Memphian Cameron Payne as good as advertised in his first season with OKC

INVOKING PAYNE --- Oklahoma City Thunder reserve rookie point guard Cameron Payne has played a key role in team's season-best seven-game winning streak. His eight points on 4 of 10 shooting helped propel the Thunder to a 109-106 come-from-behind win Friday night Dallas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

INVOKING PAYNE — Oklahoma City Thunder reserve rookie point guard Cameron Payne has played a key role in team’s season-best seven-game winning streak. His eight points on 4 of 10 shooting helped propel the Thunder to a 109-106 come-from-behind win Friday night Dallas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)


 


 

DALLAS — After Cameron Payne’s midrange jumper with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter had given the Oklahoma City Thunder a 12-point lead and forced the Dallas Mavericks to burn a timeout, among the first individuals to emerge from the bench to meet the rookie was Thunder star Russell Westbrook.

Much to the delight of Payne, Westbrook met him with an emphatic chest bump as if to suggest the reserve point guard had provided the surging Thunder with the spark they desperately needed in extending their undefeated streak to seven games with a 109-106 win Friday night in Dallas’ American Airlines Center.

That Payne has continued what undoubtedly has been a favorable stretch for the native Memphian and former Lausanne Collegiate School star has exceedingly benefited not just him, but an OKC team that is currently third in the ever-so-tough Western Conference.

Just as he has done in recent weeks since Thunder first-year coach Billy Donavan installed Payne as a backup to the veteran Westbrook, the ex-Murray State star appeared rather dauntless, thus demonstrated resiliency during arguably a pivotal stretch in Friday’s game.

Six of his eight points (on 4 of 10 field goals) came after a lethargic first-half in which the Thunder shot an unsatisfactory 45 percent from the field and trailed, 56-48, at intermission.

While in the locker room, Payne admittedly thought it necessary to reflect on why Donovan felt compelled to increase his role on a veteran team that is a legitimate threat to come out of the West.

“I just took what the defense gave me,” Payne told MemphiSport following Friday’s game. “I knew going into halftime, I said I need to be more aggressive. And my teammates made it easier for me to get good looks. I just came out more aggressive and, like I said, the defense got us running, got us in the flow of the game. They picked up the pace. Our second unit picked up the pace and then we got easy baskets.”

Westbrook, as it turned out, wasn’t the only All-Star on the roster who was pleased with Payne’s latest outing.

Eight-year veteran Kevin Durant was also brought to smiles when asked to assess the OKC prized rookie’s performance.

“They were huge,” Durant said of Payne’s contributions that essentially helped OKC ease out to the final margin. “They were huge. He was aggressive all night. They trapped him out there at half court. And I told him to take that as a compliment when teams start to trap you because that means you’re doing something well. He’s playing well. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and we’re going to need that from him going down the line.”

While in the locker room at the half Friday, Payne admittedly thought it necessary to reflect on why Donovan felt compelled to increase his role on a veteran team that is a legitimate threat to come out of the West. “I just took what the defense gave me,” Payne told MemphiSport following Friday’s game. “I knew going into halftime, I said I need to be more aggressive."

SHIFTING GEARS — While in the locker room at the half Friday, Payne admittedly thought it necessary to reflect on why Donovan felt compelled to increase his role on a veteran team that is a legitimate threat to come out of the West.
“I just took what the defense gave me,” Payne told MemphiSport following Friday’s game. “I knew going into halftime, I said I need to be more aggressive.”

During his pregame availability session with reporters, Donovan wasted little time praising the continuous stellar play of Payne, who was taken 14th overall by the Thunder in last year’s draft after two remarkable seasons at Murray State.

“I thought it’ll be a good opportunity to see what he can do and he’s really done a good job,” said Donovan, explaining why he named Payne the backup floor facilitator to Westbrook. A lot has been said about our second unit. We’re trying to get a more cohesive unit that plays better together. Cameron has given us a really nice boost coming off the bench.”

As the season progresses, Payne acknowledged his primary objective will remain the same.

That is, he’s destined to learn all he can while he can as he continues to steadfastly heed the advice of Westbrook, one of the league’s premiere point guards.

“He came out on the court and gave me a chest bump,” said Payne, recalling the sequence that took place after he scored his final basket Friday. “You know, that means a lot to me to see Russ do that. I really appreciate stuff like that.”

Given his dazzling play through 29 appearances, it’s safe to assume the Thunder admire the stuff he’s brought to the team in this, his first professional season.

 

AndreAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send an email to memphisgraduate@yahoo.com. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki applauds Golden State’s record; relishes his latest milestone

NBA SOUTHWEST DIVISION REPORT

MEMPHIS — In the wake of the Golden State Warriors having carved out more history Tuesday night, among the NBA players who congratulated the world champs was Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki.

