Instead, Dwyane Wade, Kenyon Martin and the like were truly commited to a university; and not commited like choosing a baseball cap on television, but commited like leading their teams as upper classmen.

Now? College basketball has, in large part, been reduced to an inconvenience in the eyes of the top prep players in the country. Because the reality of jumping to the NBA following high school commencement ceremonies no longer exists, players like Bill Walker are not forced to honestly examine their own ability to do so. Instead, a compromised view of a playing career at Kansas State is both encouraged and cultivated, and guys like Walker put forth only enough effort in the classroom to maintain eligibility until January. March rolls around and those very same players declare for the draft, partially because they are being fed bad information, but also because they haven’t attended a class in two months.

Walker, Javaris Crittenton, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry are different from Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Ndudi Ebi and Korleone Young, only in that they cheapened the college game along the way to professional shortcomings.

Isn’t it ironic that the purported beneficiary of this all but unconstitutional age arrangement has, instead, been most negatively affected? If you don’t believe that, simply take a look at the sport’s championship squads since the 2005 CBA was signed, particularly the past few. Duke’s 2010 championship team was, at best, its fifth most talented team of the decade. In 2011, Connecticut scored 53 points in the national title game – and won. Both team’s defeated the Butler Bulldogs, a group entirely devoid of NBA talent, who has risen to national prominence in recent years by simply playing sound, team-oriented basketball. Imagine such an abstract idea, won’t you?

Last season, John Calipari assembled a squad that leaned heavily upon the contributions of a handful of freshmen, a group that never, at any point, played with much cohesiveness and/or rhythm. That team won a championship because, when Butler and Gonzaga are the only relevant teams that place an emphasis on fundamentals and fluidity, AAU circuit-level hoops are good enough.

In essence, college basketball has become nothing more than a few cold weather months of nationally broadcasted AAU games, anyway. Just a bunch of teenagers running motion offense until one of them inevitably swims upstream with yet another ill-fated, off-balance runner from 18-feet; just an inundation of isolation-induced chucking.

Arizona point guard Mark Lyons is averaging three assists per game on one of the most talent-rich rosters in the country. Shabazz Muhammad is sulking after a UCLA teammate hits a buzzer beater because he, himself, did not take the shot. Alex Poythress is considered a lottery-level talent that more closely resembles a blind man in search of brail when on the floor for Kentucky. Kansas is the undisputed king of the Big 12, led by the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, yet Bill Self called his latest collection of Jayhawks “the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor,” following a loss to lowly TCU.

This is the current state of college basketball.

The solution? Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft rules. Are you the next Kobe Bryant? Fantastic. Prepare to leap from Lower Marion High to the big leagues. Otherwise, you have a few options: a) Head to Europe to work on your game, b) Join a junior college to work on your game, or c) Enroll as a degree-seeking student at a four-year college; emphasis on “degree seeking.”

If you choose either of the first two options, you may attempt to enter the association at any point that you so choose. If you prefer the latter option, however, the option that will include on-campus star status, sold-out games and March Madness, one year won’t be good enough. You’ll play three seasons and/or turn 21 before jumping to the NBA – unless, of course, you can explain why you should be treated any differently than Jadeveon Clowney.

Nerlens Noel should never have been forced to to spend a year at Kentucky. Having said that, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson and Austin Rivers could have used a few seasons to marinate, wouldn’t you say? It didn’t seem to hurt Klay Thompson or Kenneth Faried.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the product is as weak as it has been in my lifetime. Other factors have contributed to the game’s descent; me-first traveling squads and the 35-second shot clock to name a couple. But, by simply correcting the age-limit atrocity that looms over the sport, requiring personal investment on behalf of the schools, without needlessly barring the next Kevin Garnett in the name of some feigned sense of guardianship, college hoops may soon return to the glory days of not so long ago.

Do it for me, David. I’m dying to dunk in my super hero undies.

A Hardened heart

By Kolby Paxton

Oklahoma City will begin defense of its Western Conference championship tomorrow when the Thunder returns to the site of its most recent landmark victory, a come-from-behind 107-99 victory over the mighty Spurs.

James Harden contributed 16 points that night, none bigger than his veins-of-ice water three-point dagger with just over two minutes to play. He won’t score any in this one, though. He’s in Atlanta, preparing to play the Hawks, as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean that really got out of hand fast. One moment, Russell Westbrook was squirting mustard on Harden’s beard. The next, Sam Presti was stabbing a collective fan base in the heart with a trident. We knew this day was possible, but no one was braced for impact. Our seats weren’t even in the upright and locked position yet.

