I had a chance to question new ESPN “NBA Countdown” analysts Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose about the Oklahoma City Thunder’s prospects during a conference call Thursday. Here’s a transcript of my questions:
Q. I wanted to get Bill and Jalen’s take on the Thunder’s chances of getting back to the NBA Finals this season.
SIMMONS: I’ll go first. I actually think people are sleeping on them a little bit. They came very close in the first four games. Probably decided on a total of six plays. They got their feet wet. Everybody’s attention is on the Lakers, and rightly so.
I don’t know, I think those guys are going to be motivated. The one thing I have is with James Harden, the contract thing, whether that ends up submarining them if that’s not settled. I don’t think it will, but I’m also not a hundred percent it’s going to be the Good Ship Lollypop.
ROSE: I’m not a huge fan of predictions, but if I had to make one, the toughest one so far is who is going to win the West. If I had to give an edge to a team, everyone was playing healthy at a high level, right now the reason I would probably give the Lakers the advantage, they not only have two all-star bigs in Gasol and Dwight Howard, they also are threats on the offensive end that consistently gets you 15 to 20 points on a nightly basis where you can’t double-team off them.
Obviously we know Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook — on the perimeter with James Harden — and with the contract provisions that Bill just talked about, are going to have an exciting season.
The key is going to be home-court advantage. If Dwight is not going to be able to go early in Game 7 inOklahoma City, we know the numbers dictate the team that hosts Game 7 normally wins. So that’s the caveat I’m trying to hang out and see how long Dwight Howard is going to be out recovering from his back injury.
Q. Speaking of Harden, if you had to choose between keeping Harden or Serge Ibaka, who would you pick?
ROSE: Kerry Hilson. Over a few people’s head. That’s who Ibaka is dating right now (laughter).
SIMMONS: I just wrote about this whole situation. I think it’s a little disingenuous on Oklahoma City’s part to pretend they can’t afford everybody. The bottom line is, yeah, eventually they’re going to have to take a luxury tax and face a situation where they’re not going to turn a profit, or so they say. They just spent the last five years raking in profits.
Sports is a business. At some point you have to realize, yeah, we’re going to have ebbs and flows. Over a five-year stretch, we might make $75 million, over the next three we might lose $20 million. You can’t let that affect your chances to win a championship.
I looked this up. No team has ever made the decision to choose the financial bottom line over the championships by trading as big of a guy as Harden. I guess the closest was Phoenixwith Joe Johnson in 2005, he left. Part of the reason he left was they didn’t take care of him with an extension in time. The bottom line is they were still ready to pay him. He got fed up and left. You look at the ramifications that had on the Suns games, how close they came in ’06, ’07, even ’08, toe to toe with the Spurs, that was a catastrophic turn of events for them.
You can’t tell me Oklahoma City is going to have a better chance to win the title over the next five years if they lose one of their best three guys. In my opinion, Ibaka would be more expendable, but I would not get rid of the other three.
ROSE: My answer to that question is 30 teams, 15 roster spots, 450 jobs, there’s always going to be a competitive space, and you have to follow the tea leaves. Who did OKC draft? Perry Jones III. If he can play, be a sixth man on a rookie contract but play at a high level, that gives them leverage to moves James Harden.
That’s what they’re going to be looking to try to do if he’s playing at a high level and not necessarily give James Harden $10 million, $15 million a year, but try to trade him while his value is high.
Like the whiny San Antonio Spurs fan that he is, ESPN commentator Skip Bayless blamed the referees for taking away any chance the Spurs had of winning Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. He pointed to two fourth-quarter calls — Kevin Durant taking a charge on Manu Ginobili’s lay-in and Ginobili being called for a blocking foul on Kawhi Leonard’s three-pointer — as costing the Spurs six points.
“These two egregious calls, these unconscionable calls, these asinine calls, cost my Spurs six crucial points,” Bayless said Thursday morning on “First Take,” which is airing on ESPNEWS while ESPN2 airs French Open coverage.