DYNAMIC DIRK --- Even in the wake of the Mavs’ 110-96 loss at Memphis Tuesday night in FedExForum that resulted in Dallas’ second straight defeat, Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki had no idea he had reached yet another milestone to his Hall of Fame career when he became the 17th player in NBA history to record career 1,600 three-pointers.  (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

DYNAMIC DIRK — Even in the wake of the Mavs’ 110-96 loss at Memphis Tuesday night in FedExForum that resulted in Dallas’ second straight defeat, Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki had no idea he had reached yet another milestone to his Hall of Fame career when he became the 17th player in NBA history to record career 1,600 three-pointers.
(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

“They have a heckuva team,” Nowitzki, the 18-year veteran, told MemphiSport.com following the Mavs 110-96 loss at the Memphis Grizzlies. “I mean, they have everything you need. They have length. They have shooters. They have defenders. They’re really, really deep.”

Not to mention a team that erased a record that stood a little more than two decades.

With Tuesday’s 111-77 lopsided win against the Los Angeles Lakers in Oakland, the Warriors became the first team in NBA history to start the regular season by reeling off 16 consecutive wins, a feat that eclipsed 15-0 starts by the 1948-49 Washington Capitols the 1993-94 Houston Rockets.

What’s even more astounding is that the Warriors’ remarkable early-season display was highlighted by a 50-point drubbing of a Grizzlies team that has advanced to the postseason five consecutive seasons.

“You know, they’re a good team,” Nowitzki said. “Steph (Curry) is playing unbelievable basketball. But not only him. Like I said, they have a great, deep team and they defend. They have lineups to switch up everything.”

GOLD RECORD --- In the wake of the Golden State Warriors carving out more history Tuesday night, among the NBA player who congratulated the world champs was Nowitzki.  “They have a heckuva team,” Nowitzki said. “I mean, they have everything you. They have length. They have shooters. They have defenders. They’re really, really deep.” (Photo by Noah Graham/Getty Images)

GOLD RECORD — In the wake of the Golden State Warriors carving out more history Tuesday night, among the NBA player who congratulated the world champs was Nowitzki.
“They have a heckuva team,” Nowitzki said. “I mean, they have everything you. They have length. They have shooters. They have defenders. They’re really, really deep.” (Photo by Noah Graham/Getty Images)

As for which team will pose as a threat and deal the Warriors their first regular season setback since a 103-100 loss April 7 at the New Orleans Pelicans capped a two-game winless streak is anybody’s guess.

That’s because four of Golden State’s next five games are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year, meaning the team that could likely end the historic streak is the Toronto Raptors, who host the defending champs Dec. 5.

Still, whichever team manages to disrupt the Warriors’ impressive undefeated streak, it will have to play arguably its best game in some time against a team that plays this Run-N-Gun, high-powered brand of basketball the sports world hasn’t witnessed in some time.

“They can adjust to every stone that’s thrown at them,” Nowitzki said of the Warriors. “And that’s why they are the champs. They’re very deep and very good.”

DIRK REACHES ANOTHER MILESTONE

Even in the wake of the Mavs’ loss at Memphis Tuesday night in FedExForum that resulted in Dallas’ second straight defeat since reeling off a season-best five consecutive wins, Nowitzki had no idea he had added yet another milestone to his illustrious Hall of Fame career.

With 7:53 remaining in the fourth, a running 3-point jumper off an assist from Raymond Felton allowed Nowitzki to become the 17th player in NBA history to record 1,600 career three-pointers.

According to the 37-year-old German, he acknowledges such a feat comes during time in which he feels he’s playing efficient basketball.

Nowitzki, who entered Tuesday’s game leading the NBA in 3-point efficiency at 53.3 percent, connected on 2 of 5 from outside the arc against the Grizzlies.

“You know, it’s been a long ride,” Nowitzki, the Mavs all-time leading scorer, said of his latest accolade. “This is season 18 and, fortunately, I’ve been healthy. You know, there were actually years where I wasn’t shooting the ball as well as I wanted to. And this year, I’ve been having a decent rhythm and hopefully I can keep it up. You know, 1,600 threes, that’s a lot of threes, and hopefully there’s a few more to come.”

 

AndreAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send an email to memphisgraduate@yahoo.com. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

 

 

OKC rival Memphis Grizzlies respond to Kevin Durant’s latest injury development

DALLAS — In three of their last four playoff appearances, the Memphis Grizzlies went to battle against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including the last two seasons.

THUNDER STORM WARNING --- If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Oklahoma City Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reining MVP. That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been "removed from basketball activities" and could be shut down for the season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

THUNDER STORM WARNING — If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Oklahoma City Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reining MVP. That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been “removed from basketball activities” and could be shut down for the season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing the NBA’s reining MVP.

That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been “removed from basketball activities” and could be shut down for the season.

The news of Durant’s latest setback surrounding a right foot injury came as a shock to a Thunder team that is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. According to team officials, Durant’s foot reportedly has caused him more pain after he underwent surgery Feb. 23.