The Sixth Man of the Quarter Century was due $5.8 million in 2012-’13, then he would become an unrestricted free agent, at which point his qualifying number was set at $7.6 million. That number was arbitrary. That much was understood. If he made it that far, more than a dozen suitors would likely line up with maximum contracts worth more than twice as much. Harden would sign an offer sheet worth $80 million dollars over five years with a team like the Rockets, and the organization would bid him adieu.

If our bearded gunner was to remain in Thunder blue, Presti & Co. would likely ink him before he ever hit the market. Such was the intention on Saturday, when Oklahoma City offered him four years and a reported $55.5 million – $4.5 million under the maximum. Harden was given an hour to decide, balked, and was swapped for pieces.

It wasn’t totally delusional for the Thunder and its fans to expect Harden to play for a discount. After all, both Durant and Westbrook could have made more on the open market, but sacrificed – albeit, to very limited degrees – in order to stay in Oklahoma City. Since last season ended, Harden repeatedly insisted that he wanted to be in Bricktown, that he wanted to stick with this group, on this journey.

Moreover, inking The Beard to a max contract would have tied the Thunder to $65 million in annual salary, leaving an average of just $500k per player with which to fill the remaining 10 roster spots, while remaining below the $70.3 million luxury tax threshold – otherwise known as $1.5 million less than the average wage for current players not named Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Perkins/Martin.

The same level of reserve spending, in addition to $15 million per year for Harden, would have put the Thunder more than $10 million over the projected luxury tax threshold for 2013-’14 – which would cost Oklahoma City over $25 million in cap penalties next season, and $35 million in each season there after. In that respect, moving Harden for a shooter with an expiring contract, a lottery pick and future picks was a shrewd move from the NBA’s shrewdest GM.

Unless, of course, you consider the fact that the $4.5 million difference could have been more than compensated for by simply exercising the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins’ inflated contract.

I must admit, I feel better after seeing this photo, knowing that we apparently have some sort of X-Man playing power forward.

Yes, basketball season started Tuesday and I am already complaining about the lethargic, over-paid, fake-tough guy once again. Perk is due $9.1 million next season. Subtract $9.1 million from $80 million, sign Kwame Brown for one-third the cost of Perkins, and you’re $4 million over the tax in a worst case scenario – with virtually the same guy playing center, minus the awkward chin-fuzz. Suddenly, that $35 million donation to David Stern’s retirement fund is down to $10 million per. Easily manageable for a franchise that raked in $30-$35 million in revenue during a lockout-shortened 2011-’12 season; a franchise that, according to Forbes, sits on more operating income than any team in the NBA other than the Bulls and Knicks.

Of course, that’s a purely hypothetical situation, but so is the alternate universe in which Perkins actually plays up to his paycheck – or, at this point, the one in which Serge Ibaka transforms into the All-NBA player that he’s being paid like.

I like Serge. He’s freakishly athletic, a consummate teammate, and, by all accounts, a wonderful person. Still, the Thunder had another year of James Harden on the cheap, another crack at the title with all of its pieces in place, and another 100 or so games with which to further evaluate Ibaka.

In the past, a good-to-great offensive outing by Ibaka, one like he turned in during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, was a luxury, a bonus, a pleasant surprise. No more. In dealing Harden a season early, Presti and the Thunder have levied the expectation of offensive contribution upon a player primarily known for his defense. Oklahoma City will need to replace nearly 17 points per game, and much of that must come from a player averaging half of that for his career.

Maybe Ibaka continues to develop, becomes a 15-10-3 guy, and Harden is still deemed disposable. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Serge is the same player in 2012-’13 that he was in 2011-’12? Wouldn’t you like to have the opportunity to then re-sign Harden, dump Perkins, and swap Ibaka for pieces? We’re talking about a Kevin Martin rental, Jeremy Lamb, and the first round selection of a team that figures to be bad, but not awful.

That was too much to pass up?

Failure to re-sign Joe Johnson left Suns management with a black eye.

The belief that Harden should have signed for less than market may also be a bit misguided. The Thunder already used its two allotted five-year deals with Durant and Westbrook, meaning the most they could offer Harden was four years. By sacrificing a fifth year to stay in Oklahoma City, wasn’t he already making a considerable concession? By agreeing to play third-fiddle despite first-fiddle ability, wasn’t he already compromising for the betterment of the organization?