Bayless, an Oklahoma City native, gave only minimal credit to the Thunder. “Congratulations to my hometown team the Oklahoma City Thunder, who for four straight games made every big jump shot they had to make. Congratulations.”
After the blocking call, Bayless said he tweeted and received nine times his normal response in return.
“I tweeted the referees just ensured that the Thunder are going to the NBA Finals. God bless.”
His sidekick, Stephen A. Smith, said he tweeted him back. “Oh stop it. Oh stop your whining.”
“The national nightmare is over,” Bayless said. “NBA fans outside of San Antonio longer have to worry about the boring, old Spurs ruining the NBA finals. I was wrong. But I don’t know anybody who picked the Spurs to get that far in the preseason.”
Fortunately for Thunder fans, Smith was on hand to give credit to the Thunder for rallying from an 18-point deficit.
“They (the Spurs) blinked and it’s gone,” Smith said of their big lead. “The grand order of things you can point to a couple of bad plays, it happens in every game. What I’m pointing to is the big picture and what we saw: It doesn’t matter the San Antonio Spurs did last night. Oklahoma was going to find a way. It appears to be their time.”
Bayless did credit the Thunder for its tenacious defense in the second half.
“All those thoroughbreds do one thing really well, they play good defense. I was surprised when they turned it up in the third quarter, they turned San Antonio hesitant again when they are flinching (with their shots).
“But all of the sins — all the weaknesses get nitpicked again — get washed away by making those jump shots.”
As for the tired refrain that the Thunder is just a jump-shooting team, Smith noted their offensive balance and versatility in picking them to win the NBA championship.
“They are frenetic. They come at you from all different directions. You don’t know where you’re going to get hit from next. It’s almost as if they’re out there playing horse.”
“I tell you right now. Forget the jump shooting, it’s their ability as basketball players. Their intellect. Their defensive tenacity. And their youth — 23, 22 years old. My God, I haven’t seen anything like it. I thought if you don’t have a post position, you’re not quite there. You’re about a year away. They are a year ahead of schedule.”
Expect Bayless to jump on the Thunder bandwagon for the NBA Finals. Some Thunder fans probably would prefer that he stay off.
ESPN2 commentator Skip Bayless says Oklahoma City Thunder star James Harden is partially to blame for Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Metta World Peace’s hard elbow that left Harden with a concussion during the Thunder-Lakers game Sunday afternoon.
Speaking Monday morning on ESPN2’s “First Take,” Bayless, an Oklahoma City native, said Harden moved into Peace’s path to disrupt his celebration after his dunk in the first half.
Because of the incident, Bayless said he no longer would refer to him as Metta World Peace, but as Ron Artest, his previous name.
“I’m going to give Harden a little bit of the blame here,” Bayless said. “James Harden is known to be a shrewd operator in the NBA already at a young age. He likes to get under the opponent’s skin. He likes to get in Kobe’s face. They got into it in Oklahoma City before the All-Star Game.”
Another “First Take” commentator Wale, a rapper, interrupted, “That’s basketball. That’s competition.”
Bayless: “Clearly James Harden was attempting to disrupt Artest’s chest-pounding celebration at his place, at Staples Center. He just wanted to cut it a little short by getting in front of Artest, just saying stop it. I also think he’s such a shrewd operator that he was hoping that the runaway train that was Artest at that point just might get called for an offensive foul, running over him without looking at him.”
Wale: “You just don’t put yourself in front of Ron Artest and roll the dice.”
Bayless: “Well, he rolled it, baby. Does it justify Artest throwing an elbow? Absolutely not. … But if James Harden had gotten out of the way for one more second and let Artest go by him, we’re not having this conversation.”
Analyst Rob Parker disagreed with Bayless. “It wasn’t contact in a malicious way,” Parker said of Harden. “He didn’t look straight at him or lower his shoulder.”
Melee disputed Bayless’ claim that Harden had a reputation for riling up opponents, calling him a “quiet guy.”
Bayless: “He’s an L.A. guy. He’s from Artesia (High School). He knows how to play the game.”