Durant, who traveled with the team to Dallas for Monday’s outing and underwent treatment before that game, told MemphiSport.com, “I’m feeling better. I’ll be re-evaluated in a few days and will be ready to go soon.”

However, as early as Friday, Durant’s injury apparently had taken a turn for the worst, a development team officials believe will likely sideline the seven-year veteran for the remainder of the season.

That OKC will likely be without Durant, its best player, if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Reuters)

That OKC will likely be without Durant, its best player, if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Reuters)

“He’s not making the progress we’d hoped or expected,” Presti said.

That OKC will likely be without its best player if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years.

Memphis made its first Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history in 2013 after eliminating the Thunder in five games. That year, the Thunder were without point guard Russell Westbrook, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the playoffs’ opening round.

“I feel bad for him,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said of Durant’s injury following Friday morning’s shoot around in American Airlines Center. “Great player. Special guy. Special player. I got to know him a little bit during the All-Star weekend. But I feel bad for him. I know how much he loves the game and how much he wants to be out there. And I feel bad for him.”

Like Gasol, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said the news of Durant likely being shut down the rest of the year came as a shock, considering he had been hearing that Durant was recouping comfortably from the foot injury.

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Russell Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career. Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over Atlanta. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Russell Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career. Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over Atlanta. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“I have not heard about it. That’s news to me right now,” Conley said.

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career.

Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over the Atlanta Hawks (36 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds).

So resilient Westbrook has been after what was an injury-ridden season last year for the former UCLA star that he has emerged as a legitimate candidate for league’s Most Valuable Player.

However, earlier this week, Westbrook reiterated that individual accolades are the least of his concerns, especially considering the Thunder are battling for their playoff lives during the season’s stretch run. At 39-30, OKC owns a two-game lead over ninth-place New Orleans for the pivotal eighth spot in the West.

“I don’t know,” said Westbrook, when asked if he’s playing the best basketball of his career. I take it one day at a time, man, and keep doing what I’m doing. I have no take (on the MVP race). My job is to come out and play at a high level every single night.”

But whether Westbrook and Co. will have Durant back for what figures to be an intense postseason in the always rugged Western Conference remains unclear.

As of Friday, team officials hinted that a Thunder playoff run this year likely will take place without arguably their best player.

“You know, it sucks to have any kind of injury,” Conley said. “And the situation (Durant) is going through, I know he wants to be back on the court. So that’s tough for him and the organization. But I’m sure they’re doing whatever’s best for him and the team.”

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

MSL’s Playing Hurt Podcast: NBA All-Star Game Edition

nba all star 2015

Join MSL and HardBashin producer CJ Hurt and Sports 56 producer and WUMR Sports Desk host Drew Barrett as they take you on a sports odyssey full of twists, turns, and a good time during MSL‘s Playing Hurt Podcast.

MemphiSport Live

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley: ‘Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance’

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Mike Conley, Jr. entered the NBA ranks in 2007, he was widely viewed as an unproven rookie and the son of Olympic gold and silver medalist triple jumper Mike Conley, Sr. Now in his seventh professional season for the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley, the longest-tenured player on the roster, has emerged as arguably the most underappreciated point guard in the NBA. No doubt, the 27-year-old Conley is the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that boasts the league’s best record and is a legitimate contender to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this year. During a recent exclusive interview with MemphiSport NBA Southwest Division reporter Andre Johnson, Conley spoke about the lofty expectations for this year’s team as well as assessed what has been a stellar career for the native of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Here are 11 questions for No. 11.

BOLD CONFESSION --- Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn't shy away from the notion that he's aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

BOLD CONFESSION — Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn’t shy away from the notion that he’s aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis’ second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

ANDRE: A lot has been said about the organization drafting Memphian Jarnell Stokes back in June. What’s so special about his presence on the team?
MIKE: Jarnell’s done a great job for us since Day 1. He has brought energy to our team. You know, he’s a hard-nosed worker and he wants to get better. He has two great big men to learn from in Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) and even Kosta (Koufos) and Jon (Leuer). You know, those guys have a wealth of experience and can help Jarnell. I think he’s done a great job with the minutes he’s been given. He really hasn’t been able to show much out there as he wants to. But for the most part, in his short time, he’s done a great job, knowing the plays, where to be on the floor, being in the right spots and capitalizing off that.

ANDRE: Zach Randolph decided in the offseason to return to the organization. There were many speculations as to whether he might move on, but he’s back in a Grizzlies uniform. In your estimation, how special is it having Zach back?
MIKE: It is huge. He’s the head of this ship, man. He always will be. He’s made this team what it is today. So without him, we wouldn’t be here. With him, we’re like family, so it’s awesome to have him back.

ANDRE: Did the Grizzlies get better in the offseason?
MIKE: I thought we did get better in the offseason. And not only because of (the acquisition) Vince Carter and the rookies, but a lot of guys have added a little bit more to their game. So we’re looking forward to a lot of guys stepping up and taking on different roles. They’ll have more on their plate, so hopefully that’ll improve our team and give us a chance to make a deep run.