At the end of the day, it was never really about $4.5 million. For Presti and the Thunder, it was about staying true to a set of central beliefs – most notably, sacrificing me for we. Players like Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Nick Collison each allowed for a franchise-favorable contract structure that allowed Oklahoma City to save itself from cap penalties heading into the new collective bargaining agreement. The expectation for Harden was the same. His reluctance to provide even the slightest of contractual bargains essentially stamped his ticket to Houston. But is individual sacrifice only measured in dollars and cents? On the court, where games are won and lost, did Harden not exemplify the Thunder code of selflessness?

Presti weighed the risk of losing Harden versus losing a brick in the foundation of his negotiating philosophy and favored the latter. In doing so, he made the correct business decision. But, if sports are, in fact, all about winning championships, was it the correct basketball decision?

Seven years ago, the Phoenix Suns, trotting out a young, exciting trio of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, went head-to-head with those mighty Spurs, bowing out of the Western Conference Finals in five games. The following summer, contract negotiations with Johnson, a restricted free agent, turned sour. The Suns were reluctant to offer a maximum deal to Robin’s Robin. Prior to the 2005-’06 season, Phoenix dealt Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and two first round picks. Without Johnson to stretch the floor, the Suns, ever a contender, never realized their championship potential.

Years later, former owner Robert Sarver called the decision not to re-sign Johnson the biggest regret of his tenure.

Here’s hoping a clean shaven Presti doesn’t similarly lament the day he parted ways with Harden.

Unibrows and wizardry

By Kolby Paxton

The 2012 NBA Draft sparked an interesting day of commentary along the airwaves and interwebs – particularly as it related to Thunder guard James Harden.

I was shocked to find that even some of my most knowledgeable friends and associates were letting the rumor mill get the best of them; giving way to mid-afternoon panic at the thought of swapping the Sixth Man of the Year for a draft pick – even if it was with the apparent intention of drafting Florida’s Bradley Beal.

Nothing against Beal. I think he’s got a shot to become a nice player in the NBA. But you don’t trade a player like Harden for a prospect like Beal. This wasn’t the 2003 draft. Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade weren’t on the board.

Nothing against my concerned comrades, but their plight was never real. Sam Presti liked Beal. He may have even liked him enough to move Serge Ibaka for him. He definitely liked him enough to move virtually any combination of the other non-super heroes on the roster. But he never liked him enough to move Harden.

Rest easy, Loud City. Your team is navigated by the best general manager in professional basketball. The anti-Daryl Morey, if you will.

One week ago, Harden said that he “loves it” in Oklahoma City, and that he expects a contract extension sooner than later.

“They’ll do a pretty good job of working it out,” he said. “They’ll figure it out and it’ll be done. This is something special here. A dynasty is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers.”

Nevermind a certain Wayans Brothers jingle that springs to mind – though it would apply. Harden, along with Ibaka and Eric Maynor, are eligible to negotiate extensions to their rookie deals as of today. At least two of them figure to do so in the coming months.

As for the draft, itself, here’s one last Three Pointer at the proverbial buzzer.

1.) I do not fear “The Brow”

Count me among those who are not enthralled with the professional prospects of Anthony Davis.

What’s that? I’m all alone? Fine, but hear me out.

I’m not saying that Davis won’t ever be a nice pro. I think he has a solid 12-14 year career in the league, during much of which he’s good for a consistent double-double. But Tim Duncan meets Kevin Garnett? Seriously? Maybe I’m just too hung up on his short comings, but I don’t see it.

I see Tayshaun Prince 2.0.

As for the stupid looking unibrow, itself: Give me a break. That’s not a trademark, that’s poor hygiene.

2.) A player worth rooting for

So often it seems, we’re stuck looking the other way as the athletes that we support disappoint us. They take their ability for granted. They’re out of touch. There appears to be very little depth to them.

Then there’s Thomas Robinson.

In 2010, when Robinson was a sophomore at Kansas, he received a call from his little sister Jayla. His grandmother had died. A few weeks later, Jayla called again to inform him that their grandfather had also passed away, followed by their mother, who died of a heart attack.

In a span of three weeks, the pair – who were raised without their father – lost it all. Robinson stepped up and vowed to take care of his sister, now 9 years old.

Thursday night, when Sacramento selected him with the fifth overall pick, he made good on that promise.