Bayless said he thought the NBA should suspend Artest for five games, including four playoff games. Parker and Melee said he should be suspended for the entire first round of the playoffs.
“That elbow can not be tolerated,” Parker said. “It is a black eye on the game.”
Bayless recently was criticized on “First Take” by fellow commentator Jalen Rose for overstating his basketball achievement at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City. In a tweet, Bayless said he started on a team that lost in the state finals. According to team statistics, Bayless averaged only 1.4 points a game for the 1970 team and did not score in the 47-42 state championship loss to Norman.
ESPN2 commentator Skip Bayless was quick to cite the Thunder’s 92-77 loss Monday night at the Staples Center as an example as why he thinks the Thunder won’t win the NBA championship this season.
Asked if the loss was a big deal or not on ESPN2’s “First Take” Tuesday morning, Bayless said it was a big deal.
“I don’t even care if it was the Clippers who recently beat the Thunder at Oklahoma City. This is what I don’t like about the Thunder team. What you saw last night is why the Thunder will lose a playoff series. This will happen in a Game 6 or a Game 7. They live and die by the jump shot, too often 3-point jump shots.
“Last night (Kevin) Durant, my favorite player, and (Russell) Westbrook, my least favorite player, combined to go 1 for 12 from 3 — 1 for 12 from 3, you’re probably going to lose.
“After leading at halftime, those two players — they’re supremely talented players, I love Westbrook’s explosiveness — combined to score zero points in the third quarter. What do you think is going to happen then? The home team’s going to pull away in that game.
“In this instance, we have Durant taking a few more shots but it was because Westbrook was so cold, 4 out of 16 from the field. It will happen. He will have one of those nights when he just can’t throw it in the ocean.
“Oklahoma City lost the second half of the game 49-25. They totaled 12 assist. This is my issue with the Thunder. Your point guard Westbrook totaled 3 assists. They relied on playing one-on-one and jump shooting. If your shots don’t fall, you’re in trouble.”
“First Take” analyst Rob Parker didn’t think the loss was a big deal, calling it just one of those games. “You’re going to have those kind of nights. I’m not that concerned,” he said. “The
Clippers are coming on. They got the Thunder on a bad night.”
Despite the Oklahoma City Thunder’s NBA-best 12-2 record, the Thunder didn’t receive much praise from TNT’s studio crew during the Thunder-Celtics broadcast Monday night.
Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith all said they thought the Los Angeles Lakers would defeat the Thunder in a playoff series, and Barkley thought the Lakers would win it in five games.
Barkley on the best teams in the Western Conference: “The Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets are the two best teams I have seen in the West.”
O’Neal on the Thunder being 12-2: “They’ve had an easy schedule.”
Game analyst Chris Webber on how Thunder sixth man James Harden has embraced his role with the team: “The best teams that I played against had role players that were superstars. They took their role seriously and they knew the importance of their role to the team. (Harden) has embraced his role (as sixth man) and has made sure that the bench is better for that.”
Game analysis Mike Fratello on Thunder head coach Scott Brooks: “He really knows his players and he knows which guys to let grow and develop and which ones he can get on a little bit harder. He wants players to grow and experience this learning process and by the way, they’re winning a lot of games in this process.”
Fratello on the unselfishness of Thunder forward Kevin Durant: “He is a very unselfish player. He has the God-given ability to score the basketball whenever he wants to; he understands the team aspect of the game and is a willing passer.”
ESPN/ABC announcers Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Dr. Jack Ramsay discussed the NBA Finals in a conference call Friday. Here are a few excerpts:
Q: Jack Ramsay, how do you perceive the rest of the country perceives the Heat outside of Miami? I know you called their games for a long time. I’m not sure if you still live in the area. But I want to get a sense from you how you think the rest of the nation sees them compared to how they are seen locally.