ANDRE: Much had been said about your constant progress last year, particularly before the All-Star break. In fact, there were a lot of national media prognosticators who sensed you should have gotten serious consideration to represent the West in the All-Star Game. But because the West is so deep at that position with the Chris Pauls and Damian Lillards of the world, you weren’t selected. Do you feel at this stage in your career you’re getting the respect you deserve?
MIKE: Um…slowly. You know, it’s a journey, man. It’s been a journey for me just trying to get better every year and getting attention by adding more to my game and proving that I can play. So I think people are starting to understand my style of play and I just want to keep getting better and not worry about whether people will respect me or not. I just want to go out there and play the best basketball I can.

HUGE IMPACT --- A majority of Conley's seven NBA seasons has been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets' coach in July.

HUGE IMPACT — A majority of Conley’s seven NBA seasons have been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach in July.

ANDRE: Obviously, this team would like to finish in the top three or top four in the Western Conference standings heading into the postseason. But what are your personal expectations in this, your seventh NBA season?
MIKE: I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better leader for this team, want to be someone everybody can count on. Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance. You know, everyone wants to be an All-Star. But I’m beyond that. I just want to win. If we win, I think we’ll get the attention we deserve.

ANDRE: Now, of course, (Grizzlies head coach Dave) Joerger is back after much reshuffling in the front office in the offseason. Describe your relationship with your coach.
MIKE: It was good that Dave came back because we didn’t need a new rotation of coaches coming in. We need that stability. He’s been here pretty much my entire career and just to have him here as the head coach two years in a row will be great. After his first season, he’s going to be much better.

ANDRE: Speaking of head coaches, Lionel (former Grizzlies coach Hollins) has resurfaced in the head-coaching ranks in the league. Of course, a lot of people felt he should have landed a head coaching job last year. Lionel was very, very big on you, particularly when people said negative things about your style of play. How happy were you when he resurfaced in the NBA?
MIKE: I was very happy for him. I texted him, called him and congratulated him. It was well-deserved, man. He’s a great coach. I know they (Brooklyn Nets) got a good one and he’s looking forward to that opportunity and he’s going to make the best of it.

ANDRE: In terms of NBA point guards, you’ve made a name for yourself. Clearly, your stock has risen and people are now starting to respect your overall body of work. But who are among of the NBA point guards Mike Conley likes to watch?
MIKE: Who Mike Conley likes to watch? Well, I like to watch the ones on all 32 teams.

ANDRE: Of course, I can’t let you off the hook that easily, Mike. Tell me. Who do you like to watch the most?
MIKE: Well, every team has a great point guard. You have athletic points like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. You have some smaller points…Isaiah Thomas is a good one and plays well. Eric Bledsoe is another good one. So you have a lot of good ones. But I can tell you it’s tough to play against them. It’s not too much to watch them. But I have to deal with them on the court.

ANDRE: Is there any player on the team you hang out with on a regular basis?
MIKE: I pretty much hang out with all of them. We try to do as much together as we can. But Marc is probably the closet one I’m with.

ANDRE: Do you expect to be more vocal this year as the Grizzlies’ floor general?
MIKE: I do. I figured I’ve earned the respect to do that, just coming out and being assertive and more vocal because they believe in me running the show.

ANDRE: Here’s a bonus question, Mike. Of course, you’re an Ohio State man after having played two seasons for the Buckeyes. This is seemingly a down year for Michigan football. But I’ve got to ask you this as these schools prepare to meet in a few weeks. Ohio State or Michigan?
MIKE: Ohio State, man.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Kevin Durant on criticism in bolting Team USA: ‘I’ve put in work for my country’

DALLAS — Kevin Durant insists he hasn’t lost any sleep.

Even after the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player was criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash.

“To be honest, I really don’t care,” Durant told reporters after Friday’s shootaround in American Airlines Center. “I slept the same right after I made that decision.”
An eight-year NBA veteran, Durant withdrew from Team USA, citing “mental and physical fatigue.”

KEEP IT MOVING --- Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

KEEP IT MOVING — Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

Durant’s decision to leave the team came days after Paul George sustained an open tibia-fibula fracture. The Indiana Pacers star landed awkwardly at the base of a basket stanchion after fouling James Harden during a Las Vegas scrimmage and is expected to miss the entire 2014-15 season.

Durant’s departure followed previous withdrawals by All-Stars Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

Consequently, various media pundits questioned Durant’s timing in leaving the team, going as far as to label the 2010 FIBA World Championship MVP a “quitter.”

“If you attended camp in Las Vegas, and if you called coach (Team USA coach) Mike Krzyzewski to ask for advice on how to be a “leader” when camp resumed in Chicago, and then you blindside Coach K and every other member of the national team, you have “quit,” longtime NBA writer Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com wrote in an August 15 column.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks on Friday refuted the criticism surrounding his star player, saying Durant’s decision to leave Team USA had “nothing to do with quitting.”