He hugged Jayla, fought back tears, and shook hands with David Stern. When he began to speak with ESPN’s Mark Jones those emotions flooded to the surface. Jones moved his line of questioning to basketball, asking how the newest member of the Kings was able to go from sixth man to All-American. Robinson, who was visibly struggling for words uttered the most telling, moving non-answer in the history of NBA Draft interviews.

“I’m not stopping for nobody,” he said. “I’ve got work to do and Imma do it.”

Here’s to Thomas Robinson. I wish Jayla’s big brother nothing but success.

3.) Presti is a draft wizard…

…in that he casts a spell on the owners and general managers of teams drafting ahead of the Thunder, preventing them from selecting his guy.

In 2007, he coerced the Portland Trailblazers into picking Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant. In 2008, he tricked the Heat and Timberwolves into going with Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo, respectively – leaving the Thunder with a pair of UCLA stars to choose from. He must have also chuckled aloud as teams unknowingly reserved Serge Ibaka for the OKC front court, instead selecting guys like Alexis Ajinca, Kosta Koufos and Walter Sharpe – and no, I don’t know who any of them are, either.

In 2009, he stunted the growth of the rival Memphis Grizzlies by bewitching Chris Wallace into an ill-advised selection of Hasheem Thabeet. A year later, Presti and the Thunder were so gorged from drafting four Olympians in three years, that the team elected to lend a helping hand to the NBA’s laughing stock, drafting Eric Bledsoe and dealing him to the Clippers.

The Wizard of the War Room was at it again Thursday night.

Baylor forward Perry Jones III was seemingly punished for returning to school, falling from the projected No. 1 overall pick, all the way down to the Thunder at No. 28, due to a meniscus tear in his knee.

Read that sentence again and tell me, with a straight face, that it makes any sense at all.

A meniscus tear. Not a ligament tear. Not a microfracture. Perry Jones – a guy that would have likely pushed Kyrie Irving to No. 2 had he come out after his freshman season – fell nearly completely out of the first round due to a knee injury so bad that he missed zero games from November to March; a knee injury so bad that he only managed 17 points and eight rebounds in Baylor’s Elite Eight loss to Kentucky; an injury so crippling that Jones was only able to lead a 30-win team in points and rebounds.

The Trail Blazers drafted Meyers Leonard 11th overall. The Bucks took all 187 pounds of John Henson at No. 14. The Pacers drafted Miles freaking Plumlee at No. 26.

The rival Mavericks – who seemed primed to make an impact acquisition with the 17th pick – drafted an absolute guaranteed stiff in North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, and then didn’t even keep him.

The NBA champion Heat, who were picking directly in front of Oklahoma City, drafted Arnett Moultrie – simply a lesser version of Jones – and then shipped him to Philadelphia.

PJ3’s slide was incredible. But the behavior of some of the teams that continued to pass on him was inexplicable. As a result, the Thunder, drafting at the end of the first round, left New Jersey armed with yet another lottery pick – and this one has a chip on his shoulder.

I’m telling you. Forget Emerson College. Presti is a graduate of Hogwarts.

Resist Finals overreaction – OKC is growing up

Several months ago, my brother’s dog, Bella – a female – and my parent’s dog, Roscoe – a male – did what dogs of opposing genders do when they are left alone without supervision.

Some time after, Bella gave birth to nine puppies in an apartment in Oklahoma City, a single mother of nonuplets. Fortunately for Roscoe, Bella’s humans sold eight of the nine, thus letting him off the hook for child support – which is good news for an overweight senior citizen that is currently “in between jobs,” living in an Igloo, and bumming left over table scraps.

My parents bought Roscoe when I was a sophomore in high school. I picked him out and named him.

Perhaps now you’re wondering, “Why Roscoe?” Well, if you must know, I was sort of feeling this new rapper called Young Roscoe. Young Roscoe had a song on his only good album ever – Young Roscoe Philaphornia – called “5 Seconds.” In it, for some reason, voices can be heard in the background calling Roscoe like he’s a dog – “Get ‘em boy. Get ‘em Roscoe.”

I’m pretty sure the listener was meant to draw a metaphorical parallel between the rapper and a pit bull. Unfortunately for Young Roscoe, I heard it and decided that his name would be a cool name for a beagle – a miniature hound, known for its gentle, amiable temperament.

Anyway, I just thought that was a back-story worth sharing. In retrospect, perhaps not.