Dr. Jack Ramsay: I think the rest of the country is growing to appreciate and in some quarters root for this team. They started off on the wrong foot and just aroused derision everywhere they went in the league. But they are so good. They are so dedicated. When you see, as Mike Breen said, their key players, LeBron James and D‑Wade, diving on the floor for loose balls, coming from the weak side and making incredible shot blocks, you have to acknowledge that. I think it’s happened for the Heat. They have become not America’s team but they’re now likable, and everybody loves a winner, and this team has been proved that it can be a winner.
Q: For Mark and Mike, you’ve gotten to see quite a lot of the Mavs lately. What has impressed you most about the way they’ve been playing, the way they’ve been winning?
Mark Jackson: I think the most impressive thing is how they have incredible poise. They’ve stayed calm in the face of tough runs. They totally believe in their system and in each other, and they find ways to win ballgames. I think ultimately when you’re talking about great basketball teams, you’re talking about teams that in spite of not playing their best, taking their game to another level and finding a way to win, and that’s been the most impressive thing for me about this Mavericks team.
Dr. Jack Ramsay: I’d like to add, Jason Kidd has been incredible. This guy, 38 years old, still runs the show on offense and is a surprisingly good defender. Did a great job against Kobe Bryant in the LA series in significant spots of games, and he doesn’t have the quick feet any longer, but he has great hands and great anticipation. The Mavs make a premium on defensive deflections of passes. In Game 4 against OKC, they had 19 deflections in that game. And these are all. Kidd had his share of those. Marion, Nowitzki even, everybody who plays is conscious of that. Kidd is still running the show there. He distributes the ball. He gets the ball to a player who needs a shot, needs to make a field goal. He’ll throw cross‑court to Terry giving up a shot of his own so Terry can get a free look from three-point land. This is a surprisingly tough team with veteran poise, as Mark said. That’s a key characteristic for them. And Tyson Chandler we haven’t mentioned is the defensive focus there and actually the spokesman of the team. He gets everybody going. He calls people out when they’re not getting their jobs done, and he defends the basket area.
Q. Mark Cuban has for a long time been one of the major faces of the franchise, and I’m wondering if you can compare the Mark Cuban of ’06 to the Mark Cuban of today?
Mike Breen: This might sound silly, but maybe as an owner you learn from experience, as well. And although I think a lot of this has to do with being superstitious; he was quiet early, they started winning, so he figured, all right, let me keep my mouth shut and not say a word. I just think right from the start, he’s brought so much passion, and willing to do everything and anything to make the players give them the proper tools, whether it’s a great locker room, a great plane, a good coach, spending money on free agents, give their whole team the proper tools to win. He’s been all about that right from the start. Obviously he gets emotional from the fans. I think he’s been able to control that a little bit better, and maybe he was tired of getting fined and losing money for shooting off his mouth sometimes. But to me he’s always been ‑‑ all he wants to do is win, and he wants to give the fans a great product. You know, so much of the publicity about him has always been the fines and the controversial comments, but I think most NBA fans would love to have their team have an owner like Mark Cuban.
Dr. Jack Ramsay: I think some of it has to do with his confidence in Rick Carlisle. He has, and should have, a high appreciation for Carlisle’s talents as a coach and the way that Carlisle uses his personnel and controls the tempo of games and just monitors it, and in a very low‑key fashion. It’s wonderful to watch. I talked with Mark after they had qualified for the championship round, and I mentioned to him, “I thought Rick did a terrific job.” He said, “Rick has out‑coached everyone he’s faced in the Playoffs so far.” He said, “That’s no surprise to me.” So there’s a confidence in the coach that maybe was not there with his previous coaches.
Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and David Aldridge were among the TNT analysts who discussed the Celtics-Thunder trade during the network’s pregame coverage Thursday night. The Thunder sent forward Jeff Green and center Nedad Krstic to the Thunder for center Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robison.
Barkley: “I was very surprised but it’s a good trade for the Celtics considering they weren’t going to be able to re-sign (Perkins). They only need Perkins against the Lakers if they get to the finals. They are going to have a tougher time getting through Chicago (Bulls) and Miami (Heat). Perkins wouldn’t have been a big factor in (a Miami) series. They got the best deal they could out of their circumstances.”