“Well, I haven’t heard anybody call him a quitter,” Brooks said. “Quitting is when you’re not playing, when you fall down and don’t get back up again. And that’s the last thing on Kevin’s mind. Kevin’s going to go down as one of the best players to ever play the game. And he’s obviously very talented and his work ethic is definitely at a high, high level. He goes into every offseason looking to add to his game on both ends (of the floor). “This year is no different. He’s gained some strength through all of the work he’s put in with our group. He’s come back. His attitude has always been great. His leadership skills have improved every year. I think he’s in a good position right now to lead us where we want to get to.”

Still, Durant, who scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 17 minutes in OKC’s 118-109 preseason win at Dallas Friday night, said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA.

Many, in fact, sensed the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by George’s gruesome injury.

 

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a scrimmage.

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a Las Vegas scrimmage. (Photo by C. L. Guy)

“I made the decision based on me, but it makes people uncomfortable,” Durant said. “So I understood and it comes with the whole territory when you do something like that. So I understand that. I try not to let it affect me and I’ll keep pushing. It’s one of those things where if you keep throwing rocks, it’s not going to penetrate because I know what I really do. I’ve put in work for my country.”

Since George’s injury, Durant said he often reaches out to the two-time All-Star, who appears to be recouping comfortably and haven’t ruled out a comeback this year.

During an interview last week, the 24-year-old George told Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth, “It’s very possible that I can play this season.”

“I talk to him all the time,” Durant said of George. “I call in and check on him. He looks like he’s doing extremely well. I saw him the other day walking with the boot. So that’s good to see that his recovery is coming along pretty well.”

As for the criticism that ensued amid a withdrawal from Team USA that “blindsided everyone,” according to Krzyzewski, Durant said that didn’t affect his offseason routine of doing the necessary things to ensure OKC remains a serious contender to compete for a championship.

Last year, the Thunder lost to eventual NBA champion San Antonio in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

“(The offseason) was fun,” Durant, the reigning NBA scoring champion, said. “I worked hard. I enjoyed my summer. That’s really it. I had a lot of off-the-court stuff to do. But what it really boiled down to was the court. I always make time to get out on the court.”

DreColumnAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Zach Randolph on his future with the Grizzlies: ‘I’m dedicated to this team’

Zach Randolph has been in the NBA long enough to realize that with the playoffs comes a flurry of distractions.

Among the potential perplexities the Memphis Grizzlies’ franchise player is facing on this, the last day of regular season, is whether he intends on exercising his player option for next season.

DEVOTED VET --- Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph on Wednesday said he has yet to assess whether he will exercise his player option for next season, but reiterated that he wants to "stay a Grizzly." (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

DEVOTED VET — Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph on Wednesday said he has yet to assess whether he will exercise his player option for next season, but reiterated that he wants to “stay a Grizzly.” (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Randolph, 32, who can opt out of his contract at season’s end, is in the third of a four-year, $71 million deal the former Michigan State star signed in April 2011. If Randolph returns to the Grizzlies for a sixth full season, the two-time All-Star would make around $16 million in 2014-15.

Following Wednesday morning’s shoot around as Memphis prepares to face the Dallas Mavericks in a nationally televised game at 7 p.m. CST in FedExForum, Randolph fielded questions about his future with the organization.

“No, I haven’t thought about that,” Randolph told MemphiSport when asked if he has thought about whether he will exercise his player option next year. “I’m still dedicated to this team, all day, every day.”

Selected with the 19th overall pick in 2001 by Portland, the 6-foot-9 Randolph was traded in July 2009 to the Grizzlies for Quentin Richardson and has since been the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that generated its highest winning percentage last year (.063) and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

And, after having blossomed into an All-Star caliber player with the Grizzlies following brief stints with Portland, the New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Clippers, the 13-year-veteran on Wednesday reiterated that he wants to finish his career with the organization.

“I’m a Grizzly,” Randolph, the team’s leading scorer, said. “I want to stay a Grizzly. I haven’t even thought about (next season). I’m worried about the task at hand and that’s winning in these playoffs.”

Tied with Portland for the NBA’s longest winning streak (four games), the Grizzlies solidified a fourth consecutive playoff berth with 97-91 win Monday night at Phoenix.

Just as he’s done in recent years, Randolph, who averages 17.2 points and 10 rebounds per game, has played a pivotal role in Memphis’ surge, particularly after the All-Star break.

Randolph appeared to be in playoff form when he scored a season-high 32 points on 15-of-25 shooting against the Suns, energy Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said his star big man must match if Memphis is to manufacture a deep postseason.

 

GAME CHANGER --- Randolph was a force in Monday's playoff-clinching win for Memphis when he scored a season-high 32 points in a 97-91 win at Phoenix.