So, Roscoe, Bella, puppies, I bought one. A few months ago, Griffey – named for the greatest ballplayer since Mays (A better namesake than a nobody rapper with three tolerable songs, no?) – moved into a new, shiny, carefully selected kennel, in the corner across from by bed.

Frankly, it also bears mentioning that Griffey was the absolute pick of the litter. His coloring is nearly perfect, his physical development has dwarfed that of his siblings, and he appears to be far more cognitively advanced, as well.

Of course, I picked him out when he was the size of a gerbil, so I had no way of knowing any of this. I wanted a boy. Griffey had two brothers. The 33.3 percent odds fell in his favor thanks to a pronounced white stripe down the center of his head that no longer exists.

As time passed and the puppies grew, I wrestled with what began to feel like an unnecessarily rushed decision. Griff’s brother, Harvey, was the sweetest dog I have ever seen. The other boy, Sam, was everyone’s favorite if only because he was so ugly that he was adorable. He looked like something out of a puppy calendar.

Truthfully, the only reason that remained loyal to Griffey, was that I had this weird – admittedly irrational – feeling that he knew he was my dog. I couldn’t stomach the thought of his first emotional experience being that of abandonment.

Finally, once he was here, and it was too late to back out, there was an overwhelming feeling of, “Oh, crap” – for both of us, I’m sure. In my mind, I had this laundry list of things to teach him, but no idea how effective my methods of tutelage would be.

One of our first lessons was Jogging 101. Incredibly, he picked it up almost immediately, if only because he was terrified that I was going to run away from him. I didn’t care. I was ecstatic. To celebrate, I rushed upstairs, filled up his water bowl, and offered him a treat.

I barely escaped with my fingers, he chugged the entire bowl of water, and then puked in the center of my living room.

From that experience, we learned to place an emphasis on manners related to treat retrieval, as well as the inadvisability of drowning your dog with a bottomless bowl of water three minutes after he runs a mile. Check and check.

Of course, there were also the issues of housebreaking, begging for food, jumping, stealing socks, chewing up headphones, housebreaking, sleeping past 6 a.m., riding in a car, barking indoors, playing nice with other dogs, housebreaking, and a weird affinity for sandals.

We’re no more finishing one triumphant victory dance over the preservation of carpet, when I turn to find my perfect puppy masquerading as a mischievous mutt with a shoe in his mouth.

It’s a constant roller coaster of emotions, full of highlights and half-eaten underwear.

One day, though, my puppy will be a grown dog; seasoned and obedient. I’ll look back and laugh at his adolescent bouts with misguided treachery. One day, long after that, my grown dog will become an old dog. When that day comes, and our time together is entering its twilight, I will long for these firsts, these triumphs and failures, these puppy breath licks of redemption.
The same could be said for Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and the young Thunder of Oklahoma City.

In Durant’s rookie season, the franchise’s last in Seattle, the then-Sonics went 20-62, playing in a half-empty Key Arena that must’ve echoed like the Grand Canyon.

When the team arrived in Bricktown a year later, we had zero expectations of them. Chew up a baseball mitt, treat the rug like a urinal, we didn’t care. They were ours, and everything they did was lovable. Sure, P.J. Carlesimo and the boys dropped their first three contests, but we beat Minnesota! So what if they followed that inaugural victory with 10 straight L’s? Fire the coach. Give the job to Opie Taylor. We’d still sell out the Ford Center.

As a city and as a fanbase, we had a point to prove. We belonged. If we were important enough to have an NBA team, it validated our status as a real city. Games were less a competition and more an event, a sort of showcase of our fandom. Besides, our two best players weren’t even of legal drinking age. At the very least, we owed them a seemingly limitless amount of patience. At most, we were indebted to the organization as a whole for putting professional athletes in jerseys with “Oklahoma City” sprawled across the front – even if it was nearly impossible to stuff 12 letters on the chest plate of a tank top; and even if they couldn’t decide on a color, so they chose seven; and even if, what appears to have been a 12-year old with Photoshop, designed the worst logo in professional sports.

Those were our letters, those were our colors, and that was our stupid looking crest. And, anyway, Thunder up.

A year later, things began to change. Durant, as it happened, was really good; Westbrook was, too. There was a 28-point blowout victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic, and a 16-point shellacking of the reigning NBA champion Lakers. There were road victories in San Antonio, Salt Lake and Miami. Then, from Jan. 29 to March 14, the Thunder reeled off a stretch of 17 wins in 20 contests, including conquests in Boston and Dallas, and suddenly the post-season was a realistic possibility. One month later it was a reality.