Smith on the Celtics losing the mystique of being a tough team: “(Perkins) doesn’t help you get to a championship but he helps you win it. What the Boston Celtics had over everyone else was the mystique of toughness … They don’t have that anymore. That’s what the cache was that they were a great defensive team and you couldn’t get layups or get to the basket. They have just traded that (mystique) in and said, ‘We are a new team.’ To me, that is the difference and I don’t know if that’s great if you’re trying to win a championship.”
Barkley on the Thunder getting tougher at the trade deadline: “I love the toughness that (the Thunder) have now. I love the fact that they’ll be able to hit some guys in the head when they come down the lane. (Russell) Westbrook and (Kevin) Durant are going to score. Those guys will score in church, but they never get rebounds. Now they have some rebounding (ability) and some defensive toughness. This (trade) makes them a contender.”
Aldridge on the trade: “If you go back in time, (the Kendrick Perkins) trade is like Larry Nance going to Cleveland or Dennis Johnson going to Boston. Those ‘cement’ trades that make a good team a great team. I think Kendrick Perkins does that for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were already good and they could’ve won a playoff series. What (Perkins) gives them in terms of defensive presence, toughness and championship experience; I think Oklahoma City is going to remember this day as the day they took a step up to be a true contender in the NBA.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder announcers Brian Davis and Grant Long irritated some viewers with their criticism of former OU standout Blake Griffin during the Thunder’s 111-88 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
After Blake hammered home an alley-oop pass from Baron Davis in the fourth quarter, Long said, “I’m almost prone to calling that goaltending. Davis nearly put that in the basket.”
Davis said, “You’re down 20, though. … That’s wonderful. That’s flashy and may make some highlight rolls, but they’re down 20.”
Long discussed how other centers in the league have made some spectacular dunks and said, “As great as those plays look on the highlight reel, winning basketball is played in the half-court situation for the most part.”
One reader said in an e-mail: “I was a little puzzled by the constant shots the TV commentators took at Blake. For example they criticized the dunks as something, which is superficial. When Ibaka scored a wide open dunk, they cheered ‘Take that Blake, this one counts.’ It was bizarre to see them belittle his game so much. Maybe the non-Okie Thunder fans might harbor more vitriol than us who grew up with him.”
Another reader said: “It appeared to me the Thunder TV crew took several cheap shots at Blake last night, referring to him as a “show off” among other things.”
Okahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant has been named one of five finalists for the ESPY Top NBA Player. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade are the other finalists. The winner will be announced in the awards show, televised live at 8 p.m. July 14.
Voting at espn.com/espys runs through 11 p.m. July 10 for most categories.
“The “Best Play” nominees will be announced during the 2010 ESPY Countdown show airing live on July 14 at 7 p.m. on ESPN and voting will take place throughout The 2010 ESPYs telecast. In addition, “Best Team” voting will be open throughout the live telecast.
Here’s a look at the top NBA player finalists:
— Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers. Finished fourth in scoring (27 PPG) during the 2009-10 regular season and averaged 28.6 PPG in the NBA Finals. Earned his fifth championship ring after leading the Lakers over the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Led the Lakers to best record in Western Conference during 2009-10 regular season, 57-25.
— Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City. Became youngest player to win the NBA scoring title (21 years, 197 days). Averaged 30.1 PPG during the 2009-10 regular season.
— Dwight Howard, Orlando. Named The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Led the NBA in rebounding during the 2009-10 regular season (13.2 RPG) and field goal percentage (61.2 PCT).
— LeBron James, Cleveland. Earned his second straight MVP award. Averaged 29.7 PPG (2nd in NBA), 8.6 APG (6th in NBA) and 7.3 RPG during the 2009-10 regular season. Led the Cavaliers to NBA-high 61 regular-season wins.
— Dwyane Wade, Miami. Finished fifth in scoring (26.6 PPG.) and tenth in assists (6.5 APG.) during the 2009-10 regular season. Averaged 33.2 PPG in the 2010 playoffs.