GAME CHANGER — Randolph was a force in Monday’s playoff-clinching win for Memphis when he scored a season-high 32 points in a 97-91 win at Phoenix.

“That was a heckuva performance against Phoenix the other night,” Joerger said of Randolph. “He’s been such a problem for teams. You know, you have teams that want to take out of the perimeter, stretch him out, and make him play pick and roll. And with him, whether they’re putting two guys on him of whatever it may be, he’s been aggressive.”

What’s even more astounding, Joerger acknowledged, is how Randolph has steadfastly assumed the business-like approach in a year mired by distractions. In mid-December, for instance, Randolph became the subject of trade rumors in a reported deal that would have sent him to the New Orleans Pelicans for fellow big man Ryan Anderson.

Then after the Suns inquired about Randolph just days before the All-Star break, the Grizzlies reportedly turned down the offer, thus removing Randolph from the trade block.

While Randolph has publicly said he was “hurt” over being rumored to be dealt, Joerger said the Grizzlies managed to play up to their identity during a critical stretch in the season, in large part because Randolph didn’t appear fazed by such talks.

“He’s been professional about it,” Joerger said. “He’s stayed focused. He’s been the consemate teammate. Guys go to him. He’s got a lot of advice, a lot of experience. It’s been more than just what people see on the court.”

Now that Randolph is starting to field questions once again about his future with the playoffs set to start this weekend, he contends his primary focus is the monumental task that awaits the upset-minded Grizzlies.

That is, a first-round date with either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.

“That’s a part of the business man,” Randolph said of the inquiries about his future. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity…injuries, guys going down, missing a lot of games. So that’s a part of the game. You just have to overcome stuff like that, stick together, and keep fighting.”

All day, every day.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

LeBron appears ready to pass league MVP crown to OKC superstar Kevin Durant

HEADS UP --- Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night's 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has been the "most consistent player" this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HEADS UP — Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night’s 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has been the “most consistent player” this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Two world championships. Two NBA Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs.

Surely, the previous two seasons couldn’t have been any better for LeBron James, the NBA’s most celebrated player whom many have labeled the best on the planet.

However, when asked before Wednesday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies about this year’s MVP race, James sounded like someone who seemed inclined to deliver a concession speech for the first time in three years.

“I think KD (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) has had one heckuva season and if he’s rewarded with the MVP, that’ll be great,” James said. “I mean, it’ll be awesome for him, for his family, whose done a great thing for him. He’s played MVP-type basketball.”

Still, the 29-year-old James, who’s won the award four times in 10 NBA seasons, seemed reluctant to say whether the league’s premiere individual hardware is Durant’s to lose.

“I don’t really get caught up into what people say,” James said. “At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they’ll go from there.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, it appears all signs point toward Durant being the heavy favorite to possess the league’s MVP award. Through 77 games, Durant undoubtedly has been the NBA’s most efficient player, averaging a league-best 32 points per game. In addition, the seven-year veteran and five-time All-Star is shooting .505 from the field, which is best in the NBA, and shooting .875 from the free throw line, second only to Golden State’s Stephon Curry (.878).

Second only to New York’s Carmelo Anthony in minutes played (38.5), Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone “King James” of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in Tuesday night’s win at Sacramento. While Durant appeared relieved to witness the streak end, James, meanwhile, was complimentary of Durant’s display in recent months.

Asked if he felt Durant is the frontrunner for MVP, James, the NBA’s third-leading scorer said, “I would say he’s playing the most consistent basketball as far as MVP this year. I mean, he’s put up some great numbers.”

James' game-high 37 points Wednesday weren't enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami's leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

James’ game-high 37 points Wednesday weren’t enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami’s leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

 

Indiana’s Paul George, whose Pacers appear to be on a collision course to meet Miami in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, said while the winner of the MVP award is of “no concern” for him, he hinted that James still has a chance to make up ground.

 

 

“It’s up for grab,” George told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “It’s a lot of guys who are doing a great job. (Durant) is having a heckuva year.”

James’ teammate, Heat center Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was rather candid while chiming in on the league MVP race following Miami’s 107-102 loss against the Grizzlies. Bosh, in fact, believes James’ streak of consecutive MVP awards will end in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think so,” said Bosh, when asked if James has a legitimate chance of surpassing Durant in the MVP race. “I think they’ve made up their minds. But you know, no matter what happens, it’s easy for me to say it’s a trophy and you can’t win it every year.”

Although Durant will likely win this year's MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

Although Durant will likely win this year’s MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

What the Heat can accomplish as they prepare to defend back-to-back NBA titles, Bosh said, is use Durant’s likely dethroning of James as motivation, of sorts, once the playoffs commence.

“You can look for anything as motivation for sure,” Bosh said. “When you’re on top, it puts a big X on your back. So it’s not just (motivation) for LeBron, but for everyone.

You know, it’s a unique situation. I don’t know how (winning MVP feels). I never will.”