Of course, we never expected to win a series versus the mighty Lakers. That wasn’t the point. Our boys won 50 games, earned their first playoff victory, and then their second. Civic pride overflowed, even as the eventual champions dispatched our young guns in six games. Westbrook committed eight turnovers in Game 5. Durant shot 5-of-23 in Game 6. No one cared. Our puppies were sitting on command and doing their business outside. In other words, enjoy that dress sock. We were too enamored with their progress to care.

The funny thing about success, though, is that it breeds the expectation for greater success. Fifty-five wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals was enough improvement to outweigh the disappointment associated with the team’s inability to close out games last season. Forty-nine wins (the strike shortened equivalent of 60 wins in an 82-game season) and a dominant run to the NBA Finals should have accomplished the same degree of pacification this season – only suddenly, after four straight losses to James and the Miami Heat, it hasn’t.

Never mind the fact that each loss was a one possession game with less than a minute to play. Never mind the fact that LeBron James turned in one of the all-time great Finals performances in the history of the Association. Never mind the run that preceded the shortfall: the sweep of the defending champion Mavericks, the bookend beating of the Lakers, the four straight victories versus the previously invincible Spurs. In the glare of the championship round, past triumphs have given way to recent inadequacies.

We ought to know better. We’ve watched with admiration, patience and understanding, as this group has grown up. We’ve fallen for Kid Clutch, embraced The Beard, and learned to love the most electric – if occasionally erratic – floor general in the world. With a collective understanding that we’ve been playing with house money for nearly a month, the sentiment of every rational Thunder fan began with, “If we can just get back to the conference finals, I’ll be satisfied,” which evolved into, “If we can just get to the Finals, the season is a success,” but then became, “We are too close to let it slip away.”

The latter disposition induced mass panic as the losses mounted, and the blinding lights of the grand stage threatened to destroy the carefully constructed make-up of the NBA’s most promising team.

Outsiders looking for a story-line proposed the idea of starting James Harden, as if Scott Brooks and his staff hadn’t thought of that before. Talking heads accosted Russell Westbrook’s game as if he was Mike Bibby. The very same people that praised Kevin Durant for his willingness to facilitate early and take over late, disparaged his selflessness, wondering aloud why he wasn’t more demonstrative. Meanwhile, we sat on our sofas in our “Team is Family” T-shirts, nodding along as if they knew something about our guys that we didn’t.

In my brief time as a dog owner, there is one thing that I have noticed above all else: Griffey does not handle new environments very well. He understands the rules and the key points of my apartment. He sort of understands the expected decorum at my girlfriend’s house. But take him somewhere he’s never been before and he will demonstrate overwhelming bewilderment, and an inability to locate the appropriate lavatory. After a couple of days, though, he starts to figure it out.

Oklahoma City is just figuring things out.

Two years ago, the opening round of the playoffs was confounding. Last season, the conference finals – in particular, Dirk Nowitzki’s refusal to quit – proved to be an insurmountable riddle. This season, we couldn’t keep from chewing up the baby’s toys in Miami. The atmosphere felt similar to what we faced in San Antonio, but it wasn’t. It was altogether different.

Now we know.

In the NBA, you have to fail before you can succeed. Michael lost to Isiah. Shaq lost to Hakeem. Dirk lost to Wade. Lebron lost to Duncan – and Dirk. Dr. J had to lose once to Bird and twice to Magic before a loaded Sixers team finally broke through in 1982-’83 – a struggle that OKC assistant Maurice Cheeks is all too aware of.

Because this group seemed to do everything ahead of schedule, because Durant didn’t care who’s time it was, because we won when everyone else said we wouldn’t, we assumed that we would win when those very same defeatists did an about-face. It was fair to feel that way – count me among those guilty as charged. But we were wrong.

Right now, it’s LeBron’s turn. Just know that the dogs in Oklahoma City got next.

The irrational behavior of a sports fan

Last Monday night, in the minutes leading up to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, I was getting hungry, but I could find nothing to eat.

I was out of charcoal, so I couldn’t grill. Leaving my apartment in pursuit of even the fastest of fast food was obviously out of the question. Pizza is always an inviting option, but pizza was lunch on this particular day, so that, too, was out. Ultimately, my cuisine conundrum came down to Chinese versus a sandwich. I opted for the sandwich; turkey with pepper jack cheese, and a side salad.