There’s a bunch of categories. Here are the five finalists for best sports movie:
— Big Fan. The story of a hardcore fan struggling to deal with the consequences of being assaulted by his favorite player. Stars Patton Oswalt and is written/directed by Robert D. Siegel.
— Invictus. A look at life for Nelson Mandela during his first term as president after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Mandela campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his countrymen. Stars Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.
— The Blind Side. Chronicles the story of former University of Mississippi offensive lineman Michael Oher. Stars Sandra Bullock in an Oscar-winning performance.
— The Damned United. A look at Brian Clough’s 44-day reign as the coach of Leeds. Stars Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall.
— The Karate Kid. The story of a boy who, in his new home in China, embraces kung fu as taught to him by a master. Stars Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.
ABC broadcasters Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen conducted a conference call Tuesday to preview the NBA Finals.
Here are some excerpts:
What will be the keys?
Jackson: I think Kobe (Bryant) is going to be Kobe. I don’t think that they (the Celtics) will be able to contain him the way they did in ’08. Although they will make life tough at times, I don’t think they have the same interior defense that they had in ’08. I think the big difference will be in ’08 Paul Pierce was the best player in the series. They could not contain him and he had his way. I think the Lakers have a similar defensive force to what LeBron James was able to do with Pierce, which will not allow Pierce to be the best player in this series and will allow Kobe to be just that, which will give them a tremendous boost.
Van Gundy: I’m still wondering how healthy (Andrew) Bynum is because I think his presence is going to be critical to the Lakers’ chances. I think the Celtics are an extremely well balanced team as is L.A. I think both teams play offense and defense well. I think it will come down to possessions, who can rebound the ball better and who takes care of it better because I think these teams are evenly matched.
What’s the best way to defend Kobe?
Jackson: Ultimately I would force anybody not named Kobe Bryant to beat me because he has proven to be able to do that. If you get the ball out of his hands, you have the best possible chance of winning. That means double-teaming him, denying him, forcing him to get rid of the basketball. I don’t want Pau Gasol to beat me, but it certainly won’t be Kobe Bryant.
Van Gundy: I think interestingly they played against one very good defensive team and in that series, he had his most struggles, and that was against Oklahoma City. And yet he still had an outstanding series. And since then, he has has just been remarkable whether it’s he’s feeling better or the defensive has been different. Some of the shots he made in Game 6 against Phoenix were indefensible. Even when they started to send a second guy to double-team, the greatest of all times, like he and Jordan, they know how to get away from the double-team and still get a quality shot. I think the Celtics are very equipped to defend him. I think Ray Allen is a very disciplined defender. I think the length at the basket will force Bryant to take a lot of jump shots. I think Bryant is going to play well, but I think he’s going to face similar challenges to the one he found in the series in 2008. They are going to make it hard on him, and yet he can always rise up, because he has proven himself once again to be the best player in the NBA.
Jeff, how do you rate yourself as a broadcaster?
Van Gundy: I would say irritating to some, irritating to myself sometimes. I could always analyze myself as a coach like what I thought we were doing well as a group. Because I don’t really have a background in broadcasting, I’m sort of unknowledgable about when we have a great broadcast. I haven’t improved a lot in the stuff we do at the start, the openings. That’s still hard for me. I try to get a little better in the highlights when we have a replay. But still Mark is a lot stronger in those areas. I’ve said this before, I’m like a one-dimensional spot-up shooter. Mike is the great point guard. I stand behind the 3-point line and hope to get some open looks.
Why would you consider going back into such an unstable profession as coaching?
Van Gundy: People talk about coaching being a fickle business, so too is broadcasting. Broadcasters, their job security is not great either. To assume that in any coaching or in broadcasting, that things won’t change is probably to make a mistake. I don’t spend any time about what is next. When I was coaching, I never thought what’s next after coaching. And now that I’m broadcasting, I don’t sit there and contemplate a lot about what my next job will be. I’m just trying to do the job I have as well as I can and realize that change is a big part of pro sports and also broadcasting. You have to be ready to adjust and adapt when circumstances dictate.”