Regardless of who is named league MVP, James said his primary focus is to help the Heat accomplish the necessary things to ensure the franchise maintain the NBA’s most covenant award for a third consecutive year. In doing so, he said Miami will need a healthy Dwyane Wade back for what figures to be another intense postseason run.

Wade ran sprints on the FedExForum court roughly 90 minutes before Wednesday’s game, but sat out while he continues to recuperate from a strained left hamstring. It was the eighth consecutive game Wade has missed. In all, he has missed 27 outings this year.

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Heat a half game behind Indiana for the top spot in the East.

“It’s very important,” James said of having a healthy Wade in the lineup. “He’s one of Big Three. We’ve won two championships for the most part because we had our Big Three on the floor. When he’s out there, we’re a dynamic team.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Marc Gasol shines against Pacers despite ankle injury he suffered against Miami

HUGE CENTERPIECE --- Grizzlies center Marc Gasol gave Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert all he could muster during Saturday night's game in FedExForum. Though he was a game-time decision due to an ankle injury he suffered Friday at Miami, Gasol played a pivotal role in Memphis' 82-71 win against the top team in the Eastern division. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

HUGE CENTERPIECE — Grizzlies center Marc Gasol gave Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert all he could muster during Saturday night’s game in FedExForum. Though he was a game-time decision due to an ankle injury he suffered Friday at Miami, Gasol played a pivotal role in Memphis’ 82-71 win against the top team in the Eastern division. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

During his pregame media availability session Saturday night, Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger took all but 26 seconds to provide reporters with an update surrounding the latest injury to center Marc Gasol.

“He’s going to be a game-time decision, but we’re hoping he plays,” Joerger said. “But we’ll see how his warm-ups go and how comfortable he is.”

Though Gasol did not participate in pregame shoot around, the 7-foot-1 Spaniard underwent treatment for a Grade 1 left ankle sprain a source close to the team told MemphiSport before Saturday’s game versus the Indiana Pacers.

During pregame warm-ups, Gasol appeared unfazed by an ankle injury he suffered in the third quarter of Grizzlies’ 91-86 loss at Miami Friday. While it is unclear just how severe the injury was, the Grizzlies elected to hold Gasol out the entire fourth for precautionary reasons after he scored 14 points and managed six rebounds against the Heat.

However, the six-year veteran and reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year was in the starting lineup for Saturday’s game, wearing a protective brace around his knee.

Gasol finished with 10 points on 4–of-11 shooting in 38-plus minutes as the Grizzlies earned a gutsy win against the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, 82-71, before an announced sellout crowd in FedExForum.

Late in the second quarter against Indiana, Gasol erased any doubts as to whether his ankle would be a concern for a Grizzlies team that entered Saturday’s contest eighth in the West and fighting for its playoffs lives.

With Memphis clinging to a nine point lead, Gasol fielded a backdoor pass from Zach Randolph, penetrated hard to the basket then converted a two-handed slam at the 2:44 mark. That play was followed by Gasol’s baseline jump hook over Indiana’s David West that increased the Grizzlies’ lead to 43-30 at the half.

Among those relieved to see Gasol return after he was limited to approximately 2 ½ quarters of action the previous night was Randolph.

“We need him,” Randolph said. “That’s our big fella. That’s our anchor. I was just praying he would be all right.”

Fortunately for the Grizzlies (41-28), who are seeking their fourth consecutive postseason berth, Gasol’s ankle injury didn’t cause him to miss a significant amount of time. For starters, Memphis got back into playoff contention, in large part because the 2012 All-Star returned to the lineup in mid-January after nearly a two-month absence. He had been efficient ever since.

Prior to suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee during a Nov. 22 loss to San Antonio, Gasol was the Grizzlies’ second-leading scoring, averaging 16 points per game. Since his return, his 13.8 points is third-best for Memphis, which went 8-2 in March with Gasol in the fold.

NO WORRIES --- Gasol erased all doubts as to whether the ankle injury he suffered in Friday's game at Miami would be a concern with this two-handed dunk late in the second quarter against Indiana.

NO WORRIES — Gasol erased all doubts as to whether the ankle injury he suffered in Friday’s game at Miami would be a concern with this two-handed dunk late in the second quarter against Indiana.

Indiana coach Frank Vogel, whose Pacers (51-19) entered Saturday’s game with a three-game lead over Miami for the top spot in the East, said having a player of Gasol’s caliber in good health is crucial at this stage in the season.

“Anytime a player like Gasol is out, it certainly weakens what they do,” Vogel said. “But certainly they’re capable of winning basketball games (without Gasol) as they’ve shown. They played a lot with him this year, so to me, there’s some familiarity there. In some ways, it’s rewarding for other guys to get a chance to step up. But anytime you have a key guy to go down, it challenges everything you’re doing.”