Typically, I eat a sandwich for lunch, so to have one for dinner is a bland, unimaginative, and altogether out of the ordinary choice. Yet, there I was Wednesday night, preparing my second turkey sandwich supper in three nights. Why? Because somehow, some way, the visiting Thunder ripped off a 108-103 victory in San Antonio on the heels of that initial gobbler on a bun. No way was I tempting fate by changing up the menu.

Unfortunately, the super sarnie didn’t seem to be working (My condiment calculations must have been off) as the good guys fell behind by as many as 18 in the first half. I looked at my brother, Jeremy, knowingly.

“You might want to sit this one out,” I told him. “This isn’t looking good.”

A few moments later, Kevin Durant buried a long 3-pointer to set the halftime margin at 15. Jeremy didn’t see it; he was in his bedroom. He didn’t see the 11-2 OKC run to open the second half. He didn’t see Durant put the Thunder in front late in the third quarter, either. He missed back-to-back 3’s by Derek Fisher and James Harden – his two favorite players – to extend the lead to six with just over three minutes to play, and he was absent for Mama Durant’s bear hug with 14.6 seconds remaining and the outcome determined.

It wasn’t until the streamers fell from the rafters that he re-emerged dutifully from his bedroom. The game was rewound to a more perilous time and played again, as if it were live, but without the risk of a jinx. He watched everything he’d missed, I narrated and foreshadowed when I deemed it necessary, and eventually the streamers still dropped and the Thunder still won.

You see, my brother believes that by watching his team play, he is concurrently hindering their performance. During the regular season, we developed this theory after repeatedly utilizing intermittent truancies to induce runs. Circumstantial as the evidence might be, it’s there. And if a butterfly in Beijing is causing tornadoes in Kansas, I mean, who’s to say we’re crazy?

Even if we are crazy, we’re far from alone. According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released in 2007, one in five sports fans do things in an attempt to bring good luck to their favorite team or avoid jinxing them.

A nurse from Eldridge, Ala., blamed herself for using a red toothbrush when Auburn University dropped two straight football games. A Cleveland Indians fan in Huntington, W. Va., refuses to watch especially important Indians games on television. A Yankees fan in Sacramento, Calif., clutches a lucky bat for all nine innings. Even our very own Ben Johnson has unique techniques for influencing the final score of games involving his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

“If I’m drinking a beverage and I run out, I think my team has run out of juice,” he said. “I never let the cup empty.”

What if the game heads into extra innings, and Ben runs out of his beverage of choice?

“I’d leave the cup with a splash of liquid in it, and go without drinking anything.”

Whether it be a lucky sandwich, an unlucky toothbrush, or a thirsty Cardinals fan, there is no denying the fact that the bond between a team and its fans often leads to indefensibly quirky behavior. But what’s the psychology behind it all?

The term “superstition” is most commonly referred to as a set of irrational beliefs or practices thought to influence the outcome of a course of events. Causal determinists, those who assume that outcomes are the result of a previous event(s), are particularly predisposed to superstitious behavior.

In a New Scientist article titled, “Born Believers,” author Michael Brooks explains that individuals are also susceptible to engage in superstitious behavior when they feel as if they lack what they deem to be necessary control over their own lives. As an example, Brooks uses the inhabitants of high-risk areas in the Middle East who carry a lucky charm in an effort to re-establish structure and alleviate internal chaos to some degree.

Further, a 1996 study, conducted by Michelle Magyar and Melissa Chase, established a correlation between superstition and anxiety. The pair conducted qualitative research on a group of female gymnasts that feared injury. The study revealed that one of the most popular strategies used to offset the otherwise overwhelmingly anxious disposition associated with performing in their sport was superstition. As for the leading cause of anxiety in general? You guessed it: a lack of control.

In most cases, we have never so much as made eye contact with a single player on the roster. In all cases, fans are unable to catch the ball, kick the field goal, or make any other in-game contributions. Still, the final score seems to mean as much to the fan as it does the athletes, themselves.

We care so much about our teams that it feels as if their championship runs are our own life events, yet we have minimal influence over the outcome. Our inability to control the game leads to anxiety, which leads to superstitious behavior, which ultimately results in Ben standing nervously in front of a television with a teaspoon of Pepsi in the bottom of his cup.

See? All of that senseless behavior makes sense after all.