That Gasol’s ankle injury wasn’t serious enough to keep him out of the lineup Saturday caused the Grizzlies to breathe a collective sigh of relief with 13 regular-season games remaining.

With the Grizzlies well in command, 79-65, against the Pacers, Gasol left the game for good with 1:52 left in the fourth and was replaced by fellow big man Kosta Kufos, who started 22 games when Gasol went down in November.

“As the day went on, I was pretty confident I was going to be able to play,” Gasol told reporters afterward. “Everyone who got in the game contributed. Everybody played the right way. It was a really good win for us after a tough loss (Friday) night on the road. I thought we did a good job of coming in and playing our game.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizz Mike Miller to receive second championship ring in his return to Miami

SOUTH BEACH BOND --- Four-time league and two-time NBA Finals MVP LeBron James was among the players with whom former Miami Heat swingman Mike Miller enjoyed playing. Miller, now in his second stint with Memphis Grizzlies, returns to Miami Friday for the first time since helping the Heat win their third NBA crown last year. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

SOUTH BEACH BOND — Four-time league and two-time NBA Finals MVP LeBron James was among the players with whom former Miami Heat swingman Mike Miller enjoyed playing. Miller, now in his second stint with Memphis Grizzlies, returns to Miami Friday for the first time since helping the Heat win their third NBA crown last year. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Mike Miller has two notable words for the Miami Heat organization when he enters American Airlines Arena for shoot around Friday morning.

“Thank you,” the Memphis Grizzlies swingman said prior to the team’s light workout Thursday afternoon at its practice facility.

To get a clear indication of why Miller is so appreciative of Heat management, look no further than what has transpired in his career in recent years. Miller’s 14 NBA seasons include three years in Miami, a stint by which the 34-year-old veteran will remember for the rest of his life.

Miller was a member of the Heat squad that has won consecutive NBA championships and is a heavy favorite to three-peat this year.

Come Friday night, moments before the Grizzlies face the Heat at 6:30 CST, Miller will receive his second championship ring.

For Miller, a former University of Florida star, while he contends that Friday’s pregame presentation likely won’t give way to him being overcome by emotions, he said acquiring his second ring will prompt him to relish the memories he established during his brief tenure at South Beach.

Signed by the Grizzlies weeks after the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in seven games for the franchise’s third NBA title, Miller played for Miami from 2010-2013. His three seasons with the Heat are comprised of 139 appearances, including 58 postseason outings. In addition, he made 21 starts, including 17 last year during which he averaged 15.3 minutes per game.

Arguably his grandest moment in a Heat uniform came during the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City when Miller scored 23 points on the strength of an NBA Finals record seven three pointers.

Miami went on to defeat the Thunder in five games, giving Miller his first championship.

In assessing his brief stint in Miami, Miller said among the things he deemed mostly intriguing was playing alongside four-time league and two-time Finals MVP LeBron James.

“It was a lot of fun,” Miller said. “To see how hard he worked was humbling. And to be a part of what he was doing was exciting. So it was a lot of fun, made your job a lot easier. I missed that part of it for sure.”

As for collecting more championship hardware before squaring off against his former teammates, Miller said more than anything, he hopes the much-anticipated exchange will inspire a Grizzlies team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year.

WALKING IN MEMPHIS --- Miller reunited with Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol after signing with Memphis weeks after the Heat won the franchise's third world title. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WALKING IN MEMPHIS — Miller reunited with Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol after signing with Memphis weeks after the Heat won the franchise’s third world title. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“I think more than anything, it makes you hungry,” Miller said. “Once you get a taste of it…it’s actually worse than not winning it at all. My whole goal now is to find a way to get another one. I know it’s not going to be easy because I realize how hard it was just to get (to the NBA Finals) the last three years. And winning it was definitely hard. So it’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely a mission of mine.”

If nothing else, Miller said the Grizzlies, after coming one round short of the NBA Finals last year, should view his pregame ring presentation as motivation, of sorts, as they continue to lobby for a playoff spot for a fourth consecutive year.

“They should be,” Miller said. “I think if they’re not, there’s something wrong. I feel it’s everybody’s goal to do that. You know, making the Western Conference Finals is a heckuva accomplishment. Just having that success should put a taste in their mouths to want to win a championship. But to make it to that next step, to the (NBA) Finals is harder, and winning a championship, it’s even harder than that.”

As Miller tells it, that he’s receiving his second championship ring Friday couldn’t have come at a better time now that he’s back with the Grizzlies (40-27), who currently own the seventh spot in the West with 15 regular-season games remaining.

It’s a great timing for this because it will inspire them,” Miller said. “Like I said, it’s the whole reason everyone’s out here. It’s the whole reason we put in all the hours now, to win at any level. When you see the championship and how it affects you as a person and player can only help.”

Come Friday night, the Mitchell, South Dakota native will not only show gratitude to his former employer for three memorable years, but he will be afforded the luxury of basking in championship glory.

Once again.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.